Lockdown Paper

Covid Curating


15 October 2020

Covid-19 has been a fast-moving tragedy. Its speed can be measured in the rapid proliferation not just of the contagion itself, but also previously unfamiliar phrases (had you even heard of “social distancing” a year ago?), design solutions (all that floor-marking tape!), and even ideas, which have passed from revelatory to clichéd in record time.

One of the thoughts that has been making the rounds is a simple one: for all that it has disrupted, the pandemic is also accelerating trends that were already in motion. Most obvious, here, is the migration of real-world content to online platforms, for better or worse. The same can be said for many other trajectories: the shift to cashless transactions; hostility to globalism and a concomitant re-investment in local manufacturing; the sense of generational conflict; and ever-expanding wealth inequality. Museums are typically understood as slow-moving beasts, but they too are experiencing rapid change, with a dramatic shift of emphasis toward digital platforms since physical premises have been forced to close. This has sped up a development that has already been brewing in museums for some time: the convergence of curating and journalism. It may seem a small matter in the grand scheme of things, but it gets to the heart of what is happening in cultural institutions during the age of the coronavirus.

For me, this story begins way back in 2014 when the V&A formally launched its Rapid Response Collecting initiative. Full disclosure: I had worked at the museum until the previous year and had a minor role in developing the idea. But it was really the work of curators Kieran Long and Corinna Gardner, the latter of whom has remained the programme’s primary champion following Long’s departure for ArkDes in Sweden. The objective was in some ways straightforward: deploy the gravitas of the V&A to bring attention to timely issues. The project thrived, bringing to the fore hot-button artefacts like the first 3D-printed gun, or the umbrellas used by Hong Kong protestors to protect themselves from tear gas.

Originally, Rapid Response Collecting took meaning from its exceptional status within the institution: it worked precisely because it was a counterpoint to the V&A’s usual way of doing business. The idea did catch on at a few other places. Several museums acquired Pussyhats as soon as their wearers were done protesting, for example. (I donated mine to the Fuller Craft Museum, at its request.) But it’s only with the onset of Covid-19 that it has become widespread practice, presumably because business-as-usual is out of the question. The situation for most museums has been dire. The staff at the V&A have been relatively lucky; most were sent home until further notice and told to stop working, but at least they kept being paid through the government’s furlough scheme [This essay was first published in June 2020; in September 2020, the V&A announced a consultation process for widespread redundancies at the museum, ed.]. Other, smaller museums tipped immediately into existential crisis mode: they began sacking their employees, often starting with the lowest-paid frontline staff. Key functions like exhibitions planning ground almost to a halt. Even the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has been affected: its acquisition funds have been diverted to help cover operating expenditure.

What’s a curator to do? For many, the answer has been to respond, rapidly. The team at the V&A could not keep collecting very easily, so shifted emphasis to a series of deftly-drawn online case studies, published under the title “Pandemic Objects”. Brendan Cormier, who has led this effort, wrote about the sudden proliferation of handmade signs – from stores’ closing notices to kids’ window rainbows – nicely describing them as an eruption within “the editorial layer” of the city. Ella Kilgallon summoned the melancholy image of planned vacations being replaced by virtual tourism via Google Earth. Natalie Kane rounded up attempts to redesign the humble door handle, a flashpoint of anxiety in an age of surface-born contagion. Christopher Wilk noted the sudden explosion of bicycling, as commuters avoided crowded public transport and took advantage of safe streets. Disegno’s own Kristina Rapacki wrote a guest post on what it takes to convert a convention centre into an emergency care facility. Catherine Flood, curator of the recent V&A exhibition Food: Bigger than the Plate, contributed a thoughtful piece on home baking, which provides at least the aroma of reassurance. And Gus Casely Hayford, new director of V&A East, explored his own dreams as an avenue of imaginative escape: “Tiny fractured micro-moments of memory are drifting back like fragments of old lost photographs, lost from context but still potent with meaning.”

The V&A has by no means been alone in registering the moment. In a remarkable display of agility and fortitude, three other London museums also launched coronavirus response projects. The Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye) is documenting domestic life under lockdown through a series of personal accounts: improvised workspaces, improvised haircuts, improvised education, and perpetual cleanup (“the toys have won the battle… will mummy and daddy win the war?!”) The Museum of London has issued an open call under the title “collecting COVID,” gathering both physical and virtual objects, “from clothing to hairclippers, from diaries to memes,” in the words of curator Beatrice Behlen. In his own series of blog posts, Roger Highfield of the Science Museum has done a far better job than most government agencies in explaining what exactly a coronavirus is, how it works, and how it spreads.

Here in the USA, responses have ranged from the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design’s bravely upbeat handmade mask challenge – entitled “Let’s Face It,” the initiative encouraged members of the public to approach the emergency in a maximally creative spirit – to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, where curator Tyree Boyd-Pates set about gathering photographs, diary entries, and recipes from the public. “History is being made NOW,” Boyd-Pates wrote, explaining that the museum’s Covid outreach would be only the first of a series of community-based collecting initiatives. Even the famously slow-moving Smithsonian has shifted its vast bulk into rapid response mode, collecting pandemic-related objects at three separate branches. Particularly significant is the involvement of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This museum will focus on the experience of the Black community, which has been disproportionately affected by illness, economic loss, and death – one of the contributing factors to the recent wave of protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Each in their own way, these initiatives have required curators to retool, abandoning their usual research methods – which they could hardly have pursued anyway, what with libraries and their collections suddenly inaccessible. Instead, they have been doing what journalists do: make the rounds on the internet, call people, get the scent of a story, and follow it up. For many in the design field this seems to come naturally. For some years, there has been fluid movement between media and museums. Kieran Long got his start as an architecture critic for Icon and, later, the London Evening Standard; while other leading lights of design curation with journalistic backgrounds are Beatrice Galilee, formerly contemporary architecture and design curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Justin McGuirk, chief curator at London’s Design Museum.

