Beyond Collection, Selection and Display:

The Case of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive

Pivotal Arts Studio and the Chester Beatty Library commissioned Dublin-based Vagabond Reviews to conduct a case study of Young Curators Digital Design and the Living Archive. Vagabond Reviews is an interdisciplinary platform for socially engaged art and research practice. This review was formulated as a critical contribution towards understanding new models of curatorial practice developed through a collaborative process between Pivotal Arts Studio, the Chester Beatty Library and young people with creative interest in digital media.

I suppose my personal awareness and perception of my environment has changed quite greatly and irreversibly. For the better, thankfully. The few months I spent with the Pivotal Arts Studio and the Chester Beatty Library will remain with me for the rest of my life, and the things I learned about myself during the project will benefit all my work in the future. Young Curator
For us it’s about a pedagogy that is public, that is collaborative, that is transdisciplinary but is fundamentally, and I suppose this is its ideological positioning, trying to work with the arts as a way of troubling some of those debates around diversity and access. We’re not using it as a means to coyly think we are creating openings and spaces into museums. Pivotal Arts Studio
Our publics are multi-faceted. They’re not one dimsensional anymore. There are different voices and different interpretations of information and material. Collections can be accessed virtually. The whole idea is to get access to digital media: online will be used more and more. Chester Beatty Library

Introduction

Although the Chester Beatty Education Services and Pivotal Arts Studio arrived at Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive from distinctly different trajectories they both shared an ambition to run an experiment that went beyond received ideas about the relationship between the museum, the audience and the exhibition. In this initiative the museum was not imagined as the centre that the periphery had to somehow find its way into. The Wellcome Trust Collection of John Thomson’s Photographs was not imagined as a self-referential unity divorced from its historical conditions of production. Certainly the young people who participated were taken beyond the passive consumption of culture in the space of the museum towards becoming agents in both interrogating and producing culture.

So what then are we considering here? It may be understood as untested methods in new, hybrid inter-organisational contexts with nascent cultural producers. From the site of the museum or cultural institution, a form of ‘outreach’ that goes beyond the invitation to passively observe. From the perspective of museum curation, the notion of going beyond the individual curatorial model. From the perspective of the archive, the idea of harnessing the conditions of production, in this case of the John Thomson record in order to explore contemporary conditions of (digital) production. We should expect some unanticipated effects and some unexpected outcomes.

We were asked in this review to engage critically with this initiative as a case study. We were relieved then of the duty of defending any assumed notion that the programmatic architecture was already optimal. In the case study we accept the experimental ethos of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive project: something is being tried out. We have therefore assumed some tolerance for the spirit of the experiment and the idea of shared learning. Afterall, the project brought together an unusual coalition: a museum with a unique cultural axis, an interdisciplinary arts platform and an unusual assemblage of young participants. By definition such a coalition will bring with it a diverse set of expectations, cultural perspectives and creative committments. In this review we will try to weave our way through those multiple perspectives while at the same time avoiding any unifying impulse, as though there could be one true account of such a pioneering adventure. Such an approach would not do justice to the different interests at stake. Instead we will attempt to construct a polyphonic analysis which will keep a keen eye to participant experience as a central register.

In keeping with the spirit of our undertaking to represent those multple voices, we conducted extensive interviews in order to capture the wide range of creative perspectives that this collaborative enterprise brought together. We listened attentively and hope to have done some justice to the experience of the six Young Curators as key critical voices for learning and constructive revision. In the course of our interviews we also gained valuable insights from the Chester Beatty Library, drawing in particular on Jenny Siung, Head of Education Services. We also interviewed key personnel from Pivotal Arts Studio including Áine O’Brien, Creative Direction and Aileen Blaney, Creative Producer. We gained valuable perspectives from external educators and experts brought into the process at various stages such as Workshop Leaders, Project Mentors and Post-Production Support. While we could never hope to fully represent the richness of those encounters we have, through the use of extensive quotations, tried to ensure that this review establishes and maintains a constructive conversation with those multiple perspectives as we move through the experience of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive.

We have also resisted making any strong defining relation between the digital platform (website) and the ultimate project objective. They cannot be reduced to each other. The digital platform is certainly an outcome but is not the sum of all of the project effects. As such it cannot be the measure of the success or otherwise of this experiment. If we are serious about the creation of a learning platform, a space if you will, for shared learning, then we are concerned about the process and what can be gleaned in this review about what worked, what did not work and deducing from that what should be conserved, what should be improved and what should be abandoned. We are therefore concerned with the messy and sometimes fragmentary business of collaboration with all of its joys, mis-takes, lacunas and slippages.

We have also attended carefully to a range of perspectives concerning the original motivating impulse behind the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive project and how the programme was realised as a particular sequence of experiences. The project was certainly linear in relation to time: that is to say the sequencing of a process from start to finish. But in listening to those accounts we began to think of it more as a spatial process, as a series of conceptual, material and digital spaces in which different aspects of the project were constructed. Here we can borrow a spatial trope from the world of wizardry: consider J. K. Rowling’s Room of Requirement:

‘I need to find a place where twenty-eight people can practice Defence Against the Dark Arts without being discovered by any of the teachers’ ‘….. Dobby knows the perfect place, sir!’ he said happily. ‘….. It is known as the Come and Go Room, sir, or else as the Room of Requirement!’ ‘Why?’ said Harry curiously. ‘Because it is a room that a person can only enter ….. when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears it is always equipped for the seekers needs’. in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, J.K. Rowling

We evoke the Room of Requirement for two compelling reasons. First because such a room appears when there is ‘real need of it’. Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive is considered here as an example of a real need to find creative ways of engaging diverse constituencies of young people in a process of making culture that goes beyond the passive consumption of museum or gallery representations. Secondly, the idea of a room which, when it appears is always equipped for the seekers needs invites a critical consideration of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive project as a model of future pedagogical possibility. This notion of the room of requirement serves as a device to consider the learning within the project and opens up the invitation to explore more precisely what an optimum process for a shared learning platform for future iterations of the programme might look like, one that was ideally ‘equipped for the seekers needs’.

This review will weave descriptively through the different phases of the project each of which has its own logic and set of operations with differing degrees of direct connectivity to what went before or after. In this way we can trace the different anticipations, orientations and modes of engagement as they relate to the different phases of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive project.

Background

A programme initiative such as Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive does not arrive out of the ether, fully formed as it were. In 2007 a project entitled A Sikh Face in Ireland was initiated by Pivotal Arts Studio, then in its previous incarnation as the Forum on Migration and Cultural Studies (FOMACS). The project took the form of a multi-layered photographic and oral history exhibited at the Chester Beatty Library from May to September 2010. During the exhibition FOMACS hosted a series of workshops in the Chester Beatty Library. The project provided a curatorial framework that FOMACS considered an interesting case study. This earlier collaboration between the Chester Beatty Library and FOMACS was significant in a number of ways. In the first instance it represented a further elaboration of work at the Chester Beatty Library with a specific focus on oral histories. Since 2000 a number of such oral history projects had recorded stories by children in schools based on their explorations of the Silk Road. A Sikh Face in Ireland was also significant as the Library’s first hosting of a contemporary photographic exhibit as part of their programme.

One consequence was that the Chester Beatty Library began to get a very different kind of visitor. The exhibition was hugely successful in terms of footfall, whatever about the criterion of further engagement. This success brought with it a question: what does it mean to have real, sustained engagement with a museum as opposed to one-off encounters? With that question in mind Pivotal Arts Studio considered an invitation from Jenny Siung, Head of Education to collaborate on devising an education module as a vehicle for engaging young people around the upcoming John Thomson exhibition. The Chester Beatty Library saw the collaboration with Pivotal Arts Studio as an opportunity to make something available in terms of training for young people that had the potential to bring them into the life of the Library in a more sustained way, whether as free lance facilitators or as participants on a youth panel. The aspiration with Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive was for something sustainable, something with long term value which could be referred to again and again as a model of practice.

Pivotal Arts Studio were also interested in the possibility of an in-depth programmatic response that could go beyond the limitations of the one-off workshop. The educational workshops conducted as part of A Sikh Face in Ireland were in that vein and contained within the exhibition process. With Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive it was different. It was envisaged as the beginning of a partnership, an opportunity to do something in more depth. In that sense Pivotal Arts Studio shared a common goal with the Chester Beatty Library from the outset: to create something more sustainable that had some kind of longitudinal shape to it. Ideally, Pivotal Arts Studio were aiming for a programme architecture that could be embedded into the mainstream policies of a museum, in this case the Chester Beatty Library:

I trusted what Pivotal Arts Studio was doing, taking a slower approach, one that would have the students get a more embedded, more deeply connected association with the museum. They were considering what the students might do with the workshop and how those skills might be taken out into the wider world to suit their CV and portfolio: to go off and do other things into the future. That’s also obviously a priority as well, teaching, employment and possibilities like that. Workshop Leader

In terms of the formulation of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive programme the Head of Education at the Chester Beatty Library met with Pivotal Arts Studio in November 2011 and considered the potential of China Through the Lens of John Thomson as a curatorial platform. For those discussions other disciplinary perspectives were brought into the conversation by Pivotal Arts Studio.

