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Comments on Rabinowitz, Eavesdropping at the Well

Curator as Auteur
Steven Lubar

Richard Rabinowitz is one of our best exhibition curators, and his twopart Slavery in New York at the New-York Historical Society is among the most successful exhibitions of recent years. His essay on how he created that exhibit is valuable as a case study. It is also worth reading as a how-to guide, a master class in curation. Students of museum studies and curators and other museum staff can benet from Rabinowitzs thoughtful step-by-step analysis of his work on this exhibit. But the essay is much more than just a case study describing the decisions that helped create a ne exhibition, more than a how-to guide for curators. It is also a manifesto for the interpretive exhibition, and for the curator as auteur. Rabinowitz believes in interpretive exhibitions, exhibits that tell stories. He argues that objects need context; that research is a key part of curatorial work; and that the curatorial work that leads to exhibitions can provide new knowledge. And he believes that the developer of an exhibition is an auteur, a creative mastermind. Although theres collaboration here, and Rabinowitz is careful to give historians, collections curators, designers, and other staff credit for their work, the exhibit curator is in charge, the author and architect. For Rabinowitz, exhibition development is an art, the developer an artist whose medium is

The Public Historian, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 7176 (February 2014). ISSN: 0272-3433, electronic ISSN 1533-8576. 2014 by The Regents of the University of California and the National Council on Public History. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Presss Rights and Permissions Web site: www.ucpressjournals.com/reprintInfo.asp. DOI: 10/1525/tph.2014.36.1.71. 71

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ideas, artifacts, spaces, and (most interestingly) the public. My job as a curator, Rabinowitz writes,
is to arrange these objects . . . no, I mean these stories, so that they move visitors to invent stories for themselves. The art of the gallery is to furnish the imagination with the makings of good storieshuman characters, human actions, human places, human rules, and human toolsso that visitors can feel themselves dramatizing the past. I do my art so that you can do yours. This is the task of interpretation.

Rabinowitz does not base his arguments for what works in exhibition on educational or psychological theory, or visitor surveys. Hes not interested in the general trend toward exhibitions curated by committees of content specialists, designers, audience advocates, and experts in visitor experience, let alone those crowd-sourced to the community. Nor does he pay much attention to the politics or inghting of museum bureaucracy or fundraising or master plans. He points instead to the experience gained in his 550-plus projects, to his time watching visitors move through exhibitions, and to a deep immersion in historical research. He knows what works, he knows what the public needs, and he pushes the museum to make it happen. He does his work intuitively, he says. For Rabinowitz, interpretive exhibitions are a form of narrative art closely related to theater, or lm, or perhaps a compelling work of ction. Hes looking for a compelling yarn. He uses the word stories a lot. He makes direct analogies to other narrative media:
A narrative exhibition clusters its documents and artifacts as elements of a single storyline, as would the scenes in a novel or feature lm. ... The narrative employs a variety of literary devicescharacterization, ashbacks, contrasts in tone, questions posed and resolved, foreshadowing and sideshadowing (what was happening at the same moment)to propel the visitors movement through the story. ... Think of the overall exhibition as a Play. Each of its galleries is an Act that contains several (episodic) clusters (or Scenes), which in turn are assemblages of individual elements (Dialogues, Soliloquies, etc.).

But this is narrative in three dimensions, or four, or ve. Rabinowitz adds to space two dimensions of time: historical time and the motion of visitor through space. He writes:
In these interpretive acts, the museum curator becomes a theater director operating in two time frames at once. The contents of an exhibit case are transformed into an animated eld of action. To interpret is to imagine one cast of historical actors stepping out of the document, and another set of modernday visitors coming across it. Historical time and exhibit time ow together.

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Our job as exhibition curators, says Rabinowitz, is to create the devices that we hope will bridge this dividethe artifacts, images, and documents of the history and the interpretive media that make them accessible to our audiences. We need to create a sequence of stories arranged in a densely inhabited space with the right shapes, color, lighting, sound track, and objects in a range of cases and settings, labels, and interpretive media. Like any good auteur, he has theories about exhibits and how they work. Exhibits need to be about stories. They need to be about people. Rabinowitz provides an excellent discussion of the difference between themes and narratives, something too few curators appreciate. (His narrative statement here is masterpiece of the genre: At each era, visitors would be invited to visualize and to imagine slavery as a dramatic face-off between the Europeans slave regime and the slaves power to resist and retain some autonomy even in slavery.) He insists on the importance of narrative to interpretive design, making disparaging remarks about exhibition designers that dont appreciate historical narrative, and historians and curators who dont appreciate interpretive design. There are hints to new curators: Didnt pick objects and then go to the designers; work with the designers to choose among objects. Theres good advice on label writing, on the way to use a hierarchy of labels, on the different uses of different parts of a single panel. He provides a perspective on scale, urging us to think of overviews and immersions. Rabinowitz believes in real artifactsbut not in a simplistic way. The real thing is a priceless avenue for an empathetic connection with the people of the past, writes Rabinowitz.
A history museum exhibition needs objects, three-dimensional artifacts. Stuff creates presence and immediacy. Even when an object is cased in Plexiglas, it still invites visitors to adopt a kinesthetic relationship to the story, to extend their own senses.

