Our THATCamp workshop is about “The Citizen Curator,” which is the project of a Visual Texts &Technology seminar at the University of Central Florida led by Professor Barry Mauer.
The course focuses on citizen curating, which offers opportunities to non-professional curators who are interested in the art of creating exhibits from archived materials. We will curate both on-site and digital/online exhibitions. The course has three purposes:
- To explore the history and theories of curating
- To engage in hands-on curating work, creating exhibits both online and offline
- To work with partner institutions, including the Public History Center and the RICHES project, to learn and teach the principles of curating to others.
Our exhibits will be made from archival materials in African American Legacy: The Carol Mundy Collection: 1720-2010, which is held by the University of Central Florida library. This collection contains thousands of items relating to African American history including books, manuscripts, sheet music, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, broadsides, posters, photographs and ephemera, which all speak to the black experience. Included is an array of racist ephemera including derogatory postcards, advertisements, product packaging, magazine and newspaper illustrations and other related materials. Carol Mundy, herself African-American and a non-academic, participates in training students to work with this fascinating and difficult material.
The seminar involves collaboration with the John C. Hitt Library, UCF’s Public History Center, the Regional Center for Collecting the History, Experiences, and Stories of Central Florida (RICHES), and other partnering entities. Students enrolled in the seminar have the option to work as interns in the John C. Hitt Library, the Public History Center, and the RICHES program. During their internships, students will develop their skills in archiving, preservation, digitizing, tagging, and curating, and will create curated exhibits, both in public spaces and online.
Curators need to make informed decisions about their work and to be aware of their choices. To this end, we are learning the ideas and works of exemplary curators, such as Lucy Lippard, Walter Hopps, Henri Langlois, Pontus Hultén, Harald Szeeman, Jean-François Lyotard, and others. We will also present the works of theorists and writers, such as Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, André Breton, and Gregory Ulmer, whose ideas enrich our understanding of curating with new media. From these curators and theorists, students are developing their own curating practices.
The Citizen Curator project identifies three major types of curated exhibits: Educational, Rhetorical, and Experimental. In our projects, we practice primarily Rhetorical and Experimental modes, though we study Educational modes as well.
- Educational Exhibits – These exhibits seek to inform and educate the public. For example, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. educates the public about the events of the holocaust, but does not present clear arguments about its causes.
- Rhetorical Exhibits – These exhibits present a thesis and use curated materials as support. For example, photographer Sebastião Salgado’s exhibits argue that the flow of global capital creates refugee crises, and his images amount to evidence for his claims.
- Experimental Exhibits – These exhibits seek new ways of composing with archival materials, but may have rhetorical or educational aims as well. Experimental exhibits may focus on issues related to the ethics of curating, such as witnessing, working with difficult material such as racist artifacts, or on intellectual property rights and censorship. Experimental exhibits may present different forms of curating, making use of sampling and collage, presenting multiple perspectives on the same materials (i.e. from a social scientist’s perspective, a legal perspective, a philosopher’s perspective, etc.), or employ avant-garde genres such as Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Georges Bataille’s Heterogeny, or Gregory Ulmer’s
The seminar addresses several problems related to curating:
- Multiple and overlooked perspectives: Student curators can provide unique perspectives on archival materials otherwise missed by trained professionals. Robert Ray recommends we “gamble more recklessly: by ignoring disciplinary boundaries, by listening to ‘outsiders’ or even dilettantes, by suspecting experts and, in particular, by adapting for research the methods of the twentieth century’s avant-garde arts and non-traditional sciences.” By involving outsiders and by experimenting with curatorial practices, we intend to bring multiple unique or under-represented perspectives to archival materials, and to bring these perspectives into the lives of more people. For example, in teaching students to curate racist ephemera, we plan to introduce various “frames” for understanding the material, including justice frames such as the resilience of black culture in the face of oppression, the ways ruling elites promoted racism to deflect from class oppression, the ways young people have been initiated into racial identities, the ways in which mainstream eliminationist rhetoric—dehumanizing African-Americans through speech and images—made crimes against them appear justified, and arguments for reparations. We will also introduce aesthetic frames, such as postmodernism, negritude, and “version” culture. Additionally, we introduce different disciplinary frames: among them historical, technological, discursive, and philosophical. Students may combine frames, add others, or create their own frames based on their research.
- Archival illiteracy: Many ordinary citizens, including many students, do not know how to use archives, including digital archives, effectively. The Citizen Curator project will train students and other citizens to access and use archival materials. Training will follow the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) “Standards for Literacy” as well as the “ACRL Standards for Technological Literacy.”[i]
- Adapting to new technologies: Technological and social changes have shifted the focus of communicative practice from speech and writing to curating. Many archives are multimedia and contain documented sounds, images, and written texts. These documents can be fragmented, manipulated, juxtaposed, and synthesized in endless configurations. Also, digital platforms can be adapted to include public participation in ongoing discussions about key issues of public significance. Training people to manage public forums and to curate electronic texts helps them adapt to the technological shift.
- Inaccessible documents: Many archives, such as libraries and museums, have only a small portion of their holdings accessible to the public at any one time. The Citizen Curator project will help make more materials from the archives available to the public.
- Emergent crises: As public crises emerge, such as those affecting climate, public health, and the economy, we need a citizenry that can access many types of digital archives and participate in discussions that address these problems. Therefore, the Citizen Curator project will train students to deal effectively with emergent problems by teaching them to provide critical materials to the public and to provide forums for the public to discuss emerging crises.
In addition to producing a proposal for the exhibits, students will also curate their own exhibits and create a Guidebook for Citizen Curators, aimed at bringing non-professionals into the practice of curating. Here are the major topics for the guidebook:
- How ordinary people can take ownership of their historical, cultural, and intellectual legacies,
- How to think critically about the ways in which information and misinformation has shaped our views of the past and present,
- How to think rhetorically about effective communication with diverse audiences,
- How to work with various genres of curating, including educational, rhetorical, and experimental genres,
- How to involve broader communities of archivists, educators, experts, and organizers in curating.
This booklet, once compiled and edited, will be available free of charge to attendees at our public presentations, as well as through the Center for Public History. In addition, it will be available online as a downloadable file.
We are hoping to use our time at THAT Camp to brainstorm ideas for our exhibits, our guidebook, for digital tools and platforms, and for ways of engaging the community effectively.