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Lubar "Curator as Auteur" Article in Public Historian

Lubar "Curator as Auteur" Article in Public Historian

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Published by: Steven Lubar on Mar 12, 2014
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Comments on Rabinowitz,‘‘Eavesdropping at the Well’’
Curator as Auteur 
Steven LubarRichard Rabinowitz is
 one of our best exhibition curators, and his two-part ‘‘Slavery in New York’’ at the New-York Historical Society is among themost successful exhibitions of recent years. His essay on how he created thatexhibit is valuable as a case study. It is also worth reading as a how-to guide,a master class in curation. Students of museum studies and curators and other museum staff can benefit from Rabinowitz’s thoughtful step-by-step analysisof his work on this exhibit.But the essay is much more than just a case study describing the decisionsthathelpedcreateafineexhibition,morethanahow-toguideforcurators.Itisalso a manifesto for the interpretive exhibition, and for the curator as auteur.Rabinowitz believes in interpretive exhibitions, exhibits that tell stories.He argues that objects need context; that research is a key part of curatorial work; and that the curatorial work that leads to exhibitions can provide new knowledge.And he believes that the developer of an exhibition is an auteur, a creativemastermind. Although there’s collaboration here, and Rabinowitz is careful togive historians, collections curators, designers, and other staff credit for their  work,theexhibitcuratorisincharge,theauthorandarchitect.ForRabinowitz,exhibition development is an art, the developer an artist whose medium is
The Public Historian
, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 71–76 (February 2014).ISSN: 0272-3433, electronic ISSN 1533-8576.
©
2014 by The Regents of the University of California and theNational Council on Public History. All rights reserved.Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article contentthrough the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions Web site: www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10/1525/tph.2014.36.1.71.71
 
ideas, artifacts, spaces, and (most interestingly) the public. ‘‘My job as a cura-tor,’’ Rabinowitz writes,
is to arrange these objects
. . .
no, I mean these stories, so that they move visitorsto invent stories for themselves. The art of the gallery is to furnish the imagi-nation with the makings of good stories—human characters, human actions,human places, human rules, and human tools—so that visitors can feel them-selves dramatizing the past. I do my art so that you can do yours. This is the task of interpretation.
Rabinowitz does not base his arguments for what works in exhibition oneducational or psychological theory, or visitor surveys. He’s not interestedin the general trend toward exhibitions curated by committees of contentspecialists, designers, audience advocates, and experts in visitor experience,let alone those crowd-sourced to the community. Nor does he pay muchattention to the politics or infighting of museum bureaucracy or fundraisingor master plans. He points instead to the experience gained in his ‘‘550-plusprojects,tohistimewatchingvisitorsmovethroughexhibitions,andtoadeepimmersion in historical research. He knows what works, he knows what thepublic needs,and he pushesthe museum to make it happen. Hedoes his work ‘‘intuitively,’’ he says.For Rabinowitz, interpretive exhibitions are a form of narrative art closely related to theater, or film, or perhaps a compelling work of fiction. He’slooking for ‘‘a compelling yarn.’’ He uses the word ‘‘stories’’ a lot. He makesdirect analogies to other narrative media:
A narrative exhibition clusters its documents and artifacts as elements of a singlestoryline, as would the scenes in a novel or feature film.
. . .
The narrative employs a varietyofliterary devices—characterization, flashbacks,contrasts in tone, questions posed and resolved, foreshadowing and ‘‘side-shadowing’’ (what was happening at the same moment)—to propel the visitors’movement through the story.
. . .
Think of the overall exhibition as a 
 Play
. Each of its galleries is an
 Act
 thatcontains several (episodic) clusters (or 
 Scenes
), which in turn are assemblages of individual elements (
Dialogues, Soliloquies, etc.
).
But this is narrative in three dimensions, or four, or five. Rabinowitz addsto space two dimensions of time: historical time and the motion of visitor through space. He writes:
In these interpretive acts, the museum curator becomes a theater director operating in two time frames at once. The contents of an exhibit case aretransformed into an animated field of action. To interpret is to imagine one castof historical actors stepping out of the document, and another set of modern-day visitors coming across it. Historical time and exhibit time flow together.
72
 &
 THE PUBLIC HISTORIAN
 
Our job as exhibition curators, says Rabinowitz, is to ‘‘create the devices that we hope will bridge this divide—the artifacts, images, and documents of thehistory and the interpretive media that make them accessible to our audi-ences.’’ We need to create a sequence of stories arranged in a ‘‘densely in-habited space’’ with the right shapes, color, lighting, sound track, and objectsin a range of cases and settings, labels, and interpretive media.Like any good auteur, he has theories about exhibits and how they work.Exhibits need to be about stories. They need to be about people. Rabinowitzprovides an excellent discussion of the difference between themes and nar-ratives, something too few curators appreciate. (His narrative statement hereis masterpiece of the genre: ‘‘At each era, visitors would be invited to visualizeand to imagine slavery as a dramatic face-off between the Europeans’ slaveregime and the slaves’ power to resist and retain some autonomy even inslavery.’’) He insists on the importance of narrative to interpretive design,making disparaging remarks about exhibition designers that don’t appreciatehistorical narrative, and historians and curators who don’t appreciate inter-pretive design.There are hints to new curators: Didn’t pick objects and then go to thedesigners; work with the designers to choose among objects. There’s goodadvice on label writing, on the way to use a hierarchy of labels, on the differentuses of different parts of a single panel. He provides a perspective on scale,urging us to think of overviews and immersions.Rabinowitz believes in real artifacts—but not in a simplistic way. ‘‘The realthing is a priceless avenue for an empathetic connection with the people of the past,’’ writes Rabinowitz.
A history museum exhibition needs objects, three-dimensional artifacts. Stuff creates presence and immediacy. Even when an object is cased in Plexiglas, itstill invites visitors toadopt a kinesthetic relationship tothe story, toextend their own senses.
But objects need interpretation. For Rabinowitz, there is no ‘‘sharp lineseparating the ‘object’ itself from the interpretive and physical interventionsmade by curators and designers.’’ You use objects because they are ‘‘sticky things
. . .
meanings adhere to them.’’ ‘‘Meanings adhere to them,’’ but they don’t tell stories, in themselves. That’s the curator’s job.And if there are no objects? Rabinowitz wants the curator to be creative.‘‘Our method,’’ he writes, ‘‘was to turn the key historical sources inside out andupside down.’’ No artifacts from black New Yorkers? Research—‘‘an originalreworking of the historical narrative’’—would find new stories to tell about‘‘white’’ objects in storage. (Rabinowitz acknowledges Fred Wilson’s influencehere.) No images of black New Yorkers? An artist created wire-frame figuresthat captured their essence. No written documents that preserve their voice?Rabinowitz wrote ‘‘prose poems,’’ and worked with actors to ‘‘render themaurally.’’ ‘‘Our goal,’’ Rabinowitz writes, ‘‘was to bring the human actor for- ward, in all his or her individuality and particularity.’’
CURATOR AS AUTEUR
 &
 73

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