by Dr Bridget Tracy Tan, Director, Institute of Southeast Asian Arts/ Art Galleries
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the concept of a Wunderkammer, or room of wonder, became popular as a means of showing off an accumulation of wealth through unusual and fine objects. It was the Wunderkammer that inspired the erecting of the first ‘museum’ at the Ashmolean in Oxford University in the 17th century.
‘Museums’ are where the practice of curating was first formalised. More significantly, curating is very much connected to collecting. And collecting and curating are both very much connected to display, or exhibitions. If we return to the Wunderkammer, the curator can therefore be regarded as one who accumulates, arranges and displays objects in a room to incite wonder.
Today, there are many different definitions of who a curator is, and what a curator does. Professionally, we can divide curators into adjunct curators and institutional curators. These definitions help to give context to the practice.
Adjunct curators likely work on broad based, freelance and commissioned projects. Examples of adjunct curators are curators working on biennales and in cultural bodies that assemble exhibitions that travel from one venue to another. Institutional curators however, likely work with collections and are confined to the place that houses that collection, like a museum.
“The beauty about curating around only objects and space, is that you create an access point that is universal. Visitors who are drawn to objects in space, encounter these objects on their own terms.”
Photo taken by Dr Tan at A Study in Southeast Asian Artworks, 2018
In the 1970s, the German artist, Hans Haacke wrote, “Information presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful. It can affect the general social fabric … the working premise is to think in terms of systems: the production of systems, the interference with and the exposure of existing systems … systems can be physical, biological, or social.”
When I practice as a curator, I think of myself as dealing with three things: (i) objects, (ii) space, and (iii) the visitor.
I am arranging objects, in a space. In doing so, I produce a ‘system’ that a visitor is exposed to when they encounter that arrangement in that space. The purpose of navigating in that system, is to find meaning. In the same way we employ the system of cartography, to help us find destinations.
All objects have a life of their own. What they are, how they were made and who they were made by. I learn about the objects, about the artists and creators who made such objects. I make it a point to have empathy with these makers and their objects.
Each person also has a life of their own. Their individual experiences, level of knowledge, cultural background and memories are all different. The beauty about curating around only objects and space, is that you create an access point that is universal. Visitors who are drawn to objects in space, encounter these objects on their own terms.
Art objects often stimulate us in several ways. The first is visual and physical: we see the object and we see where it is located. In a physical stimulus, we also become aware of whether an object is large or small, if it is a single thing or a collection of things, if it is on the floor or on the wall – to name but a few examples.
The second is our experience of the object through our own processes: how we interpret what we see, the associations we make from things we know and remember, to what we see and are in the presence of.
“Curating is a unique and exciting practice. It is one that requires knowledge and experience that should continue to challenge knowledge and experience, simply by changing the way that is conveyed through objects by the way they are arranged in space.”
Photo taken by Dr Tan at A Study in Southeast Asian Artworks, 2018
Space also stimulates us in several ways. Physically, we are aware of scale: how big or small we are in relation to where we are. We are also aware of direction and restrictions: how we move to avoid obstruction and to find our way. We are also aware of atmosphere: this includes temperature, sound, illumination and ambience – that is, how a space makes us feel.
Every curated exhibition is potentially a system in which we navigate to find our own meaning. In Hans Haacke’s observations, one system often exposes another.
A very simple example is light. In daylight, we have between 35,000 to 100,000 lumens. In general, a museum space can yield only up to 200 lumens upon each object. The system of light that allows us to see outdoors, changes dramatically with the system of light that allows us to see indoors in a museum for instance. Something as simple as this has an impact on, among other things, how we move, how we see details, how we feel and from there, what we experience, what we remember.
Another example is time and geographical origin. An object created in 1603 and 1964 in Europe or even in 1983 and 1999 in Southeast Asia will have a default context of its creator and creation. If we are not so familiar with that context, it challenges our present perception and ability to derive productive experience of that object in our context.
The range of ‘systems’ to which Haacke refers to is diverse and applies to much that we take for granted. It is up to us to discover some of these whenever we encounter an exhibition. And when Haacke cites ‘interference’ and ‘exposure’, he invokes our ability to ask questions.
Curating is a unique and exciting practice. It is one that requires knowledge and experience that should continue to challenge knowledge and experience, simply by changing the way that is conveyed through objects by the way they are arranged in space.
The Wunderkammer is also conveniently associated with the concept of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’. The room with a view is one certainly of wonder, and at last, one of infinite curiosity.
Formerly a curator at the Singapore Art Museum (now National Gallery Singapore), Dr Bridget Tracy Tan holds an Honours degree in History of Art. She obtained her PhD from Chelsea College of Art, UAL, in practice-led research as a curator and critical art historian. She likes moving things around in space.
- Kenneth Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, Houghton Mifflin Company 2002
- Paula Marincola (ed), What Makes a Great Exhibition? Reaktion Books 2007
- Paul O’Neill, The Culture of Curating and the Curating of Culture(s), MIT Press 2012
- Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating, JRP/Ringier 2008
- David Raizman, Ethan Robey (eds), Expanding Nationalisms at World's Fairs: Identity, Diversity, and Exchange 1851 – 1915, Routledge 2017
- Laurie J. Sears (ed) Knowing Southeast Asian Subjects, University of Washington Press 2007
- Richard Sennett, Together – the rituals, pleasures & politics of cooperation, Penguin Books 2012