We met with the Chester Beatty Library in November 2011. There was a period of fundraising. We all got together with Roshini, Roberta and Igor in November and talked about the possibility of a syllabus. We took a leap of faith: Jenny too. She participated in this initial design meeting and we also brought external people in too. It was a mix of insights and skills. In the end we took the lead role in curriculum design because that is what we do. Pivotal Arts Studio

The Chester Beatty Library allocated €10,000 from its Education Services budget. A successful application to Dublin City Council contributed a further €5,000. The Arts Council contributed an additional €10,000 via the Young Ensemble Scheme. It was possible with that significant funding base to build in the key elements of the programme design: two UK-based tutors, a web designer, the mentors and framework-project design support and the web portal/platform. This coalition of funding streams are themselves derivations of State funding, and therefore public money, made available to arts and cultural institutions in support of cultural participation. Based on that broader idea of citizenship it was felt from the outset that Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive had a duty of communication beyond its own local ecology of practice. The Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Studio were therefore committed to making the project accessible to a wider range of cultural institutions, to make the learning transferable in whatever adapted form. Given the capacity of Pivotal Arts Studio in relation to digital media it is intended to honour that emphasis on value for investment and shared learning in the post project phase via a range of communication strategies online and through social media and the deployment of this case study itself as a device for sharing knowledge.

Anticipating Young Curators

Here we will give some room to the anticipations, aspirations, preoccupations and previous programmatic investments that led into the formulation of the programme. How was it rehearsed, refined and crystalised? We have tried to capture some of those lines of anticipation that lead into the thing itself. Those cross-cutting narratives of constitution will help us understand the logic of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive. They are traced here along three intersecting lines: that of the Chester Beatty Library, Pivotal Arts Studio and the young curators themselves:

I got an invitation from my friend who works closely with the Chinese student union. Actually, when I read the project papers, I found it meaningful as it aims at bringing art to the young generations and promoting art widely among local communities. I thought, why not to make a contribution to let more people who, like me, are without any knowledge about art benefit from this experience or maybe make a difference to their current lifestyle. Young Curator

Anticipating Young Curators: Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Studio

The Chester Beatty Library sought to engage young people: ‘a difficult constituency’, in the life of the museum. They also wished to expand their repertoire of facilitation/mediation beyond the tour and beyond the limits of the voluntary facilitator. With the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive programme an experimental alliance was formed with an external agency (Pivotal Arts Studio) to facilitate this new form of engagement. At the centre of this initiative there was the idea of harnessing an exhibition to animate alternative registers for curatorial practice. The archive as contingent.

From an interdisciplinary perspective the Pivotal Arts Studio lens was focused on creating a module in which young people could learn and enhance their critical visual literacy skills. The module also aimed to expand the notion of curation beyond the reductive frame of exhibition design:

Curation is also about using new technologies, working with web designers to create a platform for your work, being able to use existing platforms to show your work, and communicate with audiences. Pivotal Arts Studio
In terms of curation it was a question of getting the Young Curators to think about two things: how you read photographs and getting them to be aware that anything curated is highly selective, that they too could go into the John Thomson archives and select very differently. The aim was to raise doubts in their minds about exhibitions, about curation and about owning history. Workshop Leader
Curatorship wasn’t spelled out, it was always about demystifying the curator, it’s a skill like any other, but it usually calls for multiple tasks, its about how things get communicated… the Young Curators were asked to consider their audience. Pivotal Arts Studio

From the outset then Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive sought to combine curation, new media and the archive. For Pivotal Arts Studio the creative possibilities of the archive and its potential as a pedogogical device was an important feature. Here they drew on the spirit of Stuart Hall and his notion of the living archive: heritage as something that needs to be disputed, unsettled and reclaimed. The John Thomson collection furnished a bank of images that could be read, interrogated, historically situated and critiqued. The idea was to put those banks of archives ‘into dialogue’ in different ways:

I had done work before with schools and in other education settings and also museums and galleries working with community photography. I am working from the perspective of rights with marginalized, minority groups. So for me it was about the way you can see the archive, the collection, the Chester Beatty Library and the photographic exhibition. Photography has a problematic anthropological history and these are always very difficult encounters in terms of how you critically engage with such a collection. Workshop Leader
The thing about reading pictures, about who constructs an archive such as the John Thomson archive, how it came to be in the hands of Wellcome. I have a concern about the retrieval of that work in a sort of neo-colonial perspective, within the Welcome exhibition. I originally came at it thinking ‘oh this is kind of interesting - selling history back’. The Thomson archive has a very particular kind of history. Workshop Leader

There was also an ambition to change thinking and practice around education strategies in museums. More specifically, the approach taken here was attuned to longer term gains and more durational modes of engagement. In that sense the project hoped to show that a museum can have a much longer engagement with the materiality of the collection beyond its visibility as exhibition. Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive sought to provide a model and to argue for sustainability beyond the ‘one-off’ example. It sought to establish a way of working that could become part of the practice of the museum.

At the level of ideology we sought to try to say to these mainstream institutions ‘you have a responsibility here’. Such institutions literally have the walls, the space and the infrastructure and we felt strongly that the work couldn’t remain in the margins all the time – there had to be an engagement where this type of work was mainstreamed and embedded into museum policy. That was the aspiration and remains the ongoing aspiration for Pivotal Arts Studio. Pivotal Arts Studio

Participant Anticipations

My first contact with the Young Curators project was back in May. A friend of mine who works in the Library introduced me to this project. He told me they are looking for young volunteers, especially foreign (Chinese) people, to get involved in a workshop. I did not know what was going to be involved in the project until the first meeting with a member of the organisers in the Chester Beatty Library. Young Curator

Although necessarily arriving from a point of ‘not knowing’, each participant started out on the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive programme with a set of anticipations. Those anticipations were formed by the nature of the invitation to engage with the Chester Beatty Library and those inter-mediate conversations leading into the module itself.

We discussed who is John Thomson. We talked about China, exchanged the history that we know and learned from her [Jenny Siung]. This was a very good introduction to the project. That meeting was in May but the workshop did not start until mid-July. Because of my own interest in the history part, during this time I researched the bibliography and the works of Thomson. Young Curator

Participants therefore brought with them a range of anticipatory orientations and their questions were necessarily different: what is the museum and what relevance does it have to my life? How does this connect with my interests and/or creative direction? What is the role of the curator?

I knew that it was the idea of bringing young people of my age into the museums, to give a space to the young people there. So, it will show us museums and art and as part of it, we would create projects and curate it. Young Curator
To this day I do not fully understand the aims of the project. At the time of the five days we were not properly informed on what we were expected to do. I found myself somewhat lost. Young Curator
For the future, I would not make it shorter or longer, but just clearer. At the beginning, I would have liked to know what was expected from me. But I am sure that at the time it was hard to say. Young Curator

In these commentaries we get a sense of both the means of engagement and the various understandings (and misunderstandings) around the project. It is clear from these descriptions that the invitation to young people to creatively engage with the museum was understood with varying degrees of clarity on what that engagement might entail. In the next section we will consider more precisely the modes of participant engagement from the point of view of the Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Studio.

Engaging the Young Curators

The Chester Beatty Library has been working with the Chinese community in Dublin since 2000. However, with the economic downturn, Education Services at the Library had noticed a change in the profile of the local, multi-ethnic Chinese community. A large number of young Chinese people were leaving Ireland. The Library had therefore lost a group of key contacts in the Chinese community and was finding it difficult to source potential facilitators to participate in their public programme. This was expressed at the time as a feeling that they were not ‘tapping into the Chinese community’. The China Through the Lens of John Thomson exhibition therefore provided an opportunity to re-engage with younger members of the local Chinese community with the aim of integrating participants in their more long term programme. It was in that context that Education Services focussed on the Chinese community in Dubin when recruiting participants for Young Curators.

On the side of Pivotal Arts Studio there was a sense of wanting to explore and unpack more precisely what was contained or obscured within that overarching register of ‘the Chinese community’. Following the previous work of FOMACS, Pivotal Arts Studio has historically challenged any unified notion of an ‘ethnic or racial community’ be it Chinese, Indian, African or otherwise. For Pivotal Arts Studio the focus on opening pathways for diverse youth into the creative industry, which included individuals from the Chinese community in a heterogeneous sense, was key. It was also a question of making sure that the target group profiles of each stakeholder were taken into account. Stakeholders here included funders: Dublin City Council, the Arts Council and the Chester Beatty Library.

The Arts Council’s Young Ensembles grant supports projects that are youth directed and which facilitate young people to make ‘ambitious and original work in any artform’. The Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive application from Pivotal Arts Studio to the Young Ensembles Scheme was unambiguously orientated to moving diverse youth into the realm of the creative arts sector as agents and leaders and equal participants. Hence for Pivotal Arts Studio the emphasis was on identifying thresholds of entry with regard to the creative-based nature of the programme and on establishing the genuine interest of potential participants in pursuing an arts related career path. In the earlier conversations before the pragmatics of recruitment held sway, there was an emphasis on the presentation of portfolios. However, with a condensed timeframe for recruitment related to confirmation of funding, a shift had occurred from the no doubt aspirational process of selection based on portfolios to a more basic metrics of selection.

