Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions
Shelley Ruth Butler & Erica Lehrer, eds.
The academic field of museum studies and the practical sphere of
museology are both in a period of intense growth and ferment, yet
there are unexamined and unresolved tensions between the domains of
theoretical reflection and professional practice. Museum criticism is
rarely constructive; the impulse is to find fault with exhibitions,
most often around questions of representation and politics. Thus, a
foundational body of critical museology associates exhibitions with
the politics of exclusion, containment and self-regulation (eg.
Bennett 1995, Duncan 1991, Karp and Lavine, eds. 1991). But these
critiques often threaten and alienate practitioners, who must
negotiate practical and political constraints even as they themselves
attempt to stretch towards new vistas in their exhibitionary practice
(eg. Macdonald 2006, McCarthy 2007). Further, critical and
pessimistic accounts of exhibitionary politics are at odds with the
sense of optimism expressed by many museum educators and museum
mission statements regarding the potential of museums to contribute to
an inclusive and enriching public sphere (Butler 1999).
Curatorial Dreams explores and innovatively bridges these tensions
between theory and practice. In a unique challenge, we ask critics to
respond conceptually, concretely and imaginatively to their own
critiques, inviting them to step into curators' shoes with empathy and
imagination. Specifically, contributors will envision new exhibitions
and interventions inspired by their own critical approaches to
exhibitions in museums and related heritage and public culture sites.
Contributors to this volume will be asked to:
1) Review their critical work on museums and public representations;
2) Outline an imaginary exhibition that responds to these critiques;
3) Use the exercise to reflect on the value of curatorial dreaming for
both critics and practitioners.
Authors will be asked to title their imaginary exhibitions and
interventions, to have specific sites in mind for their work, and to
have examples of artifacts, texts, performances, or other media.
Authors need not walk readers/visitors through an entire exhibition,
but they must be able to evoke key moments of engagement. In some
cases, authors may imagine a process of exhibition development with
key stakeholders and participants. Contributors will be expected to
make their curatorial goals – typically hidden from the public –
explicit. In this volume, would-be curators will evaluate their
exhibitionary strategies and hoped for outcomes.
Some critics may propose fanciful exhibitions, while others may offer
more realistic, politically astute plans. But Curatorial Dreams
demands that attention be paid to the exhibition/intervention site as
well as the impact of the curators' subject-position in relation to
their proposal. Sites that might be used include establishment
museums, art galleries, community museums and centers, as well as
heritage walks, parks, cafes, transportation systems, advertisement
spaces, or other more 'vernacular' sites. Since much critical
museology is directed at metropolitan, national, and "destination"
museums, a portion of this volume will address these types of sites.
Another portion will include innovative interventions in heritage
sites and vernacular landscapes. We plan to include perspectives from
a variety of scholars who may not have previously envisioned
themselves as curators, from disciplines such as history,
anthropology, sociology, geography, social work, law, art history,
philosophy, cultural studies, and others.
Questions that this volume seeks to engage include:
1. How can critiques of culture and representation be transformed into
exhibitions and public interventions, both within and outside of
2. What kinds of social issues are exhibitions well positioned to
address? How do curators' social and cultural identities influence the
politics and possibilities of exhibitions.
3. What new curatorial strategies might better encourage and enable
audience engagement with specific sites and key social and political
issues? How can curators navigate social and political constraints
within and beyond their institutions?
4. How does the 'curatorial imagination' differ from academic
criticism, and how might having scholars experiment with curatorship
potentially transform criticism?
5. Can bridging the curator/critic divide help destabilize the
widespread institutional divide in museums between curators and
Deadline for proposal submission: June 15, 2010 (early submissions
Notification of inclusion: mid-July, 2010
Submission due (first draft): November 15. 2010