Creative Curatation
or, knowing the rules, and when to break them

Presentation to Catherine Whalen and Sarah Carter’s “Curatorial Practice
as Experiment” course at Bard Graduate School
Steven Lubar February 2015


“…privilege experimentation, collaboration,
and interpretive risks … new and diverse
means of interacting with, studying, and
analyzing material things.”

—from the syllabus


All curation is creative.
But it also follows certain rules.

I don’t think they should all be broken - the key thing is not to take them as
natural .

Note: these rules are fairly recent - museum history can help us see them in
their cultural context. When did they come to be accepted? What
circumstance made them seem proper? Do those circumstances still stand?

What rules should we break, and when?

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


We all have a pretty good idea of traditional exhibits - what the rules are

—paintings on wall, objects in cases, narratives…


And we know when something breaks the rules:

— left, Chipstone installation at Milwaukee Art Musuem, right, Museum of
the City of London.

Some more examples at the end of the talk.


Before you can break the rules, must know what they are…
— a quick set - not definitive, but to get you thinking…

— and mostly these are good! Need to know when to break them.

I’ve exaggerated a bit here, for educational purposes!

What are the rules?

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Curatorial rules


Good reason for all of these rules - but these are fairly recent, in the history
of museums - Some 18th century museums encouraged touching; some
19th century museums traded objects, dispersed them.


These more art museum rules; history museums have become more
interested in the way objects are used.

To what extent are curators thinking of the big picture of the museum, to
what extent their own work? what structures shape collecting?

Object rules

Conservation and Preservation: Don’t use objects up.

Museum objects should last forever and remain in
museum forever

The museum shouldn’t alter objects

Collecting rules

Interested in makers not users

Biased toward objects in original state, unchanged by

What counts as an object is narrowly defined: “museum

Build on strengths of collection

Often based on interests of curator, not needs of
museum more generally

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Curator as academic - audience he or she cares about most often an
academic one.

This is shaped by the way expertise is defined in museums - as subject
matter expertise, not audience expertise, and by defining curators as
specialists, not generalists.

The last rule seems so central to museums - but broken now in every other
medium - look at creative nonfiction writing for a strong contrast.


Curator as John Galt! last bulwark of individual initiative…

Curator Rules

The curator is the expert

The curator is a specialist, not a generalist

The curator is the leader of the exhibition team

Subject-matter knowledge key to curation (curator as

The curator is anonymous, the voice of the museum

The curator is not part of the story

“The essence of professionalism is to be found in
the strong sense of high purpose and personal
responsibility and the strict intellectual integrity
that motivate the individual and guide him in the
use of his specialized knowledge. These qualities .
. . mark the museum curator and are the measure
of his stature. As a professional he is a stronghold
of individual initiative and responsibility in a world
threatened by the ant heap of collectivism.”
—Remington Kellogg, Director, USNM, 1952


Exhibition rules

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Model is an old-fashioned university lecture!


Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 is best at this topic.

Display rules

Designed around looking (not other senses)

Clear lines and divides between exhibit and visitors

Designed to look good without people in the way

Focus on objects, respectfully treated

Conveys authority

Audience Rules

Disinterested (it’s not about them)

Visitors there only to look and learn; they’re just
audience, not author; they can’t change exhibit

Audience either experts, like us, or Getty “art novice”
idea – 30 seconds, doesn’t know terminolgy,
undeveloped perceptual skills… but cares!

Thinking beings (not so much feeling, social, etc.)


Story Rules

One story, beginning to end

Neutral, unbiased, single voice

Moment in time or change over time

Based on books and magazines (typeset, etc.)

Clear distinction of narrator/audience/subject

Based on academic interests and taxonomies

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Exhibits are designed around traditional museum spaces. Those spaces are
changing as museums change, and especially as the material and the virtual
begin to overlap. How should the exhibition rules change?


Why such a strong distinction between exhibit and shop?

Why hide the rest of the museum?

On the final rule: If you can read the museum’s organizational structure either divisions between curatorial and other departments, or the way
curatorial departments divide up subject matter - in the exhibition, that’s bad.


Catherine asked me to talk about recent work at Brown - a bit hesitant
because it’s often creative because we’re working outside of a traditional
museum structure… so, some Brown projects, some other projects I’ve

Space and time rules

In one place

At one time

Once it’s done, it’s done; doesn’t change over time

Digital follows physical

Structure rules

Clear distinction between what’s an exhibition and
what isn’t

Front-of-house (exhibits, public space) and back-ofhouse (storage, research) clearly separate

Curatorial, design, and educations separate

You can read the bureaucratic structure of the
museum in the exhibitions

Some Examples

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015

curated by Ian
Alden Russell


Haffenreffer Museum at Brown - Ian Russell exhibition. what is odd here: not
in museum, writing not typeset, on outside of case, no single narrative,
visitors could add their interpretation. More information at



talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


More information at jenksmuseum.org. Rules broken include: not in museum;
arranged by degree of decay, not usual taxonomies; language of labels;
artists created new work for history exhibition; reimagined period room as
story space.


Consider the very untraditional voice


Order by decay - not by categories of use. But very carefully organized!

“The Lost Museum,”
curated by the
Jenks Society; Mark
Dion, visiting artist

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015



An imagined reconstruction - as imagined by artist - a biographical sketch in


New work from about 80 artists, based on information about the collections
of the museum.

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Decentralized structure - working with voodoo priestess, an art collection on
loan, a scholar interested in contemporary Haitian religion… anthropology
museums have flexibility.


The altar: Haitian mambo mined our collections - not Haitian collections - for
objects she thought spoke to the spirit of La Sirene.


The exhibition included a bar that was really a bar!

Haitian Voodoo,
Haffnreffer Museum

Remember the Old Times: Cape
Verdean Community in Fox Point

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Historic machines run, used as shop as well as exhibition.


An artist’s installation: artifacts from across the university, displays so that
they are not individually visible but form an ensemble


Not “authentic” artifacts from the house; words and artifacts mixed
promiscuously; many different voices overlapping.

Baltimore Museum of Industry

Mark Dion installation,
Johns Hopkins
University Library

“At Home,” Minnesota Historical
Society, Benjamine Filene, Curator

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015

“One Room,” RISD Museum, curated
Deb Clemons and S. Hollis Mickey


A fascinating cross between exhibition and program; artists given space to
work, talk, present. Photos courtesy S. Hollis Mickey, RISD Museum


Breaking down barriers between visitor and exhibit


Breaking down barriers between museum and memorial. See also the 9/11

America on the
Move, NMAH

Holocaust Memorial Museum

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


An artist re-imagines a period room. Breaks most of the rules! Feet on the
table! Images from presentation by Franklin Vagnone, Executive Director of
The Historic House Trust of New York City


Handwritten labels, ipad cut into back of chair!

“Party Time,” by Yinka
Shinobara, Newark Museum

“Maira Kalman
Selects,” at Cooper
Hewitt Museum


Breaking Rules

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015


Rules for Breaking Rules

Let go. Shared authority. “It’s not about you”

Put the audience first

Overcome bureacratic structures

Think about balance of present and future

Bring in artists

my seven rules for public humanists


Models to consider

Children’s museums

Theme parks and themed retail

Indigenous museums

Memorial museums

Anarchist’s guide to historic house museums

Fringe museums (Morbid Anatomy Museum, popup museums)

Public art

talk for BGC Catherine Whalen class.key - February 6, 2015