Why Exhibits Need Authors (plural)

Exhibits, as we’ve been discussing in class, are really products of their times, the cultural and historical moment in which they are created. They are not created (in the passive voice), real people create them (in the active voice). 

Exhibits have creators, they have authors, but museums rarely make any public acknowledgement of those people who had a plan, and who executed that plan and made it happen. There are several reasons why I think museums should credit their curators and staff, in the production of exhibits. These are: credit and attribution, accountability, and reflexivity. 

First, I think that the authors and creators, the people with the skills, knowledge, creativity and so on, need to be given credit for their labors in the production of exhibits. This is especially true, because even though curators as individuals sometimes get credit (this isn’t always publicly known, or accessible to find out), exhibits are the products of teams, not just individuals, as Alexander and Alexander have told us.  And the labor of all those members should be acknowledged. 

Have you noticed that the New York Times has changed how they show bylines? Many more stories have multiple authors, and at the bottom of a story, several additional people may be credited with “contributing reporting”. That’s part of the sea change in our culture that emphasizes how important all contributors are, not just the top billed or or highest ranked member of a team. This article, as a random example pulled off today’s headlines, has the following, very detailed, byline at the bottom: “Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from London. Stephen Castle contributed reporting from Brussels; Carlotta Gall from Kiev, Ukraine; and Neil MacFarquhar from Moscow.” Not only are all contributors credited (or at least that’s the impression they want to give), but their locations are offered as a way of supporting the contributions – the authority, access to sources, and expertise – of each author.

Here’s just one example of an exhibit with no authorship: Imperial Nature: Flora, Fauna, and Colonialism in India, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. I happen to know the woman who was the primary curator, though I’m sure she wasn’t the only one working on or designing that exhibit. Her name is Risha Lee, and she has a profile page on the MIA website. But the exhibit page does not credit her as author, and her profile page doesn’t link to or even mention the exhibit. 

Second, I think that, as we understand museum exhibitions are contested, and they are specific to cultural and historical moments,  they incorporate the assumptions and biases of their authors, it is important to hold those authors accountable for the works they create.  Accountability means that there is a face and an identity, an embodied human person (or people) who are, and can be held responsible for the ways in which exhibits are produced.  Avoiding putting curators and staff members names on an exhibit, means these authors can hide and remain nameless in the face of controversy, or criticism.  

Lastly, I think that along side a public display of authorship, curators, as the authors (even auteurs) of exhibitions, should be encouraged to be reflexive about their role, their identities, their biases, and their influences in creating these exhibitions.  

As we move beyond the role of museums as authoritative structures that impart knowledge to the lowly and un-educated masses, towards an acknowledgement of multiple-voices in conversation,  the authors of the exhibits can and should make themselves known to the public they address. They, as curators and creators, should be made accessible to the public, and not hidden from view. Their backgrounds, experiences, identities are important for the public to understand, perhaps as important as the content themselves.

Such transparency in authorship would also make it clear when, for instance, museums are doing a good job of inviting community members, tribal authorities, or other stake-holders to participate, and when not.  If the Smithsonian puts together a new exhibit on the Lakota, how will we know whether or not they consulted tribal members, and if so, which tribal members, unless museums give them credit, and acknowledge their input? Shouldn’t those outside consultants get credit as well? 

Museums can never truly be considered as being in conversation with the public if they present themselves as monolithic entities, and faceless authorities on the exhibits they present.  Museum institutions are made up people, and those people deserve credit for their work, and the public deserves to know who they are. 

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4 thoughts on “Why Exhibits Need Authors (plural)

  1. I agree that it’s useful to know who the curator of a show is in order to understand the opinion or perspective that show is taking on. There are numerous departments and minds that go into the labor of putting a show together, and it brings up the question of how many of those people should be credited? If it’s a visual art show, then the head of that department should be listed somewhere on the program, but does the head of the education department and the design department also get listed? And if it’s a multidisciplinary show, do all of the curators and staff members of those departments get credited? There are many minds and perspectives that are needed to create and curate a show. It’s definitely important to know the backgrounds of the people giving you the information in museums so you know what biases they might have.

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  2. I think this is a really interesting point about the authorship of exhibits, which I am sorry to say, I have not thought about before now. The amount and type of work that goes into constructing an exhibit, as I think about it, definitely deserves the recognition of those who made it happen. As someone who aspires to be a curator, I like the idea of getting acknowledgment for my hard work. Crediting curators and contributors in exhibitions might even open up a new branch of publicity for art historians and the like, other than just publishing scholarly articles, which are often inaccessible or ignored by the general public. As was mentioned in the blog though, with recognition comes responsibility, so curators and collaborators should, I think, be held accountable to the public for their work as their work is for the public.

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  3. I agree that this post makes some really good points on whether the people putting together an exhibition should get credit or not. In my opinion those closely connected to the exhibit should get credit such as the curator. When an exhibition is credited to multiple people it takes the blame off of a singular person in case a controversy arises. It is important to keep in mind that an exhibit has to go through multiple stages before even reaching the public. The amount of time and effort is more than a person could imagine. An exhibition draws in people from all parts of life and the people putting it together are will not be able to assume the reaction that the public will have to it. An exhibition is simply telling a story and although the way one can present that story can be problematic to some, those creating that story should still be able to get credit. Exhibitions are what bring money into the museum and keep people coming back. Giving credit to those who deserve it is validating their hard and profitable work.

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  4. This post definitely got me thinking about my visits to various museums and the processes that go into creating exhibitions. To be honest, I never truly thought about it but the behind the scene work seems to get overlooked. I don’t know much about the process, but I can assume that places as large as the Science and Industry Museum in Chicago must have hundreds of people working profusely to get everything into the best shape it can be. I completely agree that these people need to be recognized for what they do; they are just as important, if not more important, than the exhibits themselves. Without them, the exhibits would not even exist. From large museums in big cities to small museums in rural towns, the recognition of these people is something that needs to happen.

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