Curating the Archives

The summer 2014 exhibition is now online! The virtual version includes reflections about the unusual demands of the exhibition from the curators, exhibition designer, and university archivist. Here is my conversation with Wendy Scheir, Director of the New School Archives and Special Collections, about curating the archives.

Julia: “Offense + Dissent” relied almost entirely on materials from the New School Archives. The exhibit, then, offers an opportunity to reflect on how curators use archival materials and some of the challenges and tensions that arise in creating an exhibit based on the past. Do you see a difference in the obligations between an archivist and a curator?

Wendy: The archivist’s obligations are clearly to the materials. The vast majority of our job is in acquisition, preservation, and access to materials about the past. There are legal and ethical responsibilities to donors and, more important, to the historical actors represented by these materials. So, for instance, archivists give great priority to the correct and full citation of sources. This kind of obligation can interfere with word limitations on exhibit placards, for example. But, more important from an archivist’s point of view, such citation gives full acknowledgment to the historical actors and leaves a clear path to others to check on the source and use of these materials.

Julia: As you point out, curators, like historians, are interpreting materials, for argumentation and narrative. What you suggest, however, is that there is not only the obligation to provide citation but also to include an awareness of the necessary selection and interpretation of that material. That is perhaps easier to do in a book or an article than an exhibit of objects, with relatively few words.

Wendy: There is a priority on visual material in exhibits, and I think that’s a great strength. Archival materials can, in fact, provide more depth to understanding images and objects. And I recognize that exhibits need to offer viewers different levels of interaction. Some people will walk through quickly, some will linger over few objects, and then some will spend a great deal of time on each object. In our “Voices of Crisis” exhibit on a New School lecture series on race in 1964, for example, we tried to offer different level of interactions by having ongoing audio in the gallery of the lectures, pulled out quotes on the wall or in the placards, and then full transcripts available for those who wanted to linger even longer. I’m interested in a full, complicated, not-straightforward view of what happened in the past. Archival materials can add depth to an exhibit of images, but a tension remains between the priority of the object and a full historical context for understanding that object.

Julia: There are, of course, numerous ways to utilize both archival materials and a historical perspective in exhibits. One temptation is to re-create previous exhibits from the past, for example. (In “Offense + Dissent,” this was part of our discussion on how to present the “My God! We’re Losing a Great Country” controversy, based on a student exhibit from 1970.) As a historian, and I assume for you, as an archivist, this is problematic because such re-creation is not only not possible (there are inevitable gaps in what has been preserved, for example), but it also obscures the interpretive and reflective part of looking at the past that I feel should be a part of any presentation of the past.

Wendy: Yes, I think that re-creation is a problematic temptation. Because one of the other tensions that comes out in exhibits that use archival materials is that the past often serves present concerns. There is the chance of losing the full context of what happened — often contradictory and difficult to comprehend even after a great deal of research — in service of a clearer straight-line narrative to understanding something in the present.

But there are many examples, too, of the use of archival materials and exhibits to deepen our understanding. The recent Metropolitan Museum’s exhibit of the mural Thomas Hart Benton painted for the New School utilized architectural plans for the building in which the mural was situated to reveal the extent of interaction between the architect Joseph Urban and Benton, the painterly choices made by architectural limitations. The MET featured this fairly plain architectural plan to create a setting for the mural in the museum that paralleled the original and then revealed the back-and-forth, ongoing conversation from the past about that creation at the same time. Similarly, “Offense + Dissent” used archival materials to show how images become a source of controversy at one historical moment, and forgotten in another. I am hopeful that we develop more exhibits with this level of use of archival materials and historical context – and that the exhibits inspire people to come do their own research in the archives!