Object Study, not Curatorial Practice

July 13, 2015

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William John Burchell (1782–1863), On the river, near Santos, Brazil (1835). Oil on wood. 29.2 x 34.6 cm

What can an object tell us about history? And, even better, how can it show us that history is relevant to our lives now? Although these are questions any curator must attend to organize a decent exhibition, they are disturbingly absent from the literature on curatorial practice. In wading through the voluminous literature on exhibition-making to select texts that would be useful for guiding my graduate students through the process of organizing a show of nineteenth-century landscapes in the CPPC, I was struck by this blind spot. A fair response would be that history prior to Harald Szeeman is not relevant because this literature addresses the curating of contemporary art. But the lack of attention to an older history also reveals a lack of attention to the important role objects play in teaching us about the past—even the very recent past. And it forecloses objects’ remarkable capacity to retain residues of time as they simultaneously move through it.

Paintings, drawings, and prints of the Latin American landscape during the nineteenth century challenge many of the expectations we impose on art and exhibitions. Paintings and the conventions of their display during this era are not as old-fashioned as we assume. Great paintings of distant landscapes were often displayed as theatrical productions and panoramic environments. Domestic-scale paintings were neither precious nor singular. The more popular a painted view the more copies of it were made to circulate, spreading not only the fame of the artist but also of a view that was often constructed to appeal to audiences’ exotic fantasies of the “Tropics.” Nor was authorship necessarily tied to an artist. Even though his hand played no part in the execution of its images, an explorer as famous as Schomburgk was able to lay claim to the authorship of the popular print portfolio of his expedition to Guiana. These are just a few examples of how nineteenth-century objects in the CPPC bring to bear many of the issues that preoccupy us now. Translocality and the condition of the contemporary artist as forever on the move—acting as a translator and conveyor of images—find exuberant instances of expression in the nineteenth century. I say this not to claim precedence, but rather to urge us to think much more historically about exhibition making, and to issue a final entreaty to focus on objects before practice.


Harper Montgomery is the curator of Boundless Reality: Traveler Artists’ Landscapes of Latin America from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Collection, on view from October 29, 2015 to January 29, 2016 at the Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery at Hunter College, and Americas Society in NYC.

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Photo from Flickr
Crimson-crested woodpecker