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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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 "I'm Cleaning Out My Attic", image by Ashley Pryor




I am cleaning out my attic. I do this out of love for my children. When I die, I do not want them to have to tackle this task. I also do not want to hear their comments as they look at the material remains of my life. Children can be unkind to mothers. I know. I have been a child. On the other hand, what do I care? I will be dead.

I am engaged right now in creating new piles out of old, arranging things by object category and survival odds. Is this process of selection for collection curation?

     Curation is so trendy right now. My local grocery advises me that they have curated my meat selection: Frenched rack of lamb. Marbled rib eye. Butterflied pork. announces there are presently 16 jobs available for fashion curators, starting salary at $10.24 an hour. Peach & Lil     y is willing to curate my makeup. I can buy an app to curate the content of my website to build site traffic. 

If anyone can be a curator, and everything can be curated, does the term curation possess any explanatory power? Like the word rhetoric, its mundane use threatens to empty it of value. When someone says rhetoric in a mundane context, it is usually preceded by a pejorative such as “mere” or “heated.” Even in an academic setting, however, rhetoric as an explanatory term has been diffused by the multiple and overlapping meanings it has acquired through its historical use in multiple contexts, as Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg explain in their useful introduction to the discipline. Curation is now subject to the same multiplicity, as it is adapted to libraries, digital informatics, and marketing venues. Even in museums, its most established territory, curation as an explanatory term has been destabilized by questions of authority and public memory.


What is curation?

How might we define curation so that it retains some explanatory muscle? First, I propose we bracket off the use of curation to name marketing schemes as their purposes are unhinged from the curatorial aim of contributing to knowledge. Second, I propose we differentiate curation from other historical intellectual work such as archival organization, biographies and autobiographies based on archives, and digital informatics. Those pursuits are embedded in informational organization. Curatorial work, on the other hand, is inextricably tethered to the material artifacts it has at hand. Curation, then, is first and foremost a material practice.

Secondly, curation is an exercise in authority. Curation’s historical role, museum curator Sarah Longair notes, relies on authoritative expertise: “Intellectual authority — the command over knowledge — might appear to be a fundamental component of curatorship. . . .      Indeed, much of museums’ purpose (in the past, and in a variation of this form today as discussed here) rests upon their perception in the eyes of the public as institutions where experts in the field organize, validate, and convey knowledge. An element of such authority is the sense of trust in the museum and its curatorial expertise” (1-2). That trust in validated knowledge sustains the relationship between curator and public. As Susan A. Crane notes: “‘Museums are not supposed to lie to us; this act seems like a breach of faith. Assuming that our own memories are fallible, we rely on museums as well as on historians to get the past “right” for us’” (qtd. in Longair 2). That museums serve to get the past right for us has been, however, the source of intense debate as museums have evolved from depositories of historical artifacts and high art displayed and interpreted with one authoritative voice to public spaces designed to engage multiple perspectives and audiences. It is important to note here that it is not the provenance of objects as validated by curators that has been called into question. In fact, curatorial authority over the provenance of a piece remains a central element of the material practice of curation. Rather it is the interpretive schema imposed by the curator’s exhibition and accompanying texts that have emerged at the center of the debate. What is in question is who gets to decide what an artifact means. 


What is curation for?

How one answers that question depends on the purpose of the curatorial work in the first place. If historically, museum curators contributed to knowledge by researching objects given to their care, exhibiting them in a way that was accessible to a public sometimes confronting artifacts foreign to their experience or knowledge, and providing an explanatory text, then what something means was an interpretive act exercised by one assumed to be an expert. As such, museums have served as the arbiters of public memory, and it is that role that has been called into question., an international web journal focusing on curatorial theory and practice, examined the question of curating for social action inissue 18: Social Curating and Its Public: Curators from Eastern Europe Report on Their Practises.” Its contributors turn a critical eye toward the practice of curating for socio-political purposes, interrogating their own ideological purposes as they work to resist the history of curation as propaganda as it was practiced under the old Soviet regime, but also as it is currently inflected by neoliberal politics and global capitalism. For these curators, social curating is a socio-political artistic endeavor designed to reform and reshape publics and must remain open to questions of ideological perspectives. The commitment among these curators is to work critically against the kind of public memory that requires erasures and silences in order to be sustained as authoritative knowledge. For these contributors, the point of social curation is the creation of public spheres ripe for political action. 

Others, however, including Gregor Henderson, propose a different form of curatorial practice: that of creating public spaces that invite social interaction through the curation of shared cultural artifacts. Henderson proposes that through this practice, curators invite communities to greater well-being by allowing them to connect to each other through the memories, trajectories, and histories the artifacts evoke. 

What they have in common, however, is a commitment to contributing not just to knowledge, but to the production of a public memory that is responsive to multiple voices rather than a single authoritarian voice.


