Curatorial Decision-Making: Comparative Perspectives

Is there room for museums to challenge visitors beyond their comfort zone? In a Nov. 9, 2015, seminar, German studies professor Dr. Stephan Jaeger compared curatorial decision-making strategies using examples from museums around the world. Narrative, experiential and empathy/immersion techniques are just some of the curatorial methods employed by museums to engage visitors. Provocative images and stories are often used to attract visitors. But how do curators approach a museum’s mandate and transform it into engaging exhibits and displays? This often depends on the type of museum.

History museums focus on narratives of the past. Memorial museums are history museums of sorts but they also have a commemorative function and, like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, they often commemorate mass atrocities. Ideas museums focus on the past, present and future. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) is popularly referred to as an ideas museum and it seems to fit this description. For example, it uses a view of the present city of Winnipeg, along with exhibits of the past and future, to tie together these three eras. According to Jaeger, the time component is an important aspect in curatorial decision-making.

Public expectations, politics and space limitations also come into play. During construction of the CMHR, the public expected many topics to be acknowledged. It is important to consider how public and political pressure may have played a role in the allocation of space and resources for specific topics.

Dr. Jorge Nallim, an associate professor specializing in Latin American history, argued that the political, personal and social all play a role in how museums are constructed and conceptualized. His talk detailed the aftermath of the brutal military regime in Argentina, which led to the creation of sites of public memory such as the former ESMA detention centre. He talked about the tension between families who wanted the site to remain a place to remember the torture and disappearance of their loved ones and organizations that wanted to create a broader museum of human rights.

The discussion was politicized right from the start, once the military regime was forced out. Over time, the political, social, and individual intermixed to influence public memory. Nallim says “what you decide to remember decides how you want to remember the past.” He also asks us to consider the role of the state in promoting a specific memory. Politics and human rights cannot be discussed in the abstract, since how sites of memory are represented and how we think about the past are connected to personal experiences.

Questions

Activists groups had a direct role in the building of ESMA and its operation. What authority do these groups have?

The tour guides are all from human rights organizations. They give tours from a specific perspective, and they ask for participation, making for a fascinating experience. The public office managing them gives them a lot of power. They are also involved in decision-making. It is in the mandate of the museum that the human rights groups have a specific role in the functioning of the museum.

There has been a lot of discussion in this seminar series about the “soft language” used in the CMHR displays. Is that a small failure that can be improved or is it dangerous and misleading?

Jaeger: It is a systemic issue. Yes, the language of the museum is soft but, hopefully, it has the potential to change and create dialogue. The existence of the CMHR and the discussion taking place in the seminar are positive. Museums tend to simplify and they find a language that is more or less accepted cultural memory.

Audio podcasts are also available for seminars in this series.

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