Redefining the curator, curatorial practice, and curated spaces in anthropology 
Jaanika Vider (University of Oxford)
Katherine Clough (Newcastle University / V&A)
British Museum - Sackler B
Saturday 2 June, 9:00-10:30, 11:00-12:30 (UTC+0)

Short Abstract:

This panel seeks to problematise, locate and define curators and curated spaces in contemporary culture and ethnographic museums in the light of an expanding notion of curation. Special attention will be paid to means in which it can harness the potential of material objects to perform and affect.

Long Abstract

Humanity's capacity for producing an excess of material culture continues at fast pace, while the 'information age' society is also faced with managing unprecedented and accelerating data excess. The overwhelming task of selecting from this abundance has led Michael Bhaskar to suggest that 'we're all curators now' (2016: 3). The term 'curation' has become prolific in wider society, applied to an increasing range of cultural forms from festival line-ups to digital curated content. This poses the question of the meaning and role of the professional museum curator, particularly in ethnographic museums that have historically sought to collect everything from the everyday.

Collaborative curation in ethnographic museums and the conception of these spaces as 'contact zones' have increasingly rendered curators of these museums facilitators in cross-cultural conversation. Similarly, Hans Ulrich Obrist has positioned his own role in the Art World as a catalyst that 'brings different cultural spheres into contact' (2014: 24) emphasizing relational values over reliance on individual curatorial expertise and subject specialism.

We take the expanding notion of curation as a central discussion point to explore how broader conceptualisation of the curator and curated spaces can enhance understanding of our collections. In particular, we are interested in how curation can harness the potency and expectancy of photographs, objects and sound to make them 'talk' (Daston 2007: 221) with special reference to emerging digital technologies. We seek to explore how we may redefine the curator, professional practice and curated spaces to facilitate the making of anthropological knowledge and experiences.

Accepted papers:


Carine Ayélé Durand (Ethnographic Museum of Geneva)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing on current discussions on the relevance of museums for contemporary society, this paper argues that ethnographic museums may gain new insights from redefining curatorship as a skilled practice which assemble together in a unique way things, museum professionals, artists and artisans.

Paper long abstract:

Over the past thirty years, under the influence of New Museology, particularly in Quebec and to a lesser extent in France and Switzerland, museums have operated a division of labour between exhibition-making and collections curatorship.

New Museologists, as Viau-Courville argues "denounced museums as being too colonial, elitist and centred on collections and collecting methods, their exhibitions and research being too symbolic, too focused on the past, and, overall, too expensive considering that they had no real purpose for contemporary society (2016, p. 8).

This shift opposed "new community-driven museum projects" against traditional object-based scholarly research. In the process, objects became illustrations of exhibition narratives (Viau-Courville, 2016, p. 9) and scholar-curators an embarrassing figure of past traditions.

In this context, this paper aims to depart from the idea that collection-based research should be relegated to the past. On the contrary, it argues that museums wishing to remain relevant and addressing contemporary issues may gain new insights from incorporating object-based research as part of exhibition making.

On the other hand, drawing on the conservation work of two totem poles from Alaska held at the Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, this paper aims to redefine curatorial practice as a skilled practice which assemble together with and around things museum professionals, artists and artisans. Through this assemblage of people and collections, curators are in a unique position to reflect on the cultural continuity of indigenous peoples' traditions, on authenticity, and on collaborative curation in ethnographic museums.


Magdalena Buchczyk (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin)

Paper short abstract:

As anthropology has been utilising curatorial techniques to present ethnographic insights, this development exposes disciplinary and affective dilemma. The paper offers lessons from two exhibition projects to consider some of the issues posed by translating ethnographic projects into curated spaces.

Paper long abstract:

As the discipline of anthropology has been utilising curatorial techniques to showcase fieldwork to a broader public, ethnographers have increasingly organised exhibitions within museums, art galleries, universities and community spaces. It has been argued that curated spaces are sites of feeling and imagination, and include the deployment and stimulation of emotional states (Blackman 2016, Butler and Lehrer 2016). If curated spaces "function as contact zones where affect is transmitted" (Fisher & Reckitt 2015), how does this inflect the practices of anthropological representation. What kind of disciplinary and affective dilemma do curatorial spaces expose?