The relays between the public and the private

Most recent scholarship on the production of public memory, as Jane Greer and Laurie Grobman point out in their introduction to Pedagogies of Public Memory, draws on work from diverse fields, including museum scholarship, memory studies, American Studies, and rhetorical communication studies. Definitions of public memory emerging from these sources, therefore, are productively unsettled, but most point to a shared meaning arising from interactions, debates, and multiple iterations. In her work on the “contested memories” of the 1980 terrorist bombing of a train station in Bologna, Italy, Anna Lisa Tota argues that the commemorative genre that has emerged for that event can show how “due to a specific group of agents of memory—composed primarily by the association of victims’ relatives and the committees of solidarity founded in the city during the last two decades—the structure of the commemorative ceremony has led to the public fixing of a specific genre of memorization in Italy for victims of terrorism” (132). Public memory, then, is produced by interactions among subjects consubstantial with specific events, places, and material effects. More than twenty years ago,  in her presidential address to the National Council of Public Historians, Diane Britton warned about the way we tend to use our pasts to bolster our cherished identities and examined several instances where public memory of events contradicted disciplinary understandings of the same event. Still, she proposed, the only way forward for public intellectuals was to work to educate the public about how history is studied in hopes that it will inform public memory. But Brittono also urged us listen to that public: “At the same time, however, if we choose as professionals to ignore the knowledge inherent in the cultural memories that surround us, our message falls on deaf ears, and we remain captives in an ivory tower, regardless of where we practice our craft” (23). Much current scholarship on curation, then, is focused on curation of the kind that produces public memory through the participation of multiple voices. A number of scholars suggest that public memory is an ongoing creation born of the interactions among material objects, private memory, and intersubjective exchanges that emerges as a stable-enough-for-now consensus on what some things mean and what actions those things might prompt.  


This exhibit

But public memory begins in private spaces, and it is this moment, when private memory first goes public and then does or does not get taken up as public memory, that interests me here. My curation begins in the private, dusty space of my attic. In what follows, I propose, in answer to Crane, that the materiality of my artifacts serve as a corrective to a fallible memory by asserting through their solidity, shape, color, design, and functional capacities the certitude of their time and place. The material artifacts I confront in my attic activate memory, but these objects are not remade or undone by that memory work, just as they were not made solely of perception in the first place. Instead, the pile from my childhood—     my father’s slide rule, the Geiger counter I got as a party favor, the jeweled cross that marked my first communion—participates in a dynamic interaction of consubstantiality. As Katrina Schlunke proposes, “[T]he remembered object is not simply the object of memory—it does not always stand apart      from the memory of it or the embodied remembering subject but helps to produce both memory and subject” (253). Understanding memory as material, and material as memorial, makes these remembered objects, in Schlunke’s terms, “memory effects,      . . .      providing us with a more telling idea of why memory constantly exceeds any easy division between individual and collective and between the unconscious and conscious—for ‘effects’ are not divisible into any binary nor curtailed by any linear order of time (254). The objects this exhibit lays before you are just such memory effects.

The stories I tell here serve as the provenance for these objects in my attic. This provenance tells the history of a piece from its relationship to me, but it also tells the story of how the object gathered value by its interactions with other times, places, and relationships. And I tell these stories through a kind of critical autoethnography. Creative-critical autoethnography is uniquely situated to contribute to production of public memory because of its temporal, material, and intersubjective contours. Material objects traverse time, coming into being as a thing from other materials that have a past, gaining significance from use over time, dynamically interacting with memory in the present, and confronting an unknown future. The memory work that objects evoke are sometimes easy to put to words, like lyrics to a melody. At other times, the object resides as muscle memory, not accessible by language, but felt in our interiors, visible in unthought muscle activity, as when my fingers move the slides on my father’s ruler, searching for the co-tangent. An autoethnography is a private memory looking for company, or at least a response from another. It is one person’s interrogation of a private memory as it intersects with a public arena that it simultaneously constructs, hoping to evoke other memories of a shared time or place to contribute to that construction. I propose, in support of my own claim that curation is a material practice, that a creative-critical autoethnography not only makes visible but works to reveal its tethers to a time, a place, a lived experience and its material residues. In that way, it participates in the material practice of curation. Creative-critical autoethnography does not attempt to produce an authoritative interpretation that asserts the meanings of these things, but instead aims to open out to others a telling that invites a response. 

I imagine these stories as an invitation to readers to interact through shared interrogations of our own stories—our histories and herstories—and see what kinds of social actions those interactions produce. Even the writing of these stories has required social interactions. I had to ask my sister Patty, the last one born in Seattle, for the precise dates of my parents’ move to Richland. And since she was only two months old at the time, she had to draw on stories from her own childhood to fill in the gaps. I had to consult with my children on the ongoing status of the toys in my attic. And as this project took shape, I shared my story with my artistic collaborator, Ashley, and she shared some of hers with me. All of these interactions took place over months, in bits, fits, and pieces. I have taken those bits, shorn off some edges and added seams, and imposed my interpretive frame to create a narrative that provides a reader with some sense of coherence. Everything here is a curation of a series of social interactions.

I imagine the space of this journal as an opportunity for further social interaction based on our encounters with the materiality of memory. When I show you what’s in my attic, do you recall what’s in your own attic? Your basement? How do my memories activate yours? How might your memories contradict, confirm, or challenge mine? What have you kept against the erosion of memory? What necessary losses have you incurred? What happens to our stories when we share them? What happens when other people share our stories? How do private memories become part of a public story that becomes the basis for collective action? My aim here is to provoke storytelling as a contemplation on how memory serves action.

Part II

Part III

Part IV