Curatorial Silencing

When we ask a question, for better or worse we usually set the terms of the response. As professionals or as experts in a particular field, we have natural expectations of possible answers for the questions we ask, and we see these as serving our pedagogical goals or institutional aspirations.

In “Whose Questions, Whose Conversations?” Kathleen McLean urges us to consider the power of the questions we ask and to consider listening to the plural publics that engage with a given cultural institution. McLean begins her think-piece with a question of her own: “Why is it that the most interesting and meaningful conversations among museum staff usually take place without the presence of visitors?” (70). Identifying a gap between cultural institutions and their publics, McLean urges a reciprocal relation in which the former listens to the latter with the idea being that less will hopefully get lost in translation.

What I like about this think-piece is how it urges us to consider how the framing questions we ask are necessarily going to privilege some ideas and conversations at the expense of others. This is an important point that was reflected, powerfully last week, in “Loving, Knowing Ignorance.”

Alongside the wonderful dialogue “Mining the Museum Revisited,” McLean instantly reminded me of the silencing discussed by Trouillot. In the Mining the Museum exhibit, Fred Wilson curated objects owned by the Maryland Historical Society (MHS), forming provocative juxtapositions that called into question the institutional power of the museum to shape the narratives it shared with the public. Famously putting a single, gritty manacle—evocative of slavery—beside a number of intricate 19th century silver serving vessels worked to illustrate how the MHS highlighted some narratives and silenced other through the simple act of curation. It showed how simply putting some objects on display and leaving out others fabricated a powerful (and potentially influential) historical narrative.

With this being said, I wonder if folks think that the type of silencing occurring at the MHS is different from other institutions such as, say, modern art museums, which are notoriously under-representative of the society they inhabit. What’s more, rather than thinking of silencing as a wholly negative phenomenon, I wonder if we could think of it as a strategic resource for us as public humans. Is there perhaps an ethical way of silencing or maybe even an art of silencing? If the role of the curator, or public human, is broadly to make ideas legible, hasn’t silence been a fundamental resource for setting the conversational table?

But with this in mind, I ask, is it possible for everyone to have a seat at this metaphorical table? At the very least, I think Letting Go? suggests that this table would be round, with experts and visitors sharing and engaging from all sides—this rather than simply facing whoever would otherwise sit at the head.

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