Part 1: Practicing Curatorial Activism

Now that we have learned about cultural heritage, heritages of change, and disability heritage, it is time to create your own Heritages of Change exhibition! What you will be working towards is developing a mini-exhibition that includes three heritage artifacts and an exhibition guide that communicates a focused theme.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • define “curatorial activism” and how it applies to heritage activism.

In Chapter 2, heritages of change is described as a type of heritage activism that focuses on emphasizing historically marginalized heritage, including that which is currently in the making. In order to reach this goal, Heritages of Change exhibitions practice “curatorial activism.” “Curatorial activism” is a phrase coined by Maura Reilly in the 2018 book Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating. In Reilly’s own words: “‘Curatorial Activism’ is a term I use to designate the practice of organizing art exhibitions with the principle aim of ensuring that certain constituencies of artists are no longer ghettoized or excluded from the master narratives of art. It is a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether – and, as such, focuses almost exclusively on work produced by women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer artists.” Reilly observes that certain groups – among which are listed women, artists of color, non-Euro-Americans, and/or queer people – have been erased or prevented from participating in artistic endeavors and spaces. Reilly asks questions about who gets to choose who exhibits their work, what work becomes “famous,” and what work by marginalized artists can teach us. Curatorial activism then is the act of using the agency to select artifacts – curation – that appear before the public to affect social change.

While Maura Reilly focuses on the art world, the definition of “curatorial activism” can be expanded to all of cultural heritage. We can ask questions about who decides what heritage is emphasized, whose heritage is preserved or studied, and what the effect of erasure of heritage has on the affected people. Then, we can practice curatorial activism by using the privilege to curate as an act to provide marginalized heritage more space and emphasis.

“Curatorial activism allows us to share stories, images, and experiences of communities deliberately removed from popular discourse. We can challenge this discourse by finding our voice throughout this learning environment. Your voice can show itself in the words you choose to write, how you showcase your art, or simply in the topics you decide to explore. Use this opportunity to embrace the process of unlearning simple truths and seeking out nuanced realities. When we view our work through dominant narratives and identities, we assume what is neutral, objective, and ‘human.’ In doing so, we lose sight of the reality many underserved communities navigate daily. Honor your complexity by allowing the communities you are inquiring about to be just as nuanced. Lean into using language that speaks specifically about people, history, and experiences. Lastly, understand the power you have to create a platform that appropriately represents many issues we do not often get the chance to explore further. Use your voice in its many forms to mold a new perspective for future conversations and outlooks. Use your art to convey a meaningful, authentic message that centers the needs of the communities you are exploring.” – Junior Peña, Director of Student Diversity, Equity, & Belonging Programs, Fitchburg State University

Brown and green-toned drawing of an androgynous figure with locks and eyes closed wearing a mask with a BLM logo hugging a model of the Earth. This is a poster for the Heritages of Change "Curatorial Activitism Exhibition" at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA
Poster for the exhibition “Heritages of Change” featuring work by Fitchburg State University Writing II students

Activity 4.1

  • Explore the entries in the  (very real!) “Heritages of Change” exhibition.
  • Select one entry on which to focus more closely.
    • Why does it interest you?
    • What issues does it raise?
    • What do you notice about the way entries are written?
    • What heritage of change category does it address?

What is Curation?

Chelsea Emelie Kelly from the Milwaukee Art Museum talks about how “[c]urating an exhibition of artwork requires editing and ‘picking things out,’ yes—as an art museum curator, you’re searching your own museum’s collection for what would be appropriate for the idea of your show, and you also search other museums and private collections for supplementary pieces. But curating in a museum also requires research, idea development and refinement, project management, budget management, programming considerations, educational training, decisiveness, and even interior decorating skills.” Since we are not trained museum personnel creating exhibitions for a physical space, the aspects of curating including budget management and interior decoration skills are not as relevant, but Kelly illustrates two important points about heritage curation: 1) it involves “picking out” artifacts that foreground the theme of your exhibition (and these can be found anywhere!) and 2) it involves researching and thinking carefully about the ideas that you want to communicate.

“Curators are storytellers. The role of the curator is to select an object or group of objects and tell a compelling narrative with them. Within this framework, curators must decide not only which objects to choose but also how to contextualize them. Does the story of the exhibit repeat mainstream narratives and biases, or does it center counternarratives and marginalized voices? The latter is curatorial activism. To better understand what this looks like in practice, let’s go through a short thought experiment. To start, draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper. On the left half of the page, list everything a person or society may record. These can range from grocery lists to constitutions. On the right half of the page, list every format information can be recorded in. Again, the goal is to generate as many ideas as possible – everything from quantum computers to clay tablets is fair game. Once you have your two lists, draw lines between the types of records and the mediums used to record them. For example, an informal to-do list might be recorded on a sticky note, and family histories may be passed down by word of mouth. Finally, consider the longevity of the records. Circle the record types you think a person or society would be most likely to save long-term and the mediums that are the most likely to survive in a usable form. Now, look at the items that are circled on both sides of the page. Those represent the bulk of museum collections. Of all of the records you originally listed, what percentage made it into this set? Who created those records, and for what purpose? Which perspectives have been lost? Curators may not control which items are collected and preserved, but they do shape the story those objects tell. Is a newspaper clipping presented for the article about a presidential inauguration on the front, or is it presented for the advertisements and classified ads of a diaspora community on the back? Every object contains many stories, and the curator’s responsibility is to decide which ones to tell.” – Kai Fay, Discovery & Access Strategic Projects Manager, Harvard University


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