I was lucky enough to be squeezed in on the last day of an exhibition recently. You needed a ticket – the travesty of which must unfortunately be left for another Monocolumn.
This particular event was at the British Museum, that iconic London landmark stuffed with treasures from every nation around the globe arranged carefully among its labyrinthine rooms and corridors. British Artist Grayson Perry had created an imaginary world to explore – a combination of his own colourful and intriguing new works alongside selected artefacts from the museum’s seemingly infinite collection.
It got me thinking about curation. Essentially, Perry had just picked items from the massive vault available to the British Museum. “Do not look too hard for meaning here. I am not a Historian. I am an artist. That is all you need to know,” he told us in the opening display.
But his influence was fascinating – he made me want to look at these things, this stuff. There was something about the knowing-that-something-has-been-picked factor, which comes with a well-curated exhibition, causing my eyes to linger a little longer. It made me appreciate the Russian etchings, Ghanaian flags and Tibetan shrines in a way that I suspect I may not have, had they been sitting in an old glass cabinet scattered somewhere in the main building.
You could see the British Museum as a microcosm of the world. An overwhelming collection of random objects from cultures to easily become lost in. Extrapolate this to the modern day and the internet – that grand democratising and enlightening force – and it represents something similar. It’s a window which shows us what a vast expanse of stuff exists out there. Knowledge, information, numbers, sounds, images.
And in the same way we need Perry to transform objects in the museum from interesting to remarkable, we often need and seek out good curators to help us make sense of the world around us. It’s essentially why people visit trusted news sources and (some) still read newspapers. It’s one of the reasons why we go to galleries and museums. And it’s probably why you’ve turned on the radio rather than just listening to songs on your iPod.
The cultural theorist Fredric Jameson once argued that people would need to create ‘cognitive maps’ to make sense of the postmodern age. Critics might argue that Jameson waffles on a bit, and his theories are consigned to the hypothetical and academic. But I think he was on to something, and I think that’s why, even in this age of technology, where we are free to find our own way, it’s often more helpful to have someone steer us through it.