Curating Discomfort – reflections on a panel discussion

Re-posting this from ANU Research News – see the full post with Claire Sheridan’s report here:

I joined colleagues from across the ANU for a panel discussion Discomfort in the National Capital: How the university sector can drive developments in collections and research, on September 5, 2023, with visitors, Zandra Yeaman (Curator of Discomfort, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University) and Steph Scholten (Director, Hunterian Museum, Glasgow University), and from ANU, Jilda Andrews (Research Fellow) and Sam Provost (Project Lead, Indigenous Data Initiatives). Claire Sheridan, from ANU Collections, facilitated the discussion.

Senior Ngambri-Ngunnawal custodian and Senior Community Engagement Officer for the ANU, Paul Girrawah House, welcomed us to country with words and music, and clearly energised the panel.

Zandra Yeaman and Steph Scholten explained the work they had been doing at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Zandra came to the Hunterian as the ‘Curator of Discomfort’, bringing her background in anti-racism work to the Museum to re-examine its collections through different viewpoints. This was happening around the same time the University of Glasgow was ‘following the money’ to uncover ongoing bequests with ties to historic slavery. They explained that ‘curated discomfort’ by asking new questions about the Hunterian’s collections – including questions about the legacies of empire, the origins of the collections, its ties to medical history Hunter’s role as a doctor, and to specific topics, like pregnancy.

Zandra explained how this process created discomfort. But rather than being presented as a problem, it was seen as being part of a process and anti-racism strategy. It was a way of opening up minds, and working through the discomfort people feel when confronting the way the staff see their museum and its collections, as well as the way the staff see themselves. For example, staff found it quite uncomfortable to explicitly think of themselves as ‘white’, but it is through this discomfort that change happens.

Zandra and Steph spoke about how much of the ‘curating discomfort’ work was behind-the-scenes. Although there was an exhibition (or more accurately, a curatorial intervention) and a public face to this work, most of it was about creating spaces for, and guiding, critical dialogue. Emphasis was placed on helping people to move to a position of openness and vulnerability, working with empathy and asking questions. The Hunterian invited six people from different backgrounds to be ‘Community Curators‘. These people brought their own expertise and lived experience, and the process became one of openly and collaboratively sharing knowledge and ideas. It reminded me of the reflections in the book I am currently reading by Katheleen Fitzpatrick, Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, which encourages academics to think about new ways to ‘work in public’, and to not see engagement as a one-way street of speaking as an expert to the ‘non-expert’ public.

It struck me that collections, despite their (or because of their) difficult histories, can become sites where uncomfortable conversations, questions and critical dialogues can occur, that don’t have to be wholly directed at the collection itself, but can be about broader issues around community, anti-racism, how we tell stories about the past, and so on.

Jilda Andrews talked about her use of anthropology as a tool – an instruction manual or recipe book – for asking questions about museums and looking at them as cultural sites and as places used to express and explore belonging. Of working with what we have from where we are. Knowing a small bit about Jilda’s work from other talks and conversations, I was struck by how different this approach was to the one taken by the Hunterian Museum. At the Hunterian, it was set by the museum leadership to make change. But the work Jilda describes comes not from below, but maybe more from within (or through the side door?) and the work is part of her own research practice. Both have their place, but Jilda’s descriptions reminded me that we don’t need to wait on, or convince, institutional leadership to decide that now is the right time to do this work. Rather, it can happen in and around collections. We don’t need institutional approval to start asking different questions and pursuing different methods. A question about barriers to doing work, prompted a response from Jilda that starting from a point of deficit is not necessarily a useful beginning as it assumes the only way is up, and that we should be careful of using the idea of barriers as the frame we automatically reach for when looking at uncomfortable topics.

Sam Provost talked from the perspective of someone who had come to collections through data (the opposite of many of us who have come to see collections as data). His role in Indigenous Data Initiatives requires him to look at all the ways that data is collected and how this data is connect too or reflects Indigenous people – the stories it tells of Country, and the complexity of relationships. He briefly traced the shift in thinking from Indigenous data being that collected about Indigenous people (about health, etc), to data being collected by Indigenous researchers, to now a much more expansive view that takes in data connected to many aspects of research that haven’t previously been considered Indigenous. I was struck by the idea, which to be honest had not occurred to me but made perfect sense, that all data collected on country can count as Indigenous data. Sam observed that disciplines create barriers ­- land, sea and sky are ‘seen over’ by different disciplines, compartmentalising country. All this data has value and use to communities from that place and part of Sam’s work is to find ways to map it back to communities. He noted that people can be uncomfortable or unsure about this ‘reclassification’ or expansion of what their data is about. The idea to expand our definition of data resonated with me as so often barriers are about definitions. I know in digital humanities work a lot of barriers or gate keeping come from people defending the ‘true’ definition of a thing, whereas new work and new ideas come from expanding our thinking of what this work can be.

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