The Oxford English Dictionary defines curation as : ‘The action or process of selecting, organizing, and looking after the items in a collection or exhibition’.
Of course the word can be broadened to include the work of, perhaps, curating the content for a conference or music event, or to curate something for an on-line creative presentation. But generally, when we think of the word ‘curation’, we think about going to an exhibition of art and noting who the curator is or going to a museum in some of our international cities and reading who the curators are, working there. Apparently, the etymology is ultimately from the Latin: cūrātor (“one who has care of a thing, a manager, guardian, trustee”), from cūrāre (“to take care of”), from cūra (“care, heed, attention, anxiety, grief”) .
Curators play a really central role in ‘selecting’ what we see in these museums – they have become guardians almost, of our heritage (in their collaboration with Museum Directors and other influential bodies involved in the Arts world).
In fact since the beginnings of modernity, and in particularly in the last two hundred years, much of what we see presented in national museums have been chosen or displayed for political reasons. These institutions were and are part of the process of nation-state building. Selecting and editing what is important (or not) to exhibit is then, when you think about it, a very powerful role to have. And yet so often the Arts and Heritage are neglected in public discussions.
Maybe stop for a moment and think about all the wonderful pieces of work that were never selected and consequently were never displayed in our national museums. Might the ‘un-selected’ pieces not also have been items deeply reflective of our different cultural and local heritage(s)?. An alternative way of seeing our culture?
I want to write about a different way of thinking about curation and I want to thank Erik Schilp, based in the Netherlands, for his inspirational lecture from 2015 where he asks for a type of revolution in how we understand the word curation. He tells us we are all curators – or could be.
‘Most of our art and heritage in museums never gets noticed by most of the people’ , he argues. Isn’t that such a sad thing to contemplate? But what does this actually mean? It means that many people just do not visit museums. They may not see their relevance to ‘real’ life; or they may object to having to pay a fee at a desk to go into a building and ‘view’ what they are being told is our united ‘heritage’. Some people may feel no connection to it. Or they may have led careers in the sciences and not have had the chance to explore the world of Arts ,to the same extent as their ‘scientific’ education.
A wonderful gentleman often came to visit us here in Killough in the latter years of his life – Dr. Niall Maher from Cobh. Niall had spent a large chunk of his childhood at Suirside House in Killough. He was a relative of ours. Niall once arrived in the yard at Greenville, a few years before he died, with some old iron pots, which were connected to here, he said, though I am not sure of the context, but he wanted me to have them.
He always told me he regretted he had not been able to explore the creative side of his mind because his career as a GP was so demanding and all consuming. I always remember him telling me that. Because really the two ‘worlds’ , the scientific and the creative, are intrinsic to everything we understand as our culture and heritage.
Niall Maher and his Sister, Avine visiting us in 2007
So what if we think about heritage differently , as being more than just what we see in museums. We all have a collective responsibility to take care of our heritage. It is what happens around us every day: the ‘way’ we work; the way we might lay our tables for dinner or for a ‘special’ occasion; the way we engage in community activities; the way we dress; the way we decorate our homes – these are all mini curatorial acts , and are important in terms of everyday lived heritage.
The Eclipse Gallery
This movement away from Curating with a capital ‘C’ toward what I might call a more democratic understanding of curating, with a small ‘c’, has its origins in the 60s and 70s, and is documented in many places including the ‘The Eclipse Gallery’ forum. They discuss the concept of ‘ alternative spaces’ where our culture, arts and heritage are collected, presented and possibly displayed. On their home page they argue that:
‘The role of the contemporary curator in alternative spaces is highly creative—some would even say the curator’s exhibition becomes artwork itself. Curators are producing exhibitions that explore contemporary issues on social, political, and cultural levels, considering and encouraging audience participation, and challenging viewers to re-think their definitions of exhibitions, curators, artists, and artwork. Contemporary curators are also expanding the horizons of the art world by working in (places) that have little in terms of contemporary art. Here, they can have a bigger impact than over-saturated cities such as New York’.
This echoes what Eric Schilp talks about in his lecture and I want to bring some of these ideas home now, to Greenville, in a short blog and video installation about some of the humble presses we have here.
Here in Ireland we tend to use the Hiberno – English expression ‘Press’ where the English use the word ‘Cupboard’- thus for example an English “Airing Cupboard” is in Ireland a “Hot Press”. The origin is an Irish word ‘Prios‘ meaning a press, cupboard or shelf as is ‘Prios labhar‘ a bookcase ( see below).
