There are as many answers to this question as there are exhibitions. Being an effective museum curator means not only thinking about ways to put together and interpret artworks, but also remaining open to serendipity. For example, Unknown Elements, on display through November 8, entailed a wide range of decisions.
The project began with my desire to collaborate with Cincinnati-area writers on creative responses to photographs in our collection. I wanted to leave as much room for their interpretation as possible. While searching the collection database I came across many photographs made by “Unidentified Artist,” and these photographs surprised me by their diversity and quality. I then expanded my search to include those with an unknown title, date, or other piece of contextual information. Where facts are missing, I surmised, imagination rushes in.
Faced with several hundred photographs, I turned next to personal criteria. Which photographs excited me? Which ones worked well together? At the same time as I was sifting through photographs in our storage rooms, I was discussing a gift to the Art Museum with the New York–based collector Peter Cohen. Nearly all the photographs in his collection are anonymous. We worked to complete the gift in time to include some of his donations in the show.
After narrowing down the choices to a reasonable number, I invited five writers to tour our storage rooms and “adopt” a work to write about. Their selections influenced my own final decisions about which works to include. The final decisions happened in the gallery during installation, and several photographs I had hoped to include were left on the cutting-room floor.
Curators who steward collections of works on paper must bear in mind one final consideration: these works are sensitive to light. We protect them by keeping them in dark, temperature- and humidity-controlled storage. We also follow the field’s best practices and keep them in said storage for several years after exhibiting them. The goal is to extend their lifespans and ensure future generations of museum visitors will be able to enjoy them.
The photographs chosen for Unknown Elements must be ones I’m willing to keep off view for approximately five years after the show closes. Putting together a collection display, then, is not only about interpreting what the museum has collected in the past, but also about predicting the future.
Unidentified Artist, [Woman Wearing Flowered Bath- ing Cap in Rushing Surf], mid-20th century, gelatin silver print. Gift of Peter J. Cohen. 14/15.80:11