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fred wilson and the power of curation

Fig. 1. Installation shot of Cabinet-Making 1820-1960.

The curator, at its most primary level, is the custodian of the collection; the designated guardian of the works of art that comprise it. On a physical level, this pertains to the responsibility of ensuring the condition of the work, whilst on a more intangible level pertaining to how the work is perceived, and the narratives which are extracted from it. In the context of conflict, the two come together. As acts of iconoclasm and censorship become likely, the responsibility of the curator is to provoke an engagement with the public in the hopes of preventing this, whilst of equal importance should be the emphasis on what happens with the works beyond such events. The curator should aim to ensure a continuation of the life of a work, aiding its evolution and working with iconoclasm and censorship, or at least protest, as an active part of the life of the work. The onus is on the curator to ensure that discussion and engagement remain integral to the experience of art, an aspect which becomes increasingly pressing in the heated context of conflict.

American conceptual artist and curator Fred Wilson in his exhibition Mining the Museum explores the multi-layeredness of meaning and assumes the role of the intervening curator in a post-conflict context. Wilson brings to the fore the notion of exclusive knowledge, calling the viewer to consider differing narratives simultaneously. In the role of intervening curator, he exposes first the ability of the curator to manipulate meaning, as well as the curator’s ability to encourage the realisation of meaning as subjective, dynamic and multifaceted as opposed to exclusive and singular.

The exhibition was hung at the Maryland Historical Society, with the nature and history of the society – as the primary context provider – remaining entirely inseparable from any interpretation of the exhibition in its entirety, or the individual works on display. Wilson exhibited only objects that existed within the museum’s permanent collection. As such, Wilson intervened with an already established museum, and its already existing objects. He did so with the specific objective of manipulating the collection in a matter that would question the boundaries of museums as knowledge disseminating institutions. At the Maryland Historical Society, this particularly meant the exploration of the histories of coloured people – and how their history and existence is largely omitted from the collection. Wilson’s interventions – which present themselves in a manner of texts and visual devices - are carefully paired with specific pieces selected from the collection with the objective of provoking the viewer to ponder these otherwise unseen, unconscious agendas of museums, and to consider these objects in a new light for the first time. In its entirety Mining the Museum exposed museums as the biased, subjective institutions that they are, bringing to the fore the role of context and modes of display as well as collecting tendencies in shaping the interpretation of objects and thus the way the knowledge they project is absorbed.

Within a room named “Cabinet-Making 1820-1960” for example, Wilson displayed a range of period furniture, arranged to face a wooden crucifix, Corrin (1993: 16), describes the chairs as “..gazing voyeuristically at the crucifix”. Each of the chairs originate from and represent a different social class, whilst the crucifix is in fact a whipping post used until 1988 in front of the Baltimore city jail. The installation contrasts the lives of white Americans with those of the black slaves. As opposed to displaying only the chairs, Wilson uses the chairs as contextualisation tools, prompting the consideration of two very different histories, both being simultaneously written, Wilson noted that prior to Mining the Museum, the whipping post had been kept in the museum’s basement – thus leaving the ‘other’ story of slave torture in Baltimore both out of sight and out of mind.

In its entirety, Mining the Museum first makes clear the impressive powers of the museum and its curators, before utilising these powers in order to make known new histories by offering multiple, simultaneous meanings.


Lisa Truter graduated with her Honours In Curatorship from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Curating the Archive in 2017. She now works as a cataloguer in Aspire Art Auction’s Cape Town office.


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