The Chester Beatty Library adopted a network approach, using museum connections to engage participants. That strategy was dictated to a large extent by the timeframe. Confirmation of Arts Council support was only established some weeks before the project was due to start. Nonetheless Education Services mobilised its networks among the Chinese community in May, leaving time for explaining and clarifying the programme both individually and in small groups. The programme outline was translated into Mandarin. The recruitment was mediated through a key contact on the museum side connected to the volunteer programme. In this way ten people who wanted to take part were identified and registered at the level of name and college affiliation along with some written commentaries on their thoughts about the project.

In the absence of available portfolio material among the Chester Beatty Library sourced group Pivotal Arts Studio initiated their recruitment process with an emphasis on young people with some degree of established creative practice. Without signalling a specifically Asian frame, available Pivotal Arts Sudio networks were activated, through the mobilisation of connections with individual artists and cultural practitioners, colleges, studios and galleries.

How it started was I got an email from an artist I know who suggested I get in contact with Aileen Blaney from Pivotal Arts. I contacted Aileen and agreed to participate. I was told it would be a great opportunity. Young Curator I got involved thanks to my contacts in Red Bird, a youth artistic group based in Galway under the Galway Arts Centre. I am a member of it. That is how I got in touch with Aileen and then I had a conversation through emails with Aileen. I communicated my CV and portfolio to her. Young Curator

Pivotal Arts Studio were mindful that the syllabus reflected their seriousness of intent around opening pathways for young people into the creative arts. Each participant would have to initiate and develop a project: a difficult thing to achieve for the first time without any exposure to some form of creative practice be it writing, painting or photography. Therefore when potential participants were identified basic examples of their work were requested. In that way it was possible to ensure a group constituency with an established creative practice.

When I did start the workshop, I realised it would be helpful to have photography skills as we are required to read information from pictures, walk out to engage with pedestrians, edit photos and select the best ones for presentation. Young Curator

In these descriptions of the modes of participant engagement we see an uneasy hybrid form dominated by a networked approach while at the same time attempting to conserve some more formal elements of an open call process such as CV requests and portfolio presentation. It is understandable in the context of a first experiment, contingent on getting all funding in line, that such hybrid modes of engagement, somewhere between a network and an open call might emerge. We can learn here about ways of refining the modes of recruitment and engagement. How can the nature and structure of the invitation to engage be formulated in a way that ensures the maximum fit between participant anticipation and programme objectives? We will return to this question later when considering what an optimum recruitment process might look like. For now it may be sufficient to observe that the recruitment process had to mediate between casting the net wide while at the same time keeping a steady focus on some key participant features: young people, creatively engaged and connected to certain communities of interest.

The Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive is a dedicated arts-specific programme that sought to open up new creative pathways for young people using the museum as a mechanism. For the Chester Beatty it also held out possibilities for tapping into a missing constituency that it needed to engage with. Clearly, if it had been possible to secure the funding base earlier in the arc of the programme, then resources could have been extended more judiciously to the recruitment phase. If the element of portfolio presentation became somewhat lost in the pragmatics of securing the group the first time round, it should form a crucial aspect of an open call approach next time. Certain mis-takes and confusions which accompanied the recruitment process can be traced to that tension between securing both the criteria of immersion in creative practice and the criteria of cultural inclusion.

Encountering the Museum

The module structure for Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive was organised as a three-day block leading into a weekend assignment and two-day concluding workshop. One of the immediate goals was to give participants a sense of the inner workings of the museum. With that in mind the module began in the Chester Beatty Library’s Boardroom and moved across a series of sites including the Conservation Room, the Lecture Theatre, the Silk Road Café and the Chester Beatty exhibition spaces. In this way the museum was revealed as a series of public, semi-public and behind-the-scenes spaces opening up onto the space of the city itself as an unfolding arena of public encounter:

We had the full cooperation of our staff. We went into the conservation room. The Head of Operations came along with the curatorial assistant for the western collections and the volunteer coordinator. They talked about their roles on day one. Getting into the conservation room was very good. And getting to the restaurant. They got to see the functions of the entire library. The boardroom was available for the first three day block. It’s behind the public space. Initially it must have been daunting for somebody who has never been in a museum before. You’re in this formal room. As soon as we were down in the Lecture Theatre everyone relaxed. Chester Beatty Library

Workshop leaders external to the museum also seemed to work both with and against the grain of that formal boardroom as a tone setting environment:

I thought the idea of everybody meeting in a boardroom was very formal in itself. It had modern reproductions of Chinese furniture. It had windows, which is great, but it felt very formal. On the other hand it did mean that people understood the monumentalisation of that space. And when we went to the conservation room to see some of the objects, I think that it gave the group some sense of being behind the walls of the museum and that was actually quite useful because it’s not where we normally go. Workshop Leader

Over the first day that idea of an introduction to the inner workings of the museum was considered with a view to encountering the different groups which make up the museum such as cleaners, the attendants and restaurant staff who are very knowledgeable about everyday museum life. Some spaces in the museum were more conducive to learning than others but the principle of revealing the museum’s constituent parts to the Young Curators was identified as an important one. There was a sense of getting behind the public persona of the museum, a self-conscious attempt within the module to reveal the backroom, the inner workings as it were, as a prequel to revealing the contingent nature of the archive and the public face of ‘the collection’.

On the afternoon of that first day the module programme switched focus from the museum into the space of the city. The move into the city street was an important pedagogical link. In the early stages of curriculum design Pivotal Arts Studio looked at street photography and portraiture within a range of creative practices. John Thomson was in essence a ‘street photographer’, hence the introduction to contemporary social photography in public space. Facilitated by Dublin-based photographer Derek Spiers, the Young Curators were encouraged to engage with the public as photographic subjects in the Liberties area of Dublin. There is a strong consensus that this shift from the ‘classroom’ into a more playful social arena was important from the point of view of group formation and for encountering photography as an ethical, technical and ethnographic challenge:

They fell in love with Derek Speirs …. it was about engaging with people in a particular way. It was about building a relationship. Pivotal Arts Studio
The session with Derek Speirs was excellent. You could see the Young Curators fully engaging and getting out. You could see lights going off. Chester Beatty Library
I think they came up with some nice work. The thing that did work was being forced to come up quite close to people: that makes clear for people the distances in the pictures and how you negotiate that. Workshop Leader

While there were differing degrees of (dis)comfort among the Young Curators themselves around the direct engagement with the public as photographers, there was a strong agreement around the value of being out and about in the city. It came as a welcome contrast to the necessarily more formal lecture style approach of the morning sessions. With a longer, more ambitious programme incorporating elements of other curricula designed for different institutions, there is clearly great potential here for the use of street photography as a means of introducing young creators to debates and practices surrounding ethics, the politics of representation and the city.

Group (Re)Formations

At the beginning it was a lot of new things to me: Dublin, the team, the Chester Beatty Library. So it was impressive and confusing. But after a day or two, we understood what was our role in it, which refers well to what was described and explained to me before I got involved, but it was certainly more than what I could have expected. Young Curator

On day one of the module the Young Curators numbered thirteen. As general support for the Young Curators and to assist in translating course detail into Mandarin the Chester Beatty engaged one of their mediators in the role of interlocutor. Tiedong Yang was familiar with the aims of the Young Curators programme. He had met with both the Head of Education at the Chester Beatty Library and with Pivotal Arts Studio prior to the module. In addition Yang had also attended an introductory meeting between the Chester Beatty Library and about eight potential Chinese participants. Yang’s role was to support the Chinese participants, taking care of logistics and making sure they were ready for the module. For the Chester Beatty Library having Yang as Interlocutor was:

... an integral part of creating a bridge of dialogue and communication between the project and the young Chinese. Yang is freelance and involved with his Asia Europe network. He’s a Community Ambassador. His background is IT. He’s aware and culturally sensitive to things that others may not pick up on. Chester Beatty Library

Even with those various efforts at reading in it was as though participants did not really grasp the scope and ambition of the module until they were able to encounter it directly. For many of the participants engaged via the museum’s networks among the Asian communities of Dublin the gap between anticipations and the module itself proved too great. In such a process a degree of drop-out is naturally anticipated. On the second day, seven of the start-up group of thirteen returned. Of the six that did not return five were from the Chinese community (the sixth was a young man who had just got word of his acceptance into the National College of Art and Design). There were misunderstandings: a sense in any case from the Chester Beatty Library that something was ‘lost in translation’:

Despite those efforts to promote understanding six participants, for the most part from the Chinese community, did not continue beyond Day 1 of the module. The ones that dropped out didn’t understand that they couldn’t work part time during the course. Asian communication is very different from western. They wont say anything if they have a problem. There’s a hesitancy. Chester Beatty Library

Competing occupational commitments was certainly a significant factor for some of the Young Curators and contributed to the fall off in numbers after the first day. More specifically, in accordance with the broader aims and objectives of the programme, the syllabus which the participants encountered on day one was oriented towards young people with a degree of commitment to or experience of the arts. Naturally, those participants coming from occupational interests outside the arts were facing a challenging prospect: a programme seeking to achieve high quality standards of creative output. In that sense the degree of attrition on the first day was perhaps inevitable.

