The Scholar-Curator as Storyteller

Henry Wessells of The Endless Bookshelf quotes on his site a particularly relevant passage on the production of meaning through scholarship and storytelling:

Someone has said that a first-class museum would consist of a series of satisfactory labels with specimens attached. This saying might be rendered : “ The label is more important than the specimen. ” When I have finished reading this paper, you may admit that this is true in the case of the little museum which I have here to show : a basket, a fascicle of plant fibres, a few rudely painted sticks, some beads and feathers put together as if by children in their meaningless play, form the totality of the collection. You would scarcely pick these trifles up if you saw them lying in the gutter, yet when I have told you all I have to tell about them, I trust they may seem of greater importance, and that some among you would be as glad to possess them as I am. I might have added largely to this collection had I time to discourse about them, for I possess many more of their kind. It is not a question of things, but of time. I shall do scant justice to this little pile within an hour. An hour it will be to you, and a tiresome hour, no doubt, but you may pass it with greater patience when you learn that this hour’s monologue represents to me twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation.

— Washington Matthews. “Some Sacred Objects of the Navajo Rites,” Archives of the International Folklore Association I (1898); scanned version available via Google Books.

The things in question had significance to the Native American culture from which they came, but not to their new audience. In this passage, Matthews serves as a mediator and the expenditure of his time is added to the objects’ aura,1 marking their importance and worth.

This passage pinpoints my problem with “content curation” as the term is used by bloggers: Simply holding up three or four objects—virtual or otherwise—is no more telling a story than dumping flour, sugar, and eggs onto a table is baking a cake. You have to do the work of contextualization if you want the objects to signify.

Tangent: Washington Matthews

Dr. Washington Matthews

Washington Matthews, by the way, was pretty extraordinary. He was a surgeon in the US Army from the 1860s through at least 1890, and became so well known as an amateur linguist and ethnologist that the Smithsonian Institution began sending him out to collect information on Native American languages and cultural practices.

It’s hard to get one’s head around what passed for anthropological “scholarship” on indigenous cultures at the turn of century, but the fieldwork of people like Matthews did more than expand the knowledge of scholars; it was part of the process of establishing for a colonial audience the cultural sophistication and common humanity of subjugated peoples.

In 1896, at a meeting of the American Folk-Lore Society at which the great anthropologist Franz Boas also delivered a paper, Matthews singlehandedly transformed academic opinion on Navajo culture and ritual (emphasis mine):

Dr Matthews referred to Dr Leatherman’s account of the Navahoes as the one long accepted as authoritative. In it that writer has declared that they have no traditions nor poetry, and that their songs “were but a succession of grunts.” Dr. Matthews discovered that they had a multitude of legends, so numerous that he never hoped to collect them all: an elaborate religion, with symbolism and allegory, which might vie with that of the Greeks; numerous and formulated prayers and songs, not only multitudinous, but relating to all subjects, and composed for every circumstance of life. The songs are as full of poetic images and figures of speech as occur in English, and are handed down from father to son, from generation to generation.

— “The American Folk-Lore Society,” The Critic. No. 725 (Jan. 11 1896), p 26; scanned version at Google Books.

The rhetoric is is very calculated, here. In addition to delivering a righteous smackdown to Leatherman, Matthews stakes out territory for Navajo art and culture that aligns them with that ultimate European cultural authority, the ancient Greeks. He’s making a case for the importance of his own work, of course, but he’s also positioning the Navajo as cultural elders, and he’s doing it without reference to the notion of the artless Noble Savage. Coming from a man who served during campaigns against several native tribes in the inland Northwest, that’s an awfully interesting position.


  1. As in Benjamin, not as in Erial

3 thoughts on “The Scholar-Curator as Storyteller

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  2. The problem I have with equating curating with storytelling is that it doesn’t work as well in the realm of visual arts. With history and science it makes sense, particularly as a narrative construct within a finite set of parameters (a fancy way of saying a story has a plot along with a beginning and an end). Not that there isn’t story telling involved in art exhibitions, but I think that art exhibitions organized purposely to tell stories ultimately do a disservice to their content, that being visual art. The one unique thing that art can offer is an aesthetic experience, sort of analogous to experience of reading and studying a poem vs. an article. And using art to tell stories relegates it to narrative purposes when there’s so much more that art can offer to the world. When I organize exhibitions, I always have in my head an idea of the path and connections I hope a visitor might make. But ideally, I want a visitor to come out of one of my exhibitions having her own personal connections to some of the included artworks, and those connections might have absolutely nothing to do with what I’d attempted to elicit, or even what the artist intended. But as long as the visitor really takes a moment to look or listen or just experience a moment with an artwork, then whatever the result of that experience is, I’m basically thrilled, story be damned.

  3. >>But ideally, I want a visitor to come out of one of my exhibitions having her own personal connections to some of the included artworks, and those connections might have absolutely nothing to do with what I’d attempted to elicit, or even what the artist intended.

    And that, I think, is the very essence of what makes a fantastic story. The narrative is only one aspect of story. Another aspect is the personal–what the experiencer derives from what is said or presented. How he assesses and recreates the story along the lines of his own life, his own emotions, and his own experience, how he reconstructs his inner world to incorporate this new experience is what makes storytelling so compelling. Yes, there is something I, the creator, hope to impart to you, the receiver, but if you aren’t participating in that event–or, more accurately, if I haven’t left *room* for you to participate in that event–then I have failed as a creator. The interaction between what is created and what is experienced is the thing!

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