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This chapter is from the book

Summing Up: The Curator Preparing an Art Exhibition

As a concluding note on the topic of living curation, let’s now go back to the approach of the curator in art exhibition, as illustrated in Figure 5.4.


Figure 5.4 The curator in the museum

The curator of an exhibition primarily decides on a key editorial focus, which often becomes the title of the event. Sometimes the focus is trivial, such as “Claude Monet, the Surrealist,” but even in this case, there is an opiniated decision—to exclude prior art from the artist that was not yet Surrealism. Similarly, any documentation initiative must clearly deliver one key message.

Good exhibitions try to bring an element of surprise to create interest (for example, “You’ve always thought Kandinsky paintings are fully abstract, but we’ll show how the abstract shapes evolved from his prior figurative paintings.”). Visitors come not just to see the art pieces but also to expand their cultural awareness and better understand relationships between artists, art pieces, and their era. Similarly, good documentation adds value and new knowledge, with emphasis on relationships, by offering a different perspective of things.

Selecting and Organizing Existing Knowledge

The curator selects art works based on the chosen editorial focus. Most of the pieces available are left in the storage room, and only the few pieces of particular interest for the exhibit are on display. Similarly, documentation is a curation activity that involves deciding what’s most important in a given perspective.

The curator decides which pieces to display in each room. A room may be organized around a time period, a phase in the life of the artist, or a theme. Art pieces may be displayed side-by-side to suggest comparisons between them. They may be displayed with an ordering that tells a story, chronologically or through a succession of themes. Organization of knowledge is a key tool for adding meaning to a plain collection of pieces of knowledge. We group elements by named folders, tags, or naming conventions.

Adding What’s Missing When Needed

The curator writes a few bits of text explaining the big idea of each section of the exhibition. She or he also writes a small label for each piece of art that is displayed on the wall directly next to the appropriate art piece. Similarly, documentation needs knowledge augmentation, which can occur through annotations, DSL, or naming conventions. Some limited amount of text can be useful in some places, too. This knowledge is attached to the related code elements whenever possible.

When a work considered essential for the art exhibition is not in the collection, it is borrowed or commissioned from the artist. The artist may also contribute to the organization of his or her pieces directly.

Sometimes some information is missing. The curator can have researchers conduct investigations or may request chemical analysis on the painting or by looking at written archives to find the missing piece in the puzzle. For example, the Louvre uses research results on the style of brushing colors on the canvas in order to tell visitors how much Raphael really participated in each of his paintings. And it reveals that the famous master did not touch many of them! In a similar way, documentation is a feedback mechanism that helps you notice when something is missing or wrong in the code or in the related knowledge.

Accessibility for People Who Can’t Attend and for Posterity

The curator creates a catalog of the exhibition, which recaps all the content displayed: the explanative text by section, the art pieces as quality pictures, and their labels. The catalog as a book is usually organized in a way that is similar to the organization of the rooms in the exhibition venue.

Museums now sometimes offer expensive and heavyweight complete exhibition catalogs, and they also offer catalogs in a shorter form, with just a digest of the major pieces. I usually buy the shorter catalog, which is a more attractive read by far!

Documentation also involves making knowledge accessible and ensuring that the important pieces are persisted for the future. You may, for example, publish content as documents and on an interactive website, targeted for different audiences and different needs—much like the different catalogs published by the art museum.

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