For those who stayed with the process, their accounts of those crucial first two days bear witness to an initial sense of disorientation that gave way to new understandings and readings: a sense of things coming into focus:

First and foremost, although I understood this could likely have ruined my own chances of becoming involved, I don’t think the participants were screened thoroughly enough. We started off with 13 people and ended up with 7. As I understand it the course was an experiment, a possible third level course module, so it might be an irrelevant factor. But nonetheless, work only picked up on the fourth day of the workshop once the group had become significantly reduced. I’d heard there had been some preliminary interviews, which I did not experience: at that stage I think it could’ve determined who was suitable to work on it. I raise this concern as during day one and two we were briefed on the nature of the Chester Beatty Library and brought around it. While Jenny was acting as our effective tour guide, two or three individuals had been using their mobile phones, which I felt to be distracting and frankly kind of insulting given the nature of the opportunity. Young Curator
The mix of people and nationalities was also interesting. From what I know, two had origins from Ireland and six had origins from China. By looking at those numbers I have no idea how they targeted people. Young Curator
I think that it was interesting that everyday we learnt something different. It was really efficient, so condensed. Sometimes the days were a bit long, but I was really surprised that it went so well. And, I think that the weekend break was also really good to go a step forward on Monday. The weekend exercise was really interesting, and we could express ourselves, take time to think and explain what we have done. I learnt a bit more about Dublin too. Things got really clear: it was helpful. Young Curator

Encountering the John Thomson Archive

On the second day that consolidated participant group visited the conservation room. In addition to viewing the work of the conservation team they had an opportunity to take pictures of items of clothing that had been on display as part of the John Thomson exhibition. In this way the Young Curators gained an idea of how objects are presented in a curatorial process. While the John Thomson archive had a particular cultural and historical resonance for the Chinese participants it was envisaged more broadly as a pedagogical device for opening up a conversation about curatorial processes. It was originally intended that the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive module would coincide with the John Thomson exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library. However, submission deadlines for funding applications and subsequent waiting for confirmation of funding meant that the module could not run concurrently with the exhibition, which finished in February 2012.

Originally when this was conceived, the exhibition was going to be up, but of course by the time it happened the exhibition was down. But the John Thomson Archive was only a jumping off point. We had had a meeting in the planning phase about it coming up. I had thought I’d be able to talk to the students about what was up on the wall. For groups like that if you can actually have the material up on the wall it’s so much easier. You can show the cropping and the enlargement: see what’s been lost, why it has been arranged in this way and why it’s being sold back to the Chinese in the way that it is. Workshop Leader
That was very problematic to be honest. It happened through no fault of anybody’s but the timing of it put it really out of sync. Because the sheer size and volume of the images as displayed in the space when we first looked at the exhibition would have meant that you could have worked in that precise gallery space and you could have picked up on the detail of the photographs. Also to get the Young Curators thinking about how you are re-organising space in a way and how you might make interventions into the spatial domain. That didn’t work out and we ended up being clustered around PCs in another room. That was not the same thing. Workshop Leader

There is general agreement that it would have been better from a pedagogical point of view if the exhibition had been available to the module process. However, it was always intended as a point of departure and its absence in the real called for other creative ways of engaging with the collection in its digital form:

By the time I actually got to talk about the work I realised I had to come at it from quite a particular perspective in order to open it up for the students. So first I introduced them to the available online archives, which are quite substantial. If you go to the Wellcome archive you’ll see it’s about 1,800 photographs: some huge number of objects, and then there’s a big programme. They’ve digitised the books so you can see them in context, how they printed them and so on. So I contextualised them and then got the students to work on that, to divide it up into various portions. They then had to extract something from the archive to talk about. Workshop Leader

In this way the archive served as a springboard into exploring some of the questions around the word curator and its resonance with the Young Curators themselves. Also the digital form was an opportunity to critically engage with the John Thomson archive in its colonial frame.

Roberta used the idea of the archive as a prism through which a whole range of issues were explored, she helped them find a language to look at how the photographic makes meaning, both historically and in terms of a whole range of power relations, and discourses in relation to culture. Pivotal Arts Studio

It was possible then to connect that critical examination of the truth producing regimes that govern a particular era of cultural production with some very basic technical procedures that mediate and re-contextualise the collection:

It was also a question of getting the Young Curators to think about really quite basic things: the amount of cropping and enlargement that happens in the re-contextualisation of objects as well as captioning and their removal from the text that accompanied them. So at a really quite basic level, getting them to think about what kind of text you might want to put with an object, how curators use those devices to tell a story. Workshop Leader

The workshop leader invited participants to present personal images that ‘mattered to them’ for some reason. That invitation was extended by way of preparing the participants to take the leap to a second level of curatorial interpretation, the choosing of an image from the John Thomson Collection.

The second day I got them to select and talk about their own pictures, which led to thinking about what happens when you encounter somebody else. They were actually startlingly good about that. That process was fascinating. One student turned up with an entire family album whereas others didn’t bring any pictures at all. And some people brought odd things that didn’t quite fit. There was such a mix in the group in terms of background and class: very interesting to see what happens when those people come together. Workshop Leader
They were a small group at that point and really connecting. It was very moving when they spoke about their own chosen images. They were very honest. Roberta was a bit concerned because she was pitching at quite a high level. There was a concern that they wouldn’t be interested. They were young people who hadn’t signed up for a degree in photography, but you could see when they were talking about their chosen images that much of what Roberta had spoken about had been heard. Pivotal Arts Studio

Each Young Curator was then asked to choose an image from the archive to speak about. This surprisingly simple invitation turned out to mark a significant point in the module process where participants experienced some agency with regard to the archive. From a number of perspectives it seemed a very powerful thing. Perhaps it signaled the first act of curation even though the Young Curators themselves were not considering it explicitly in terms of curatorial language or processes. That shift within the module from the personal to the interpretation of the historical-archival image was seen as key:

The invitation to choose a photo from the archive worked very well I thought. When everyone had to make their own presentation I saw lights going off in a positive way. That’s where you see people shining. Chester Beatty Library
I also asked them to choose something to talk about from the archive. That was really interesting. Some of the Chinese students chose images that they knew things about that hadn’t been covered in the information. Some chose images of kinds of monuments. Others chose images about the colonial history. They did really well. Workshop Leader

Introducing Digital Media

A core aim of the programme was to ‘…explore the role of digital media in the creative arts and curation’. Over the course of the module there were three dedicated sessions on digital media. Those sessions included an introduction to digital media and new technologies as well as media licensing, digital manipulation of images; remix culture and various web tools.

Igor’s presentations on digital media were likely the ones of the most practical value. He showed us possible tools to work with as well as examples of things others had produced on the Internet. I’m drawing attention to this point as the finalization of each individual person’s project was left incredibly late due to the format change. Young Curator.
The whole idea (the whole purpose) is to get access to digital media. You can access collections virtually. Like the John Thomson. Chester Beatty Library

The John Thomson archive online had already served as an illustration of the significance of the digitised image both from an accessibility and distribution point of view. The digital media sessions further opened up the potential of digital media as creative communication tools. This later part of the module also included one-to-one sessions with the workshop leader where the creative directions of each of the Young Curators were considered. Naturally there were differing degrees of readiness among the participants at that point in terms of project ideas, interests and focus:

I met friends with different nationalities and I was motivated by their enthusiasm about photography. Finally, we were given an individual project to carry out and present any theme through the group of photos taken with all the skills and knowledge learned during the five-day workshop. We had to try to provide as much information from the pictures as possible. I chose to take photos of my two close friends to show one type of typical life style of Chinese students in Ireland. It is a way for people to get more understanding regardless of nationality. Young Curator
The five-day workshop, to be honest was not really what I had wanted, but on the other hand, it was great as well, it came out more than we expected. I had my first lesson of Photography, we, the Young Curators, learned the history of photograph, the art of photograph and how to read it, which we had never learned before. It was difficult because we had only a short amount of time to take in what we needed in order to help us to produce our final work, where this is the whole purpose of the project. Young Curator

Modular (Re)Visions

Some negatives of the project were the long days. Sometimes the days were boring and dragged out which helped me lose some interest. The positives of the five days were the people, those from Pivotal Arts, the Chester Beatty Library, the participants and those invited in. The work that was produced was great. The ideas that had floated around the five days were interesting to hear. The mix of people was good as we all had our own story to tell. Young Curator

Pivotal Arts Studio took primary responsibility for designing the module. Following the initial meeting with the Chester Beatty Library in November 2011 there was extensive communications between workshop leaders and Pivotal Arts Studio around conceptualising and building the curriculum. We will begin reviewing the module here by considering the many features of the five-day programme that worked well. As such they are outlined here as valuable pedagogical features which should be retained. They include:

