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Postcards from the Field: Collaboration in Curation

Updated: Nov 10, 2019

Global GRACE member Siobhan McGuirk (Work Package 6: UK) reflects on gaining new skills and collaborative methods of curation.

Training is an invaluable component of the Early Career Researcher role in each Global GRACE project site – and one that is in keeping with our collective ethos to learn from and alongside our international colleagues. This Postcard from the Field is written in the spirit of sharing one of those new skills that I have picked up as part of ECR work here in the UK (WP6), focused on participatory modes of curating – an activity more traditionally understood as top-down than horizontally, or collectively, organised.

Over the latter half of 2018, I took part in a series of curating workshops and masterclasses run by Coventry Artspace, a community-focused art promotion and education organisation based in the West Midlands. The Artspace approach is refreshingly pro-active and non-elitist: its staff believe that art is for everyone, and that the ability to organise exhibitions, festivals, and shows should not be constrained by a lack of finances or access to ‘ideal’ gallery-style spaces. While being conscious of legal permissions, the health and safety of visitors and the protection of objects, Artspace promotes an understanding that exhibitions can – and should – be mounted so that anyone can participate and engage meaningfully with them. This grounding is one that we must embrace within WP6 if we are to create a project worthy of the title ‘Global Museum of Equalities’.

Aside from learning how to safely and arrestingly suspend a sculpture from a building ruin or how to store artefacts free from the dangers of pests and damp, Artspace trainings armed me with methodological tools that will undoubtedly enrich the collaborative process we are undertaking with our Global Museum. The Masterclass session led by Anna Douglas is a case in point. Douglas shared a large selection of archive photographs (taken by Shirley Baker in Northern England in the 1950s-60s) with our group of 10 workshops participants and asked us to select the one that spoke to us. In pairs, we shared and explained our choices – and if we had found the choice difficult to make. Then, the whole group worked together to decide how we might arrange our selected images along a wall for others to take in. What story would our arrangement tell? Would our selected narrative be linear, or told in groupings of images? What themes tied our selected images together – and what themes did we want to suggest, or emphasise? Did we all agree with the final arrangement? If not, what would we change?

Left to right: a stack of images by Shirley Baxter; deliberating arrangement with Anna Douglass; one chosen thematic grouping.

This short exercise revealed how personal histories and experiences guide our interpretation of images, and the incredible array of narratives people can create when looking at photographs of other peoples’ lives. There is no one, correct, way in which to arrange a set of images – but any arrangement will encourage particular interpretations, and emphasise particular associations. The autonomous curator may have great vision, but it will always be a partial view from somewhere. Adopting a collective, participatory, or interactive curatorial method – or exhibitionary mode – can encourage a more reflective, and more revelatory engagement. This is precisely the approach we must take for our global, pluralistic project. Learning from Douglas, and from Artspace, has provided me with invaluable tools to that end.

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