Common definition is as follows :
« Curation refers to the long-term preservation and retention of heritage assets and to providing access to them in a variety of forms.…»
Basically, curating cultural heritage is taking particular pieces out of their normal life cycle (creation, use, disappearance). The reasons for that are to be found in the social need of human groups to remember things, to keep tangible memories.There’s as many ways and scopes to curate cultural heritage items than there are people doing it.
The « providing access in a variety of forms » part is fairly recent. It dates back, say, about the end of the 14th century, along with Italian Renaissance and the beginning of modern humanism. From then on, cultural assets progressively made their way from « treasures » to « mankind heritage ».
Contrary to popular belief , all the more in our digital era, curation first and foremost duties aren’t to physical pieces. Nope. It is to preserve the stories behind them, their context in the broader possible sense. The materiality of the items comes after : it’s the tip of the iceberg !
Now to talk physical pieces and care thereof.
According to ICOM’s definition it is « all measures and actions aimed at safeguarding tangible cultural heritage while ensuring its accessibility to present and future generations […]. All measures and actions should respect the significance and the physical properties of the cultural heritage item.»
And yes, the play on words with « tangible » in the definition then followed by « physical properties » is kind of a nasty one. Yet, think about why you keep most of the things you keep as reminders or « souvenirs ».
Are they still around you because you like their colors and shapes or because they remind you of a special place and a special time ? It is probably a little bit of both, hence the « significance » part.
To let you in a little secret, this last part is the one professionals have the hardest time dealing with…
Conservation has two very powerful weapon : restoration and preventive conservation.
Once again ICOM dixit :
« – Restoration – all actions directly applied to a single and stable item aimed at facilitating its appreciation, understanding and use. These actions are only carried out when the item has lost part of its significance or function through past alterationor deterioration… ».
The usual way one would think about restoration is actually the newly-forged concept of remedial conservation , officially born in New Delhi in 2008 :
« All actions directly applied to an item or a group of items aimed at arresting current damaging processes or reinforcing their structure. These actions are only carried out when the items are in such a fragile condition or deteriorating at such a rate, that they could be lost in a relatively short time. These actions sometimes modify the appearance of the items. »
For example, desalinazation an otherwise perfectly preserved ceramic from a deep sea shipwreck in a treatment bath will eliminate the fact it will break under salt pressure if it’s dried immediately.
Restoring is different. In museum practices, restoring an object is a rare, deep and highly controlled operation. This is when the undertaken action aims at giving back a significance to an object that has lost it in order to make it understandable again.
For example, a vase broken in hundreds of pieces has no significance of its use anymore : it’s just a pile of ceramic pieces. Puzzling it back to its original shape is a restoration. Then everyone will be able to see that, yes, it’s a vase.
Newly-forged concept yet very old practices.
Such is the way of the world.
It involves things like paintbrushes, scalpels, adhesives of all shapes and forms, patience and a good soundtrack. Oh, it also involves abhorring dust in every aspect it takes.
Once again, this is a recent concept for a very very old practice. For example, there are written proofs of that practice that date back to the construction of the Ephesus library (around 115 CE).
It is « all measures and actions aimed at avoiding and minimizing future deterioration or loss. They are carried out within the context or on the surroundings of an item, but more often a group of items, whatever their age and condition. These measures and actions are indirect – they do not interfere with the materials and structures of the items. They do not modify their appearance. »
Its field of action includes every aspects of the object/collection’s life : from preserving significance and contextualization to ensuring materials safeguarding, exhibition safety and mediation physical guidelines.
In a nutshell, it’s applied common sense. To make it more modern, let’s call it « UX design » for heritage items.
See #curation, #conservation and #preventive conservation.
Same difference though less precise.
But maybe posher ?
The Louvre defines “mediation” as the full range of tools and resources used to forge a relationship between the visitor and a work of art: exhibitions, catalogs, and the work of curators are the most important facets of the museum’s cultural mediation, but the term also applies to lectures and guided tours, workshops, and installations in the museum itself. In short, the many channels for conveying information to the visitor, and which underpin and inform his or her encounter with the works of art on display. »
In short: everything that helps you understand the piece you see before you beyond its physical aspect.
In shorter, it is the nice lady that told you stories during a school visit to the museum that you never thought you’d like.
We know you.