  • the diversity of perspectives among the participant group
  • the commitment to revealing the ecology of the museum
  • photography as a medium to engage with the public and the city
  • the invitation to select and re-present from the archive
  • the weekend assignment as a move into individual project ideas
  • the opening up of the possibilities within digital media

In terms of recalibrating aspects of the module there is some support for a reversal of the sequencing between the practical and the more theoretical elements. There is a sense that introducing the practical elements first and using them to lead into more theoretical considerations might have served the group better as a way of settling in and finding ways to engage more directly with the module from the outset:

I would have tried to integrate the theory and practice more, would have structured it differently not so much history, get everyone engaged more, and also not to lecture at people. Workshop Leader
If I was to do it again I would steer away from the more intense 5 day programme and consult a bit more and find out what the young people were looking for. It’s a very good start but it may have been too heavy for some of the participants. Being here (at the workshop) and seeing people leave – maybe it needs to be tweaked. This is a first so it’s ok for these things to happen. If these things occur learn from them and move on. Have some academic input but make it a bit more free. Adapt. Chester Beatty Library
We tried to bring in the learning to the museum, we tried to break that theoretical language, if we were doing it again we would break it down, introduce more practical elements. Pivotal Arts Studio

Doubtless the timing issues that placed the module beyond the reach of the John Thomson exhibition itself have been well rehearsed. Nonetheless it is worth signaling the pedagogical possibilities for the future where critical fault lines in curatorial practice could be triangulated between the archive, the exhibition and the selective agency of the participants.

Mentoring: Visions and Supervisions

I got insight into how other people would approach a project. Most of the stuff I work on tends to be over-ambitious and incredibly vague or broad. Nobody had ever tried to help me correct this. As a result, I think it’s why I left a lot of things unfinished, or was discontent with showing anyone else my work. With feedback from my mentor, I’d started to refine my observational skills. Young Curator
Everything was stipulated. We have learned through teaching that you leave nothing to chance. Tie everything down: learning contracts, communicating with students about their responsibilities towards the mentors, mentor expectations, relationships with the mentors and where the mentor’s responsibility lay. Pivotal Arts Studio

Following the completion of the module in July 2012 each of the Young Curators was assigned a mentor. Between July and September the mentoring process combined face-to-face discussions (typically 2 or 3 sessions) with email, mobile and Skype contact to support each participant in realising their individual projects. We explore here that space of encounter between the visions of the participants and the super-vision of the mentors.

Participant Perspectives

Participant feedback on the mentoring experience was unanimously positive. For some it was a new experience and greatly appreciated for the quality of attention it brought to their individual creative journey:

I really enjoyed working with Moira. She liked my project. As a film director she advised me really well. I was so lucky to have worked with her. It is something I did not expect. I met Moira three times. I think it was enough: three different steps in the project. It was great for me - We had conversations by mails as well. I was working on things which can be sent by mail, such as photographs, text and website so it was really handy. She was very accessible. Young Curator

A significant number of the participants had identified strong creative directions during the weekend assignment that separated the first 3 days of the module and the second 2-day block. So while some participants entered into the mentoring process with those established creative directions, others began with more open, less resolved possibilities:

After the workshop we basically were on our own to do the research and had the weekly mentoring with the professional. The coming four weeks was whole lots of new experiences for me. Ideas floating around everywhere and hard to make up the choice, but anyway, we finally agreed on something we were satisfied with. Young Curator
Some of the group knew where they wanted to go. Others established a creative focus through sessions with Roshini and Aileen towards the close of the module at Chester Beatty. Others didn’t have a project worked out by the end of the module. We made the mentors aware of that. We also made sure that the students and mentors were well suited. Pivotal Arts Studio

There were also differences between participants with regard to their creative experience and photographic knowledge. Those who were not self-identified as artists or designers were understandably less confident in taking on such an individually driven creative journey:

I come from an accounting and finance education background. It seems hard for me to act professionally but I got a lot of encouragement from my tutors who gave me a lot of confidence. Young Curator

All participants shared a great appreciation for the quality of attention brought to their creative processes via the mentoring experience. One participant captures that sense of appreciation and the pedagogical value of the mentoring process particularly well:

I could write a full piece on my grievances with the secondary level education system but I don't particularly feel like it. The abridged summary for the sake of context is that nobody has ever really paid attention to anything I have done throughout the entirety of my life and as a result I have also effectively never gotten feedback on any of my work. This was an entirely new experience for me. I'd been giving constant updates on my thoughts behind the work process, and in return, suggestions for alterations and improvements on the piece I'd been working on. I had never before gotten tangible results for any effort I put into anything. Young Curator

Each participant entered into the mentoring process with different degrees of resolution for their individual creative directions. The post-module assignment also brought different degrees of creative experience and levels of technical know-how into relief. There was strong consensus among participants on the value of the mentoring process itself.

Mentor Perspectives

Some mentors were involved in the delivery of the July workshop and were therefore familiar with the participant group and with the conceptual and technical parameters of the programme. Other mentors had no direct experience of the workshop and encountered the assigned mentee in the post-workshop phase:

I didn’t participate in designing the project. I wasn’t at all involved in the workshops. I only came in when I said I’d be happy to mentor one or two. They came to my office first then I met with them weekly. Mentor

There was some feeling of ‘lack of context’ among those mentors who engaged with participants for the first time in the post-module phase. Certainly there is agreement that an introductory encounter with participants during the module for all mentors would greatly serve to facilitate their gaining a fuller understanding of the participant’s creative journey. So for some mentors there was a sense of disconnect. At the same time some mentors were struck by the strength of the ideas and creative directions proposed by the student they were working with. In those cases their role as mentor was more a question of encouragement combined where necessary with technical advice about photographic composition and aesthetic considerations. Students were also encouraged to consider the potential of the photograph to communicate beyond the descriptive alone:

I thought I needed to foreground that when you take a photograph it shouldn’t occupy a purely descriptive place. It has its own properties and these properties need to say something. Any photograph that is actually going to make it into the exhibition had to say something: it’s not just about taking the beautiful photograph. It has to speak back, to describe some kind of knowledge, which can make the viewer think. Mentor
I felt I had to unpack the frame, it’s not the camera, it’s the brain of the person behind the camera the camera is always looking at something, the image always conveys the ethical, the ideological, it’s not just the aesthetic. Mentor

Given those different points of departure the participants were at very different places creatively when they reached the production stage. Some arrived into the production process at quite unresolved points in their creative journey while others arrived with almost fully formed digital platforms. For example, in one instance a student demonstrated great agency in developing a website as the platform for their investigations in the city.

From John Thomson into the City

The movement from the module into the mentored phase could be described as a shift of attention from the space of the museum and the John Thomson collection towards the space of the city. Certainly the work of one participant retained a rather beautifully crafted relation to the John Thomson collection through the use of a maternal family genealogy, drawing on photographic portraiture and fashion. For the other participants Dublin became the lens through which various ethnographies of city life were refracted. For mentors at one remove from the module itself, the logic of that movement into the city was less clear:

It wasn’t clear to me what the brief was exactly. My loose understanding was that they were going to produce something on some aspect of the city. That seemed to me to be somewhat removed from the John Thomson Collection as a point of departure. So what exactly was the relationship between the John Thomson collection and these particular projects: was there a conceptual or a thematic link? I had to find a balance between working with the grain of what the student was interested in and shaping the project. I think that was my contribution. Mentor

For other mentors the creative direction was well established and the supervisory emphasis was connected more to questions of validation and technical support:

I could encourage the student to be more adventurous, to go closer with the camera and encourage their ethnographic impulse, to trust it. Mentor

Mentoring (Re)Visions

Perhaps the most striking feature of the mentoring process is its unexpectedness from the point of view of the participants. It seems as though the mentoring relationship bestowed a seriousness to the creative endeavours of the participants that had a value in and of itself.

Also there is strong consensus in retrospect that mentors should encounter the student on the closing days of the module to ensure a sense of connectivity between the conceptual investments of the module and the subsequent individual creative journey.

There is also a question here around the possibility of peer support. Does the journey between the module and the post-production phase need to be such a solo experience? It is perhaps in its nature a solo journey but the experience of the mentoring phase might be mitigated somewhat by using the resources of the host institution to bring the participants together for peer support at a mid-point in the mentoring process.

Producing the Digital Platform

The night before the final meeting with the production group, I’d made a proposal presentation, even though it was a hurry but the feedback was good from everyone: I was happy. Here, I had said a big thanks to Val, who produced a book that I never thought was going to be. The design she did was brilliant. I had only provided her with the research I did and images I took. We discussed the layout together and I told her my ideas, but the final book was beautiful. Young Curator

The Young Curators reconvened as a group in the first week in September at Pivotal Arts Studio for a four-day post-production phase with designer Val Bogan. Each Young Curator made a presentation about their projects based on their work over the summer. Here the diversity of approaches and interests became apparent: a series of portraits tracing the maternal line of a Chinese family from the 1950s to the present; a street ethnography of artists selling their work at a park in Dublin, a photographic mapping of city life for a social network of Asian young people in Dublin; an ethnography of an entrepreneur café, visual mapping of a Dublin Mosque and the visual micro-details of a Dublin journey.

