Last week I went along to a workshop organised by CRESC on ‘Curating the Activist Object’.
The workshop extended discussions that began in September 2013 at another meeting at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London that considered how the work of CRESC’s social scientists might be fed into a forthcoming exhibition on V&A Disobedient Objects.
Last week’s meeting untethered us from the institutional structures of the V&A replacing the museum context with a rather different curatorial setting – the fascinating educational charity the MayDay rooms. The MayDay rooms provides an archival facility for storing and making accessible archives of political struggle. It aims to encourage those involved in contemporary political struggles – e.g. migrant workers, children, women, to use the resources it holds to inform their own activities. It was a perfect setting within which to try to think about the relationship between the objects of activist struggle and the practices of curation that might make those objects available for future political and intellectual work.
During the workshop we thoroughly explored what it might mean to curate an activist object. It was particularly helpful to consider the difference between curation as care – the material practices that go into making sure that objects do not decay over time, the selection choices that go into deciding which objects to look after, and the limits that exist in the very materiality of some objects who’s political force is either intentionally or unintentionally un-preservable. We heard about a cheap umbrella endorsed with slogans written in non-permanent pen which had been used in a protest but which could not be preserved due to the poor quality of the plastic and the instability of the print. We were also reminded that some consider political protest to be ideologically incompatible with practices of archiving – the force of the protest existing in the moment of action only.
As well as curation as care, we also discussed curation as archiving and curation as selection. The uses of the term ‘curation’ is now applied to all kinds of activities – not just museum work but to art exhibitions and even DJ sets. If caring for or archiving activists objects is problematic because of the violence potentially done to the political moment of activism, then broader understandings of the term curation offers alternative ways of thinking about what kind of afterlives activist objects might have, or indeed how curation might be a moment in which activist objects are curated, rather than just an activity that is applied to an activist objects after the fact.