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.