Post-production formats

The format of a print on demand book had emerged in the earliest conversations between the workshop conveners and leaders about how to present the work of the Young Curators. At that time consideration was given to a single book or a book series representing the work of each individual participant. The notion of a printed book was connected to the importance of thinking about the archival relation to objects and the value that is placed on material objects in collections:

And so the idea of the project was to mimic that process in a way because it is a time that increasingly, it seems to me, young people don’t have anymore, they don’t make objects anymore, it’s all electronic and that’s ok, call me old fashioned but I think for the purposes of echoing a practice associated with the archive and an institution like the Chester Beatty, I think their books on display at the Chester Beatty Library would have been fantastic, on display in a showcase you know. Workshop Leader

However, time and financial constraints meant the format had to be reconfigured to an alternative online self-publishing platform called issuu:

The timing was against us for Culture Night on September 21st. Blurb, providers of print on demand books would have taken three weeks but by the time the participants were ready to go to Blurb we would only have had one week. Also Blurb is very expensive. Pivotal Arts Studio
I understood I was supposed to produce a Blurb book from each of the Young Curators as a technician: that they would hand me photographs and text – I’d show them lay out individually and teach them that process. In a way that’s what happened with four of the Young Curators, or with all of them only that four are producing an ebook and two are producing a website. It’s been a constant moulding of expectation. Post Production Editor

Such changes of format called for a considerable degree of flexibility and experimentation on the part of everyone involved in the post production phase:

I read through the syllabus and I expected that by the time I arrived it would be further down the road but I enjoy experimentation so I don’t mind things fluctuating madly in a short space of time. Post Production Editor

During post production the editor reviewed each Young Curator’s material with them and advised on the production options and sequence best suited to each of their projects. For example, two of the participants were already developing web-based platforms for their projects. Rather than change direction entirely they were supported to continue based on the suitability of a website for each of their projects:

I created the website with my mentors advice and at the end Aileen and Val also helped me. The four of us were talking through emails again and it was very helpful. Before I met Val, I had already started to work on the website, so it was better to develop it more than create something else. It gave me more experience about website creating. I liked it because I was very free and in control of the production. Young Curator
On that first day when participants were presenting their work we were still talking about books versus ebooks. As things progressed and I started working with the participants it made sense that two of them presented a website, so it was just a question of tightening that together. I got Alan to just work with images because his writing is so good. The beauty of digital is that you can have any format: a sound piece, photos and text. Alan was veering naturally towards a website and Marie came with a website made. I said to Áine she’s done all the work so why attach it into a book. It’s like making it up as you go along but that’s the nature of trying things out. Its been a brilliant experience working with the young people. Post Production Editor
Val had done great work with so little time. She helped create some fantastic work. Young Curator

From experience Pivotal Arts Studio consider the post-production phase as a critical stage of any project. It was therefore important to ensure that high quality production support was available to the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive process. Faced with the considerable time constraints of the Culture Night deadline, it was essential for the Young Curators to have access to an editor with a flexible approach, someone who could quickly re-frame based on new ideas and support each participant to realise their design ambitions.

In any further iteration of this project there are perhaps two aspects of the post production phase which could be altered to ease some of those attendant pressures. The first would be to avoid any premature commitment to a particular form of production. For example the early introduction of the printed book created premature commitments to that particular format. A second accommodation could bring the post-production support in sooner to assess and advise on different production possibilities:

If I was making suggestions it would be that the mentor would take it all the way through to post-production. The mentor then would not be someone who comes in at the end like me. I would have preferred to have been in the process longer. For example, to have had introductory design conversations coming off the five-day workshop: what do you want to produce? Post Production Editor

As a creative solution, the combination of the ebook format with web-based platforms successfully accommodated the diverse themes of the individual Young Curator projects and also allowed for different degrees of engagement with the design process:

As a designer I don’t want to impose my style. I wanted each participant to make something as much themselves as possible. With some I had a lot of design agency: they were happy to leave their content with me. I presumed the whole point was that different voices could come through. Post Production Editor

It would also be interesting to illuminate different elements of the creative processes behind the Young Curators work:

It would be interesting to introduce some journalistic aspect to the website, a sense of the messier parts of the project. Beautiful and all as the website is, it does belie some of the messy business of the creative, social and technical processes that get animated in such process. It might be possible to give some visibility to the nature of shared learning and creative production. Mentor

We will return to this question of the limitations of the finished work in representing the creative, processual flow when we come to consider the digital platform itself. But first, some impressions of the first public manifestation of that virtual register.

Brief Encounters: Culture Night

The final book was beautiful. The Culture Night was short but was going well. Young Curator

Pivotal Arts Studio invested their time and resources into creating the digital platform for the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive: a website that functions as the sustainable record of the project. The Chester Beatty took responsibility for the showcasing of that platform on Culture Night. The Chester Beatty Library was one of many destination venues on Culture Night in the city. In competition with those other cultural institutions and the Library itself, the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive was showcased as a digital platform at the projection room adjacent to the reception area.

The event marked the first public portal into the work of the Young Curators. Their work was on show for an hour from 6.00 pm to 7.00 pm. Each of the six projects was accessible on laptops projecting on a rotating basis onto a large screen. In this embedded, museum-based display the project was somewhat overlooked, in competition as it was with the bustle of a large city-wide (and national) cultural event. In the general bustle of Culture Night the visibility of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive digital platform was greatly reduced:

It was nice to see it finished. I think that the way it was shown was good. It was accessible: computers are handy and visual. But, for another time it has to be found how people can be brought into the space to interact with the projects. I would say that on this point, it did not really work. Maybe because the audience of the Chester Beatty Library is not used to it or maybe because Culture Night is really busy and people try to do as much as they can. They did not really take time to enjoy the project. Next time, a launching or special event can be organised. Then the attention would be surely on the project. We even could invite younger people, for example. Young Curator
I think the real benefit of Culture Night was having a deadline. Culture Night itself was insignificant, totally incidental. Deadlines are absolutely critical when it comes to creative practice in this kind of process. It was nice for some of the Young Curators to come along but really the Culture Night thing was totally insignificant. Mentor

To the casual observer the projection space must have had the appearance of a somewhat self-contained event. The audience gathered around the installation was made up of those most directly involved: mentors, the workshop conveners and the young curators themselves. This was a valuable reconnecting of a number of the participants in of itself and it allowed the Chester Beatty Library to extend direct invitations to the Young Curators to consider future involvement with the museum. However, prominent signage would have helped to engage the passing visitor’s curiosity and extend the audience beyond the project team and participants alone. But the main feature here was brevity. Increased visitor numbers to the Chester Beatty Library on Culture Night required staff to distribute themselves throughout the different exhibition spaces. This had the effect of reducing the window for public engagement to just one hour. In order to facilitate other scheduled Culture Night events at the Library the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive exhibition concluded at 7.00 pm just as the Library was beginning to experience a significant influx of visitors.

The potential for a project such as the Young Curators Digital Design & the Living Archive to command a major presence within the programming of the host institution is self-evident. With sufficiently strong signals, communications and targeted invitations it is possible to see how a more extended presence could engage a range of publics in an interactive dialogue with such a digital platform. One imagines here a more extended, interactive and visible presence in the space of the museum. Certainly by its nature the Young Curators Digital Design & the Living Archive website is interactive. But we have seen how visitors in an exhibition space don’t always feel they can interact. They require unambiguous permission to break the fetish of the traditional boundary between object and viewer. As suggested by one of the Young Curators, the launch event at the host institution has the potential to animate the social networks of participants, bringing in a significant representation from the primary constituency, in this case, young people.

