Tuesday, August 03, 2010


One of the biggest changes for curators over the last 20 or so years is their increasing isolation from the objects in their charge. Conservators, registrars, designers and technicians have all stepped into roles previously undertaken by curators, particularly in smaller museums. One effect of all this is a disconnect between many curators and the physical nature of the objects they work with. The weight of a sculpture, the flexibility of a canvas, the size of a painting in relation to the human body, these are all things that are learnt by holding, lifting and touching (albeit with white gloves). 

Touching things affects our judgments and decisions. After all, it’s the first of our sense to develop. Joshua Ackerman of MIT did a series of experiments to work out what those effects are but the most relevant here linked weight with importance. Let’s assume that all those clipboards performance artists used back in the 1970s were heavy. He also linked texture to difficulty and harshness and discovered that if you sit on something hard you tend to take a tougher position that if you sit on something soft. Ackerman concluded, “These findings emphasize the power of that unique adaptation, the hand, to manipulate the mind as well as the environment.” So there’s some evidence beyond anecdote that people involved with selecting and presenting art also need to get their hands on it.

The elaborate design process now in place in many art institutions has taken away from curators the ability to make final adjustments to displays. We got a taste of this back in 1992 when we were asked to curate an exhibition from the Paris Family collection. At the start of installation we were surprised to find the designer had placed a line of string around all the hanging walls about a meter and a half off the ground. It was, we were told, the centre line around which all works would be hung. Next a model of the space with all the works already in position was presented. One of its limitations was that the mini-works in the model were all cut-out from black paper. We decided not to use the model and instead worked from our rough sketches and notes. As the exhibition started to take form there was one group of smaller works by Toss Woollaston that were particularly tricky. The designer’s solution was to lay out these work on the floor as though they were on the wall. He then surprised us again by scrambling up a ladder to photograph the arrangement as the carefully measured hanging guide. Which worked to a point.

The fact is you can't really tell when one work goes with another until you see them on the wall. A curators greatest skill used to be the ability to convince everyone that a hung show needed to be taken down and the whole process started again. Try that the day of the opening.

Today 3-D walk-throughs and spatial renditions take the physical experience another big step away from the people who should be able to understand and interpret the work best. Should exhibitions be designed? Sure, but the big question is who should have the final word on how best to present art? Our answer is curators, but we wouldn’t put serious money on them. The importance of building physical relationships with art works has been underplayed for quite a while now. It will tough to get it back.

Image: A technician up a ladder photographs works from the Paris Family collection laid out on the gallery floor in an attempt to represent how they will look on the wall