Nana Breen’s Buttons
I am going to begin with a picture of one of my Nana Breen’s buttons as this will put my blog in context .
Many years ago when I was a teenager Mother gave me a coat that belonged to her Mother, my Nana Breen (who died a few months before I was born). I loved the coat but I particularly loved the brass buttons on it.
Nana Breen’s Brass Button takes center stage
So when the coat became too tattered to wear, I took the two remaining buttons off and made them into a set of earrings myself. I had these earrings and wore them, on and off, for almost 35 years.
Only last January I was rushing out one afternoon to take the boys to their guitar class in Carlow, running a little late and it was very windy. One of the button earrings blew off my ear. I only realized when I was en route in the car that one of them was gone. You have no idea how upset I was. I literally cried. We searched everywhere on our return and for several days afterwards, but to no avail. One of the earrings was gone. I now just have the one photographed above.
But all is not lost. The one I still have has pride of place in my jewellery press which I discuss in more detail below and I am going to get this one made into a ring. This is an example of what I mean about curating our heritage – differently – minding or saving something from our personal past, re displaying it, in a unique way. This too is a form of curation.
In actual fact I have been doing this type of thing my whole life. I have always had enormous respect for items from the past connected to my family heritage and I keep them and preserve them and try to breathe new life into them. They are not valuable items like a Jack B Yeats painting, to give an example of something we might see if we went to visit our National Gallery, but to me – they are precious, some priceless.
My Kitchen Press
The opening image and the one below is of the press in our kitchen. The press was not originally from here but I saw it in a salvage shop years ago in Limerick and we bought it. I never imagined I would use it in my kitchen, nor that it would one day be filled with jars full of flour and sugar – my baking essentials.
I had a difficult time finding the right size glass jars to put in it but these are by the Danish designer Ib Laursen whom I came across in Copenhagen when at my niece Tara’s wedding last October. The Danish are wonderful designers.
On the top I have some vintage cups and jugs. The coffee set (top left corner) was a gift from Clare and Lilly of Tipperary Mountain Trekking Centre who spent Christmas with us here at Greenville some years ago. The silver Art Deco jug is from my dear friends Liz and Eoin O’Donnell. Liz never visits me without bringing somethings she has in storage, which she no longer uses, and many are pieces from her childhood home, which she knows I adore. The large coffee cups with paintings of African animals were a gift from Seosamh many years back which he got me on a buying trip for my shop in London. I also have some old style milk bottles on the second shelf to the left.
My flour and sugar jars are functional objects, used every day – but this in no way takes from the way I see this press – to me, it is a work of art.
My clothes wardrobe is also a very unconventional ‘press’ – and definitely where I do most of my curation!. The entire landing of our home is effectively a wardrobe – I use a rail to hang clothes I might be thinking of putting together in a new way, or putting away in storage for a while as a garment may have lost its appeal.
When I lived in Meadow Brook Court in Maynooth I rented a house from the same landlord for over six years. The house could take four tenants and people came and went depending on how long their courses at the University would be.
As I was the longest staying tenant there the landlord gave me a type of caretaker role. I used my bedroom as my study space and because I spent most days there working on my doctorate (and the room was relatively small) I asked my co-tenants if I could leave my clothes rail outside the door of my room on the landing and no one ever objected. In fact it was a constant source of conversation and I often let girls who were renting other rooms borrow items from it – once they returned them in proper order. The guys loved the rail too – they thought it was ..intriguing!!
So the tradition has continued and thirty years later I still use a landing as my wardrobe. I love to spend a Saturday or Sunday morning , when the house is quiet, with a coffee just going through things and looking at how I can put items together in different ways. I will always come up with new ideas.
I use cardboard boxes as ‘drawers’ because if I used clear ones my clothes would get damaged by light. And I like the boxes. They are simple and remind me of the way items were stored in generations gone by – in boxes, with moth balls and sheets of brown paper to protect the items.
Boxes in the Wardrobe
I still have many things belonging to my Mother including some of her scarves. I never wash them because I can smell her unique scent when I wear or hold them. It can make me very emotional and lonely for her, but it still comforts me so much.
All our hats, ‘good’ coats and Seosamh’s suits and ties are stored downstairs but my bags and shoes are in various places in the wardrobe landing . I mind everything so when I wear a pair of shoes I will wash the soles and heels and dry them and polish them before putting them back in their box. Some might consider that madness but I have never claimed to be very sane!