Questions of Audience

Building an audience for the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive platform requires dedicated efforts. In their use of digital media, Pivotal Arts Studio has learned not to make any assumptions that the combination of aesthetic merit and inclusivity is sufficient to attract audiences. They have found that the digital form tests traditional notions of audience:

What’s happened within digital cultures, and this is the point of the digital, is that in some instances it doesn’t assume but from the very beginning it’s testing. It’s testing the idea with audiences so it undoes that notion of control over authorship and complacency around authorship. I’ve certainly learned from that. So a project like this, again if we had a longer lead in time, could have used social media to really glean from a whole range of voices about how engaged people might be in a project like this. Pivotal Arts Studio

The young curators themselves have been encouraged to draw attention to their work via social media. Pivotal Arts Studio sees the project as a prototype with international scope:

We’re launching a new website so we are committed to profiling this project among our networks. We would see it as being the Young Curators responsibility as well to promote the work. Pivotal Arts Studio

There is also a realism attaching to the constraints of what can be achieved in a relatively short-term intervention. Therefore the Young Curators Digital Design & the Living Archive is not being thought of as a fully formed model ready for distribution, rather:

I think it’s more of a case study than a methodology. If this were to be a methodology, it would probably need to be tested again. This would be the first iteration, things we didn’t foresee because we couldn’t until we made those mistakes, if indeed they were mistakes. So it would have to go through a few more iterations before it could be written up as a methodology that’s doing something new. I would see it more as a case study, where we were working with the museum. Pivotal Arts Studio

The primary drive of the initiative was the notion of a shared learning platform for collaborative, critical literacy and cross-cultural arts practice. It is that potential for creating a community of learners that brings the project well beyond the question of access to cultural institutions:

I’m not just talking about access to the museum, where people participate in a learning community and where there’s an artifact. I think there is potential to develop it in a kind of mentoring learning lab environment using a range of pedagogical tools. The creation of a community of learners, of young curators has to be thought through, the digital tools, all sorts of possibilities. One isn’t limited to the national. But it’s not about access it’s about participation. It’s about people having something to say. Mentor
Institutions like to talk about ongoing participation and that notion of new audiences. It seems to me that a lot of those so-called audiences are not remotely interested in what the museum has to offer for a whole range of other cultural reasons: they are finding their cultural influences elsewhere. We have dipped into that with the Young Curators project and could be accused of perpetuating something here that has reinforced that status quo that says we will embrace diversity and we will celebrate it. The risk is that there will be no radical transformation of thinking or interrogation of that relationship between mainstream and so-called other. There will always be others who need to be brought in and accommodated. So those notions of cultural production and how they are contingent and constantly changing, particularly in terms of young people is a real learning. Pivotal Arts Studio

Cityscapes: The Young Curators Project Profiles

While direct links between the John Thomson archive and the work of the Young Curators are not immediately apparent, notions of social documentary and the portrayal of city life resonate with his essential preoccupation with street life. Each of the Young Curators have different degrees of familiarity with Dublin. Of the six participants that completed work for the digital platform Alan Dooley and Jonathan Meyers are natives of the city. Thidung Luu (Lee) moved to Ireland thirteen years ago while Huan Zhang moved here from China with their family four years ago. Sanshan Gu (Susan) is studying in Dublin for the past three years. Participant Marie Charlier is originally from France. She lives in Galway and the Young Curators project brought her to Dublin for the first time. Taken as a whole the work of the Young Curators hinges strongly on themes of city life. Browsing the digital platform takes you on a journey into cafés, buses, art markets, churches and street detail, as though a sort of ethnographic dice was thrown in the public and semi-public spaces of the city. Like a multiple of Leopold Bloom, they have produced these various traces of the city through the lens of their own preoccupations and perspectives.

But first, before we get too immersed in the Joycean flow, Huan Zhang’s project A Gift for the Future provides an elegant bridge between the Wellcome Trust Collection of John Thomson photography and the contemporary life of the city. It is a link in the sense that, unlike the other Young Curators who venture more directly into aspects of Dublin, Huan makes a graceful move from John Thomson into questions of geneology through the medium of portraiture. She rethreads John Thomson through a geneological portrait series that traces her own maternal line from grandmother to Huan herself. In A Gift for the Future Huan wishes her paintings to speak for themselves ‘helped along’ as she says ‘with some words’. To that effect, she has employed economic and moving text throughout. This text is juxtaposed alongside a series of beautiful paintings in which fashion is an important personal and historical reference as well as floral iconography rendered in the traditional Chinese style. Alongside the accompanying text these different visual elements together serve as a meditation on life, separation and loss. In a A Gift for the Future Huan has created a striking visual narrative from grandmother to mother to herself, through which the traditional familly album has been transformed into a unique personal and cultural history.

Marie Charlier’s Wet Paint project combines photographic material and short film interviews to construct an ethnographic window into the world of artists selling their work in Dublin’s Merrion Square. The project is also self-reflexive, revealing something of Marie’s experience of coming to know Dublin through recorded conversations with three of the Merrion Square artists: Pete, Theo and Liam. Marie focussed on establishing a connectivity and relationship with those she interviewed. She is rewarded in turn with generous reflections gleaned from these three artists’ conversations which they have had over many months and years with fellow artists and with passers by in Merrion Square. We see the trace of the city come full circle in a short video interview with the artist Pete, when in conversation with Marie he paints the immediate surroundings of the Georgian square. In a further extension of this cycle of conversations Marie invited three friends (Ruth, Victoria and Raphael) to each reflect on the work of one of the three artists. These reflections are included as short written pieces on each artist’s webpage. The webpages include photographs Marie took while in conversation with the artist at their chosen patch on Merrion Square along with the video interview Marie conducted with them. Wet Paint reflects Marie’s attendance to those practices of street photography (historical and contemporary) which she encountered in the Young Curator’s module. The website format designed by Marie serves her well as the frame for what is a warm and engaging ethnographic inquiry.

Following his interest in architecture Thidung Luu’s (Lee’s) photographic investigtion of the South Circular Road focussed on what was formerly the Donore Presbyterian Church. The church had fallen into disuse following an amalgamation with the Adelaide Road Church. In 1981 the Islamic Foundation of Ireland bought the Donore church building. In 1983 it opened its doors as the Dublin Mosque. In the course of his research Thidung Luu ( Lee ) met a number of people associated with that new era of transition from church to Mosque. Crossings hints at a rich history embedded within the architecture, yet apart from a brief geneology of the original development and transformation of the church into a Mosque, Crossings avoids any overt reference to those historical fragments gathered in more detail during Lee’s research. Instead Crossings offers an ethereal assemblage of images, photographic fragments and textual traces from the interior spaces of the Mosque. With its overlaying of imagery and text Crossings is more of a speculative meditation. In this way Crossings functions at the level of our curiosity, creating an atmosphere which suggests an invitation, a prompt to consider what we might discover if we chose to enter the space of the church ourselves.

In his photographic essay Small Things Jonathan Meyers takes us on a journey along the No.79 bus route from Spiddal road in Ballyfermot to Aston Quay in the city centre. Along this route his photographs focus on details of the natural world. More precisely, he makes a sort of visual catalogue of organic materiality lodged in urban space. These organic materials are often embedded in surprising ways into the inanimate urban fabric of the city observed up close. By drawing our attention to a series of miniature juxtapositions between the natural and the man-made Small Things presents us with a quirky meditation on those more hidden animal presences in the streets.

Sanshan Gu (Susan) came to Young Curators from a background outside of arts and cultural practice and yet what comes through in her work is a keen sense of observation and wry humour. Sanshan Gu (Susan) uses her camera to bring us into the everyday life world of two young Chinese women: Zhe Yu Fan and Jiao Xu. Both women are in their early twenties. They came to Ireland to study in 2007. Chinglish opens with a brief narrative, observing that there is much that Zhe Yu Fan and Jiao Xu enjoy about living in Dublin, including Irish breakfasts and shopping opportunities. Susan’s photographic diary documents their practices of everyday life in light hearted, YouTube style: life at home, travelling to the city, eating, shopping, studying, meeting with friends and karaoke sessions in a Chinese restaurant. Chinglish offers a snapshot of how these young Chinese women navigate Dublin and observes that being students in a foreign city they tend to rely, as many young Chinese migrants do, more on the company of their Chinese friends. And so we see here a playful auto-ethnograpy that inverts the 19th century colonial gaze. The subject has turned the camera on herself and her immediate social world, offering us a vibrant visitor’s experience of living in Dublin.

The title Lazy Days in a Café suggests a certain casual occupation of a café in Dublin yet Alan Dooley’s writings about his time spent in the Fumbally Café in Dublin 8 reflect a keen observational eye. Alan’s interest in the workings of the café, how it came to be in Fumbally Lane, its interior, the interaction between regular visitors and staff are sparsely but vividly rendered. His situated writing practice not only documents the comings and goings of the café. Alan combines observations of cafe life with a disarmingly honest auto-critique of his own research journey. This is of course a very useful form of knowledge sharing for anyone interested in the realities of ethnographic practice. Instead of presenting us with the polished results of a seamless research process (from concept to method to result) he interweaves the lonely existence of the long distance ethnographer with a gradual revelation of the cultural and culinary preoccupations of the café itself. Drawing on the blogging genre, Alan’s natural writing style addresses the reader as confidante. In that vein he offers succinct descriptions of the research process and how long it takes before this kind of observational project begins to yield any connections. While the duration and frequency of visits vary over a few short weeks, the quality of the connection to his observational task remains constant. In this sense Lazy Days in a Cafe is as much an introduction to ethnography as it is to the world of the Fumbally café.

In all of this we can see a sort of Joycean investigation, a fragmentation of the life of a city from some interesting angles. The city begins to emerge as the subject of the work. Pivotal Arts Studio were interested in exploring the relationship of the museum to the city. The idea of a broader movement from preoccupations with audience and cultural diversity into alternative readings of the city was self-consciously threaded into the architecture of the programme. In that sense the whole discourse around cultural diversity can be located in a broader and radically alternative approach to mapping other perspectives on the city. In the work of the Young Curators they bring with them different genealogical traces that allow an escape from some familiar ideological framings around cultural difference. Setting out from John Thomson’s colonial gaze on nineteenth century China Young Curators, Digital Design & the Digital Archive has produced a history of the present refracted through the museum into a multiplicity of registers on the city.