Cormier is another example. Having previously been managing editor at Volume magazine, he describes himself primarily as an “investigator and communicator.” When I spoke to him for this article, he agreed that curating and journalism are overlapping more and more, particularly in the design space. Ideally, this fusion would combine the best features of reporting and museum work: topicality and urgency, but also deep contextualisation. When the public is facing a blizzard of information (and misinformation) – which Cormier likens to a “fog of war” – the habitual rigour of curatorial methodology can be marvellously clarifying.

The same can be said for Design Emergency, a collaborative project by Alice Rawsthorn (a design critic and formerly director of the Design Museum) and Paola Antonelli from MoMA. These two leading curatorial voices have shifted into reporting mode, hosting a series of Instagram interviews with designers who are generating innovative responses to Covid. I’ve found myself hosting something like a talk show, too – a triweekly series on Zoom called Design in Dialogue, presented in collaboration with the gallery Friedman Benda. Initially intended to continue the design conversation during the period of lockdown, it has become something more than that: an attempt to actually change the conversation, particularly by addressing issues of gender and racial disparity.

Are there downsides to this approach? Sure. For starters, as Cormier points out, it’s all too easy to become “beholden to the news,” rather than establishing an independent viewpoint. All the more so when the story is still unfolding, as is certainly the case with the Covid-19 crisis – and who, stuck at home, would claim to have a comprehensive view on that? Even so, the same standards that any good journalist would observe must apply. If curators are going to step into the role of reporters, they need to demonstrate the same insistence on veracity and reliability that a news organisation should. This is exactly what Gardner has managed to do with the V&A’s Rapid Response Collecting initiative by not just acquiring arresting examples, but also explaining the rationale for doing so. It’s a standard that should be applied to coronavirus responses, too.

Even granting that this can be achieved, however, there’s a bigger danger lurking here: one that has to do with museums’ broader role in society. Trust in public institutions of all kinds is scraping bottom, these days. Most of the traditional pillars of society are besieged by doubt: government, police and, of course, the media. So far, museums have been a notable exception. Studies suggest that people trust them for reliable information far more than the internet, and also more than newspapers or even history books. Industry groups such as the American Alliance of Museums have placed a great deal of emphasis on this, making the case for “the highest level of accountability and transparency.” In the UK, the Museums Association issued a public statement on collecting and other activities related to Covid-19, saying that this should only be done “with transparency and competency in order to generate knowledge and engage the public.” These calls have become more urgent in the face of campaigns to decolonise museums, establish political accountability at trustee level, and achieve true diversity in staffing – all objectives that are long overdue, and also inherently politicised.

So here’s the difficult question: in the rush to reach their audiences, particularly at a time of crisis, might museums risk sacrificing one of their greatest assets, the public’s trust? Should curators not instead remain at a lofty remove from the fray, lest they be dragged down into it? In an atmosphere as charged as the present moment – when even wearing a protective face mask or obeying government lockdown regulations can be construed as ideological acts – it’s not very hard to see how curatorial documentation could be seen as special pleading. For my money, the value of “transparency” (which appears in both of the statements just quoted) isn’t sufficient to allay such concerns. Curators can be totally transparent while still infuriating members of the public who hold contrary viewpoints. But equally, the ideal of the curator as some Archimedean figure, inhabiting a magical position of objectivity, is wholly inadequate. If museums ignore the greatest upheaval of their time, abandoning their audiences and waiting until it’s too late to collect historically significant objects and information, what would that say about the sector’s position in culture?

This might seem like a zero-sum game, in which museums are faced with an impossible choice between irresponsibility and irrelevance. But let’s not forget there is another set of players in this drama: the artefacts themselves. Journalism and curating may be converging, borrowing from one another’s skill sets (the adoption of “curatorial” tactics by the media – most often in the guise of content aggregation – is another topic for another time), but there remains a big difference between them. It’s the difference between saying “here’s what happened” and “look at this – let’s keep it”. Even as this distinction is obscured by recent curatorial initiatives, it seems important to preserve it as a guiding principle. What will protect museums from losing themselves in the wilds of claim and counterclaim, news and fake news, is a faithful adherence to things in themselves –because every object is a fact in the world. On every side there is subjectivity, sure. The decision to acquire something, or even write a blog post about it, is potentially riddled with self-interest and partisanship. And that’s before one gets to the stages of display and interpretation. But objects already condense social and political complexity within themselves. They are remarkably sensitive witnesses, registering more than we can hope to fully grasp on first encountering them. The primary role of curators is to care for them (it’s right there in the etymology, from the Latin “curare”), in the interest of future generations’ understanding. In a sense, this actually makes their job the opposite of a reporter’s: they are trained not to set the story straight, but to build a foundation on which later interpretations can be built.

At a time of tremendous uncertainty, it’s helpful just to gather evidence. Even more helpful is to invite the public to help with that process, and join in sifting through it. And most helpful of all is to ensure that objects of the pandemic do not slip through our fingers, but will be there for future generations to ponder. Objectivity is impossible in all this, and we shouldn’t claim otherwise. Yet objects themselves can still be anchors – even in the stormiest seas.