Turning class curatorial projects into public cultural works


With students in front of their “Estranging Identity” Audio Installation. Opening of the Ethnographic Terminalia Exhibit, November 18, 2011. Erica Lehrer, Monica Eileen Patterson, Katie King, and Selina Antonucci. (Missing: Ashley Clarkson)

As a supervisor, teacher, public scholar, and curator, one of my main goals is to enable and embolden my students to contribute more productively and accessibly to public understandings of trauma and memory, and the cultural politics that shape representations of these categories of experience.

This past Fall of 2011, I had the challenge – and ultimately the pleasure – of overseeing the transformation of two strong student projects emerging from the experimental Public History seminar that I co-facilitated with Erica Lehrer, Curating Difficult Knowledge: Engaging with theaftermath of violence through public displays, memorials, and sites ofconscience,” into full-fledged public cultural projects, put on display during the recent Ethnographic Terminalia exhibit at Montreal’s Eastern Bloc gallery.

In the seminar, students worked in small groups to curate the video testimony of a Holocaust survivor, using footage collected and recorded by the Centre for Oral History’s Life Stories of Montrealers displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violations project.

Drawing from our backgrounds in anthropology, history, and museum studies, the pedagogical goal was to bring students into deep engagement with the testimonies while highlighting the multiple factors mediating this encounter, and to help them to produce public displays based on this testimony that explicitly engage the representational challenges they faced.

Collaborative work can be very challenging. Having to negotiate consensus on creative decisions, given inevitable differences of opinion, vision, and priorities, can be frustrating. But collective efforts yield benefits as well, including helping students to hone their communication and organizational skills as they work to establish goals and to determine a division of labor for manifesting their vision. While the groups achieved final products far beyond what any single member could have on his or her own, the many concessions required also meant that no participant felt completely satisfied with the end result.

The single greatest challenge in teaching students to curate was creating awareness of the implications of the many choices they made along the way (from the choice of medium, to their project title, to their narrative structure, to the many relevant parts and contexts that they had to leave out), and to own those choices as part of the larger argument they were making.

See the final, provocative projects for yourself, along with other CEREV Student and Affiliate Projects.

Post by Monica Eileen Patterson

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence