The Empress Dowager Cixi seated and holding a fan
Glass plate negative
10.2 x 12.7 cm.
Last week POWER|PLAY finally opened, the first main-gallery primarily featuring materials from the Freer|Sackler Archives. This brings an end to my “Curator for a Day,” stint, which has entirely taken over my professional life for at least the last year. The show is stunning and well-worth visiting, however the behind-the-scenes process of putting a show like this together has raised my esteem both for curators, and for the teams of museum professionals who routinely make these happen. Here are a couple of my observations from the point of view of an archives specialist:
The primary mission of an archives is to make whole collections available without redaction, exclusion or interpretation. An art exhibition, on the other hand, must pare all of that information down to a small selection and a single, sometimes linear narrative that non-specialists can comprehend in a single visit.
Staff of even the most well integrated archival collection are fairly accustomed to a high degree of independence. We learn a broad range of skills outside of our immediate job descriptions to get the job done efficiently without overly depending on other departments. A gallery exhibition not only entails extraordinary cooperation with other departments, but requires you to keep your hands out of much of the process. While you should hold your ground on some matters, you must also be prepared for a great deal of negotiation, accommodation and compromise. The exhibition may end up being radically different from your original vision, but if your colleagues are sufficiently experienced with exhibitions, it will likely be for the better. POWER|PLAY is an excellent case in point.