This paper offers lessons from two exhibition projects to consider some of the issues posed by translating ethnographic projects into curatorial projects. Using examples of exhibitions organised within and beyond ethnographic museums, the paper explores the disciplinary and affective dilemma curatorial spaces can be infused with. The examples of projects in London and Bristol shed a light on how some affects could be provoked deliberately, others less consciously. They tell us about some of the ways in which meanings are mediated by complex emotive registers, their various effects in the decision-making process and the ways in which they redefine the relationships between the fieldworkers, curators and respondents in the making of anthropological knowledge.


Blackman, L. (2016). Affect, Mediation and Subjectivity-as-Encounter: Finding the Feeling of the Foundling. Journal of Curatorial Studies, 5(1), 32-55.

Butler, S. R., & Lehrer, E. (2016). Curatorial dreams: Critics imagine exhibitions. McGill-Queen's Press.

Fisher, J., & Reckitt, H. (2015). Museums and Affect. Journal of Curatorial Studies, 4(3).


Pim Westerkamp (National Museum of World Cultures)

Paper short abstract:

I compare Indonesian objects from my family with similar ones in the museum to answer the question Why (colonial) things matter? What do different processes of curation in private and public spaces reveal, what stays hidden and what are the durabilities of colonial concepts?

Paper long abstract:

In this paper I elaborate on the question Why (colonial) things matter? by looking at the concepts of curation of (colonial) Home-possessions (Daniel Miller) in the intimacy of the home and the curation of similar collections of ethnographic (public) museums. These different spaces can be seen as contact zones in which the objects are used in multiple ways of displays, storytelling and performances of selves and others.

I will use the metaphor of the home to think about part of the museum collections as Home-possessions too in order to look at the life, vibrancy and agency of objects and how they were curated in these spaces.

I will argue that by curating these objects (hidden) messages of fluid performed selves and fixed racialized identities to `Others´ are conveyed and hence used in processes of in- and exclusion both in the private and public sphere. To acknowledge these processes and their durabilities in our present day will help us to disentangle the complexities of the curation, story-telling and performance in ethnographic museums and to look for new and other ways of curating.

I position myself as a person who is deeply implicated in colonial histories and cultures, precisely because of my Dutch and Eurasian family background and the proximity of these objects, both in the private sphere and in the museum. This has deeply influenced me in the past and in the present in my capacity as a curator of Southeast-Asia/Indonesia.


Katherine Clough (Newcastle University / V&A)

Paper short abstract:

This paper reflects anthropologically on the role of glass screens in curated spaces, addressing shifts and contingencies in curatorial power, from glazed display cases housing objects to the 'black mirror' surfaces of digital devices, via ideas of accessibility, visibility, and tangible engagement.

Paper long abstract:

This paper draws attention to the shifting roles and expressions of the curator in museum spaces by focusing on how glass screens mediate relationships with museum objects. The types of glass screens found in museum spaces are surveyed with the different surface experiences they can offer, while also seeking to further understand the depths of perception achieved by looking through different types of screen.

Case studies of protective, glazed display cases and picture frames (that became commonplace in museums in the Twentieth Century) are compared with the 'black mirror' of digital devices that are increasingly infiltrating into contemporary museum spaces, to explore shifts and contingencies in the curatorial powers of curators and museums visitors.

From touch-screen interactives to using wifi-connected personal smart phones, visitors are now encouraged to tangibly engage with museum collections via glass surfaces. The use of digital screens to navigate online resources has not only expanded the notion of curation for museum professionals, but also been key to the wider, colloquial expansion of the term 'curation' especially in relation to digital content. Overall, the glass screen is positioned as a mediating site where the curatorial is performed (drawing on ideas expressed in Maria Lind's 2012 Performing the Curatorial: Within and Beyond Art), and particular attention is also paid to the role of the digital image (drawing on Elizabeth Edwards and Sigrid Lien's 2015 Uncertain Images: Museums and the Work of Photographs and Martin Lister's 2013 The Photographic Image in Digital Culture).


Heather Howard (Michigan State University)
John Norder (Michigan State University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores curation as co-facilitator 'for' the tangible and intangible contemporary reality of Indigenous narratives that exist and endure within objects bounded by the walls of an American university museum and the greater colonized landscape on which it exists.