Conclusion

The project provided me with an opportunity to meet new friends and learn a new subject, also it helped me to create inspiration. The final result of the work was a successful milestone for me and also for the other Young Curators. I hope that, in the future, this project will help more young people to learn, to create and curate works for the future community. Young Curator
The fact that one of the Young Curators has come back in and wants to be a volunteer is incredible. On Culture Night I said the Library would like to work with you as freelance facilitators and perhaps as advisors. Two others want to participate. Its a very hard to reach age group for museums. I’m hoping to meet them again shortly because they are our future audiences. Chester Beatty Library
This mix of backgrounds among this first generation of Young Curators was definitely a strength, facilitating a form of mutual cross-cultural learning. As we saw it, ‘difference’ was not critically absolved through some unifying cultural signifier such as Chinese or Irish. We hoped instead that the participants were learning to discern through respectful recognition that cultural identities are rich and complex rather than essential or fixed. Strategically this was never ‘spelled out’: we agreed that the curriculum would allow the participants to grow into a more informed awareness rather than have truisms imposed as part of the explicit pedagogy. Pivotal Arts Studio

In what follows here we will try to draw out the shared learning from the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive with a view to imagining what might best serve the next cohort of Young Curators. We will at least try to broadly signal some coordinates for J.K. Rowling’s Room of Requirement: how can the next Young Curators project be ideally equipped for the seekers need?

Ideal User Profiles

In this first iteration Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive was presented with a crucial question: how to bridge the axis between the desire to engage a ‘diversity’ of audiences as meaningful participants within the museum and at the same time open up real pathways for diverse youth constituencies to take up leading positions in the creative and cultural sector, and the museum industry in particular. Naturally in the case of such a hybrid formation there will be tensions around the configuration of what designers would call ‘the ideal user’. In Young Curators II it should be possible to be more precise and more confident about those tensions, for example, between the privileging of cultural identities over the nurturing of creative pathways. Our reflections and understanding of the recruitment process would suggest the following formulation of the ‘ideal user’. If we start then with ‘young people’ as an uncontested criterion of participation and add a second: young people who have an already established creative practice. And here creative practice can encompass the broadest spectrum from writing, photography, painting, filmmaking and the many design disciplines such as fashion. Having strongly signalled those combined frames of reference (young person-creative practitioner) it should be possible then to consider how a third register of other identity formations could be reached through the networks and circuits of connectivity. By circuits of connectivity we mean to indicate those networks of association that might exist between a museum and its potential audiences and a whole range of other networks in education, culture and advocacy where the invitation might reach constituencies of specific interest. In short, we propose reversing the selective sequence. So in the case of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive at the Chester Beatty the sequence Chinese-Young-Creatively Engaged would become Young-Creatively-Engaged-Chinese.

Securing the Psychological Contract

In the field of youth work the term ‘buy-in’ is a well established construct for judging the gap between the available programme opportunity and the young person’s psychological commitment to engage. We also need to consider how to build into the invitational process those small tests of participant commitment that might establish some minimal degrees of self-determination. What do we mean here by small tests of participant commitment? We are concerned here with developing the agency of the participant precisely in that space between the initial invitation to engage, however that is encountered, and their arrival for day 1 of the module. What we have in mind is a series of very modest assignments that test both levels of commitment and establish degrees of understanding around the programme. For example, the open call might invite a simple statement of interest as a first step. The exploratory interview might be followed by request for an image(s) connected to a relevant theme along with a short text on their understanding of the programme. Such assignments might encourage the young person to get beyond the passivity of ‘being invited’ and take more and more agency as they move towards the proposition of Young Curators II. It should be possible with such devices to take a number of readings on the motivations and enthusiasms of the potential Young Curator as they move ever closer to engagement. This may help to ensure that by the time each participant encounters the module itself the psychological and social contract with the creative proposition of the programme has already been secured.

Rooms with a View

During the course of our review certain questions of connectivity emerged, that is to say that some agents within the process had a clear view of the part of the programme in which they were involved but a less clear view of what went before or what lay ahead. We ourselves began by understanding Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive as a series of spatial movements: from the space of the museum into the space of the city, from the space of mentoring into the space of post-production and the space of public display in the museum into the virtual. The sense of connectivity between these spaces, from room to room, if you will, was doubtless coherent as a pedagogical sequence for those agents involved from start to finish (the sequence from curriculum design, recruitment, module, mentoring, post-production and display). For those whose involvement is contained to just one of those programme elements it seems there is a need to reinforce certain connectivities. For example, the mentor needs to be connected back into the space of the module so that they can make the conceptual, pedagogical and thematic shifts from the workshop frame into the individual project frame. And the same for the post-production process. The post-production editor equally needs a reading back into the modular space in order to anticipate the nascent forms of representation already taking shape in the latter stages of the module. And of course the connectivity between the exhibition, the archive and the curatorial agency of the participant needs to be secured.

Networks as Audience

The programming constraints surounding Culture Night have been well rehearsed. However, they should not obscure the opportunities which present themselves for engaging new audiences via the footprint of the Young Curators Digital Platform in the space of the museum. Each participant brings with them an assemblage of familial, social, educational and cultural networks that are themselves constitutive of precisely those ‘hard to reach audiences’ that traditional outreach strategies so often fail to engage. We can imagine here the potential of a more extended presence of the work of Young Curators in the space of the museum as a device to enter into dialogue with those ‘hard to reach’ communities of difference. This optimising of the space of exhibition is also connected to a basic economy of investment and return. Given the significant investment of human resources and energy into the staging of the show there should be no hestitation in optimising engagment through mobilising the networks of the interested and obliged.

On that very question of getting the most out of the experience of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive it is important to note that for the Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Sudios the creative engagement with participants has not ended with Culture Night. Since then both project partners have considered further opportunities for both review and exhibition. On completion of this review of Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive, Pivotal Arts Studio will bring the Young Curators together with mentors to present and reflect on their work. This will coincide with the launching of the project online through social media. In addition, Pivotal Arts Studio through the Arts Council’s Young Ensembles programme will be enabling the Young Curators the opportunity to participate and contribute to an event they are organising this coming April which will bring a wider network of young creative people together. The Chester Beatty Library restaged the Young Curator’s work in the Exchange Arts co-operative in Temple Bar in February 2013.

Inside Out

There is of course a broader question concerning the structural relation between the museum space (as an inside) and the pedagogical tools and resources external to it that a programme such as Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive brings into play. The tools and resources we have in mind here include curriculum design, digital media know-how, the range of knowledges and practices encompassed by workshop leaders, mentoring, post-production support and no doubt a range of other less visible but equally vital capabilities. How should that inside-outside relation be framed from the point of view of sustainability? One of the early aspirations expressed by Pivotal Arts Studio was that the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive approach could be embedded into the architecture of museum policy and practice. In short, the idea that the model could be mainstreamed within the repertoire of museum education. But is this possible? Is it not the case for example, that one of the positive features of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive process was precisely that dynamic tension between an external set of pedagogical coordinates and the museum itself? It may be useful here to consider the idea of institutional change generally as a systemic, ecological question. As those who have tried to effect change will know, the possibility of change in any organisation is very much connected to the degree of self-sameness or self-difference which the change-oriented initiative introduces into the system as such. According to this kind of systemic analysis an initiative which is too self-same can be easily incorporated into an organisation’s already established ways of doing things, that is to say it may be very worthwhile but it will not function as an instrument of change. Equally, an initiative which introduces too many degrees of self-difference (novelty) can easily be construed as beyond ‘the way we do things’ and therefore negate its change making possibilities. In the case of the model for Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive it may not be a simple structural choice between embedding the process within the architecture of museum practice or maintaining the process as a device external to it. Instead, it is the negotiated encounter between self-sameness and self-difference which Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive brings into play that is precisely the source of its creative dynamism.

There is also a pragmatic feature of the Young Curators, Digital Design & the Living Archive model which suggests considering it as a sort of docking device that can make structural connectivities, that is to say, forms of cultural and pedagogical docking, with a whole series of cultural institutions. Certainly as a docking device Pivotal Arts Studio bring to the table an assemblage of conceptual, pedagogical, technical, legal and production capacities which are not transferrable in any obvious way into the repertoire of museum practice. But when those capacities enter into dialogue with the creative capabilities of museum practice, as we have seen in the case of the Chester Beatty Library, possibilities open up for new forms of cultural participation that neither expected.

That is why we evoked the ‘Room of Requirement’ as a deliberately unstable prospect that may allow practitioners and prospective funders to keep an open mind to future educational initiatives in relation to the museum and the creative arts sector. We hope that, rather than sticking with rigid frameworks and tried and tested formulas, it may inspire future collaborators to keep an open mind to those creative possibilities and to follow the experimental spirit of the Chester Beatty Library and Pivotal Arts Studio.

Vagabond Reviews
February 2013