But objects need interpretation. For Rabinowitz, there is no sharp line separating the object itself from the interpretive and physical interventions made by curators and designers. You use objects because they are sticky things . . . meanings adhere to them. Meanings adhere to them, but they dont tell stories, in themselves. Thats the curators job. And if there are no objects? Rabinowitz wants the curator to be creative. Our method, he writes, was to turn the key historical sources inside out and upside down. No artifacts from black New Yorkers? Researchan original reworking of the historical narrativewould nd new stories to tell about white objects in storage. (Rabinowitz acknowledges Fred Wilsons inuence here.) No images of black New Yorkers? An artist created wire-frame gures that captured their essence. No written documents that preserve their voice? Rabinowitz wrote prose poems, and worked with actors to render them aurally. Our goal, Rabinowitz writes, was to bring the human actor forward, in all his or her individuality and particularity.

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For Rabinowitz, the exhibition curator is author, director, and dramaturge. His or her job is to gure out the story to tell, and how to tell that story. Rabinowitz presents an appealing model of exhibition developmentat least for those of us who would like to imagine ourselves as auteurs. But is this a good model? Should museums turn exhibitions over to Rabinowitz and others like him, doing away with the model of teamwork, audience participation, and the endless meetings and compromises that dene modern exhibition work? We wouldnt miss the meetings, but would we miss the range of expertise and points of view that they bring? Is it reasonable to ask one person to do all of the things that Rabinowitz asks of an exhibition developer? What do we gain and what do we lose? Its an appealing possibility, the exhibit curator as auteur. Some of the most important and interesting exhibition projects have been done this way. In addition to some of Rabinowitzs work, one might point to David Wilsons Museum of Jurassic Technology, Fred Wilsons Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society, and Jeshajahu Weinbergs U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as exhibits that took on big challenges and changed the way we think about what museums can and should do. But it seems an unlikely model to be widely adopted, for both good reasons and bad. Small museums dont have the collections, staff time or money to produce complex, innovative shows. Large museums have a corporate culture that prefers the certainty of a good exhibit, done on time and within the bureaucratic structure, keeping everyone happy, rather than taking their chances and rolling the dice for great. Auteurs can fail badly, with no safety net. They can create exhibitions that work for themselves, and other acionados, not the general public. Exhibition evaluationasking the public if an exhibit worksprovides important feedback, and assurance, to museum management and funders. There are too many stakeholders, both inside and outside the museum, who want a seat at the table. And few of us have the range of skills needed to pull it off. But there is something to be learned from this model. Note that Rabinowitz is not suggesting that exhibitions be turned over to historians or curators, as one might imagine from his own academic background. Rather, hes arguing that there is a set of skills that exhibition developers need, skills that in most museums are scattered among many staff members. What are those skills, andwhether they are represented in one person, or in a groupwhat can we do to put them to use in all our work? How might we learn them, and teach them? What should exhibition developers know? 1. Understand your audience. Rabinowitz is a keen observer of visitors in exhibitions, noting how they move from place to place, noticing what they notice, even paying attention when they move their lips as they read labels. Dont spend all of your time in the back rooms of the museum with the collections or in the library with the researcher or in front of the computer with the designer. Get out there on the

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museum oor. Watch your visitors. Talk to them. See what works and what doesnt. 2. Understand the content of the exhibition. Rabinowitz argues for a deep understanding of a historical story, beyond the facts of the researcher, beyond the thematic overview that the historian, beyond the artifact knowledge of the curator. Rabinowitz argues that the exhibition auteur must be a historian in the most profound way:
Producing such visualizations and dramatizations of history requires lots of research. Some of that is curatorialidentifying the correct costumes, making the language as accurate as possible. But even more of it is deeply historicalattributing a full humanity to the people of the past, even when their lives are largely undocumented, then discovering what might have been important to them, and nally surrounding them with plausible versions of the historical settings, actions, and experiences missing from the archive.

Immerse yourself in both the historical literature and primary sources. Understand the artifacts. Inhabit the time period of the exhibit, so that you can see it from within. 3. Understand design. Much of what gets communicated, writes Rabinowitz, is signaled aesthetically, subliminally, through the atmospherics of the exhibition. You cant leave that to the designer. Indeed, curation and design are intermingled. Theres no throwing the script and object list over the wall to the designer, no checklist of objects for someone else to arrange. You pick artifacts based as much on what will work for the design as for purely historical reasons. 4. Think like a dramatist. As exhibit curator, you are a creator of narratives, shaper of the ve-dimensional space-time of history and visitor motion. Heres the goal for Slavery in New York exhibitionnot the list of things the visitor should learn thats all too common, but something much more profound:
We aimed to encourage these museumgoers to identify with enslaved people and then follow their passage to liberty. We laid out a journey for the visitors, starting in oceanic brightness, swathed in local verdancy, descending into murderous and fearful darkness, seizing tiny moments of light, lifting themselves up amid revolutionary chaos, and then assuming a role in the public space, at the civic rostrum, to contend for full equality and freedom.

This is narrative of the highest order, a physical and emotional journey for the visitor to take through history, and through the exhibition, an interaction with the past and the present, mediated by objects and experiences. Not everyone will develop all these skills, or have chance to hone his or her skills over the course of hundreds of exhibitions. And of course, if youre working as part of a team, knowing how to work with others is another key skill. But theres a roadmap here that might both guide an individuals

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development, and the development of dynamic, memorable, interpretive exhibitions.


Steven Lubar is professor of American studies at Brown University, where he directs the Public Humanities program, and formerly Chair of the Division of the History of Technology at the Smithsonians National Museum of American History.

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