Paper long abstract:

The Michigan State University Museum established in 1857 has as troubling a past with Indigenous peoples as many United States museums created in the 19th century, which often placed Indigenous peoples in museums of Natural History. The legacy of such practices served to disenfranchise contemporary Indigenous communities from their own cultural heritage and distance them from engagement with museums. The Michigan State University Museum, like many others in the past several decades, has sought to redress this legacy through collaborative programs with Indigenous communities that recognize the continued practice of traditional Indigenous arts, lifeways, 'digital repatriation,' and other projects. Yet, while opening empowering forms of access for Indigenous peoples to express their heritage, these efforts often sustain intellectual colonialism by continuing to make narratives of Indigeneity an "abstracted tool of the West" (Watts 2013: 28) consumed by the non-Indigenous public. Recognizing this, the Michigan State University Museum seeks to further challenge these relational transformations of curatorial practice by redefining curation as a process of continuous engagement in the present. As conceived and expressed in this paper, Curation and the role of the Curator serve as co-facilitators 'for' the tangible and intangible contemporary reality of Indigenous narratives that exists and endures within not only the objects bounded within the walls of the Museum but also the greater colonized landscape on which the university exists. To move towards achieving this goal, the Museum has created the position of Curator for North American Indigenous Studies and Engagement.


Sofia Gonzalez-Ayala

Paper short abstract:

This paper elaborates on what curatorship may convey as a form of 'cure' in post-conflict Colombia, focusing on a space dedicated to indigenous people's notion of 'territory as victim' in the first exhibition of the National Museum of Memory's narrative to take place in 2018.

Paper long abstract:

On April 2018, in Bogotá, Colombia, the annual Book Fair will house the first exhibition of the narrative for the exhibitions at National Museum of Memory. Law 1448 of 2011 decreed the creation of both this museum and the National Centre of Historical Memory, which is in charge of its design, creation and administration. The Museum of Memory, whose aim is 'to strengthen collective memory regarding the facts that have taken place in the recent history of violence in Colombia,' has not yet been physically built. It has however already hired a team composed of around forty people of which I am a member.

In order to elaborate on what curatorship may convey as a form of 'cure,' in this paper I will describe the backstage preparations of one of the study cases that the exhibition will display. It presents the notion of 'territory as victim' from the views of Kankuamo, Kogui, Arhuaco, Wiwa and Barí indigenous groups. Common to the different parties involved is the hope that disseminating these views will help heal the harm that fifty years of internal armed conflict and older forms of violence have done to indigenous groups' cultural and physical survival.

I will reflect on how hierarchies and structural relations of power may shape and limit Law 1448, our work teams and indigenous people's intentions vis-a-vis the possibilities offered in staging objects produced by indigenous people and their voices in a major exhibit which thousands of daily visitors are expected to experience.


Marie-Blanche Fourcade (Montreal Holocaust Museum)

Paper short abstract:

At the MHM, the process of gifting reveals a symbolic ritual that impacts the relation to the work of remembrance, as well as the relationship with the curator. Through the observation of a year's worth of donations, we propose to analyze this process and its impacts on the curator's roles.

Paper long abstract:

The Montreal Holocaust Museum, founded in 1979 by a group of survivors who immigrated to Montreal, has nowadays a collection of over 12,000 artifacts and archival documents, as well as more than 800 testimonies. One of this collection's particularities is that it mainly comprises gifts made by survivors and their families and, more broadly, by descendants of actors and witnesses of the Second World War. It is interesting to note that the process of gifting these so-called "sensitive" objects goes well beyond technical formalities. Indeed, it reveals, for each of the donors, a symbolic ritual that impacts the relation to the work of remembrance, as well as their relationship with the "guardians" of the museum's collection. On one hand, there is the story and the emotional surge - whether positive or negative - that accompanies every object or document during the transfer of ownership and the deposit of the item. On the other hand, as a counter-gift, is articulated the work of welcoming and taking charge of a story to be safeguarded and restored within the institution. In this context, the curator sees his role transformed as he becomes a witness and a companion to the transmission of a memory that sometimes needs to be protected, completed, repaired or highlighted. Through the observation of a year's worth of donations and meetings with donors at the Montreal Holocaust Museum, we propose to analyze this process and its impacts on the multiple roles that the curator can and must play.