The jewelry press, mentioned earlier, was bought for my shop nearly twenty years ago. I have many happy memories of fashion shows and events in ‘The Business’ with this press in the background.
The picture below is of the lovely Aoife Flaherty (Nesbitt) at one of those events, where I invited people to dress up and we picked the best dressed. Aoife won that night. You can see the jewellery press just behind her on the right.
It now showcases my own costume jewellery here at home.
I organise things according to colour mostly. I have several high street inexpensive pieces that are dramatic and different to wear. I never liked gold – I find it lifeless and you needs lots of it to ‘make a statement’ and then it can be over done and look really tacky.
The image below shows a box with purple jewellery in the press – the claw with the purple stone was Mother’s. She loved the color purple. So did my late Aunt Masie. The brooch was hers and given to me by my Godmother Fiona after Aunt Masie died. She visited us here at Greenville, once a month, on a Sunday for lunch, for many years and we loved her visits. She was great fun.
Aunt Maise’s Purple Brooch and Mother’s Claw Brooch
She wore that brooch to Mother’s 90th Birthday party which was held in Tim and Tina’s home in Killough. Precious memories….I have to hold back the tears thinking of it. It was only a few years ago ..and yet we have lost so many dearly loved people who were there, since then.
Aunt Masie and Mother
When I was in my late teens I worked as an au pair in Paris for several months minding a little boy called Alexandre. His Mother Natalie Diner worked for Ralph Lauren and she was very kind to me and so beautiful looking.
She gave me stunning clothes and costume jewellery she no longer cared for – these earrings were from her.
I still cherish them. They look a little like eagles with a blue dangling stone. She was one of a few big influences on me in terms of how I dress and my sense of style.
The Press of Dolls
I have a press in the Guestroom that has a selection of dolls from all over the world. I started to collect these dolls in the 90’s – they were called ‘Dolls of the World’ and each month you could buy a magazine with a porcelain doll and read about the costumes of the country featured but for some reason the newsagents who were getting it in for me were finding it hard to source them. So I managed to collect around 50 and have recently started to pick up, via eBay, the ones I did not get back then.
The Dolls’ Press in the Guest Room
I just love the Japanese doll.
The Irish doll is also very special. Naturally she has red hair and is wearing…a green dress.
The Boy’s Room
My three boys have picked this ‘curation’ skill up from me it seems. They are Lego fanatics and they display the items they make in their room. One press that came from my Grandparents home in Shanakill has all their minifigures which they arrange on a stand they also made themselves with Lego.
They also have a press shelf in another part of the room dedicated to Harry Potter Lego and another with Star Wars and Super Hero sets.
The Lego Press in the Boys’ Room
The Anthropologist as Curator
Since I was a student of English and Anthropology in the 80s and 90s, so many things have changed within my discipline. I had no idea until very recently for example that there are now Professorships in ‘Aesthetic Anthropology’ . This is truly fascinating to me as the subject of aesthetics is at the root of so many academic discussions about art, design and curation and has been an interest of mine for years.
Anthropologists are getting more involved in the debate now. The focus on aesthetics has expanded and become more rooted in culture with a small ‘c’ rather than the big C ‘Culture’, reflecting what I mention at the start about democratizing the discussion almost – moving away from a sense of culture as something for the elite or the leisured rather than what we make and create and do each day in our lived lives.
I am grateful to Roger Sansi for the inspirational introduction to the publication he recently edited ‘The Anthropologist as Curator’ (Sansi 2019). He writes:
‘The object of study of anthropology is no longer a given singular community, located in a singular space for a particular time, but an assemblage of different parts, people, places, objects, concepts and agencies of different sorts , that constitute contemporary assemblages’. (pp 5.)
So I suppose you could call me ‘an assemblage’ type of girl with a fascination for objects and the meanings and importance we give to them. I seem to spend a large part of my life doing just that – assembling and curating things around me.
I am informed his book will be under our Christmas tree this year so it will therefore soon grace our book shelf – yet another press we all love in our home, a gift to Seosamh from his late Father, James Devine.
“An Prios Leabhar” (AKA the Book Press or Bookcase, in the Dining room)
Many humble ‘things’ are owned by ordinary people who may have great respect for their importance and integrity.
They constitute an important part of our local, national and potentially even global heritage in a world made so small and accessible by social media and the internet.
You can choose to curate them.