Becki Brattin and Katie Bunnell recently completed Cornwall Museums Partnership’s Citizen Curators programme at Falmouth Art Gallery. The Curatorial Research Centre leads the Citizen Curators programme in collaboration with Cornwall Museums Partnership and seven participating museums. It is funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. It is an annual free course that is taking place 2018-2021. You can see some of the activity of the participants on Twitter and Instagram by looking for the hashtag #CitizenCurators. Museums are just starting to recruit volunteer participants for Year 2.
In this article we interview Becki and Katie about their journey into curating. Becki is a jeweller and you can see her work on Instagram. Katie is a ceramic artist and designer and you can learn more about her practice on her website. They were both part of the group that delivered Falmouth’s Gut Reaction project based on Falmouth Art Gallery’s Margaret Whitford Bequest collection of contemporary fine art.
What were you doing before you joined the Citizen Curators programme in 2018?
Becki: Before Citizen Curators I was running my jewellery business part time while looking out for a suitable part time course to get involved in at one of the nearby Universities, it seems that the Citizen Curator programme came just at the right time.
Katie: I had recently left a long term job in design research in higher education and was in transition from that to new ventures. I am a ceramic designer-maker and in order to re-establish my making practice I had based myself in a new studio complex called Grays Wharf in Penryn. It was brilliant to have my own space, but I was finding solitary working a stark contrast to collaborative project work that I was used to.
What kind of aspirations did you have to become a curator or use curatorial practice in your work before the programme started?
Becki: I have previously volunteered and worked at some local galleries helping to set up their exhibitions and wished to know more about what goes on behind the scenes, what aspects do we miss before the point of installing an exhibition? I was curious to know if I could apply this knowledge and practice within future projects of my own.
Katie: I had some previous experience of curating exhibitions from my work in HE which I had really enjoyed on a number of levels from concept development to group organisation and logistics. I was interested in exploring curating from new perspectives and doing that as a ‘citizen’ seemed like a really good idea. In addition, the team at Grays Wharf were interested in curating group and community work and new kinds of exhibitions in their gallery space and I thought it might feed into possibilities there.
Describe briefly your personal goals and aspirations for your Citizen Curators project.
Becki: My personal goal for the Citizen Curators project was to be involved as much as possible and try to enable the delivery of something new by confronting some boundaries of the collection at the host museum. It was a great hope of mine that the public would get to see and enjoy a hidden treasure or two from the collection and I believe we were successful within our project to execute this.
Katie: I wanted to learn more about the role of a curator and how that can influence or facilitate new approaches to museum collections making them more accessible and relevant to a wide range of people.
How have your thoughts on curating collections changed or developed through the experience of completing your Citizen Curators project?
Becki: During the Citizen Curators project I have been made aware just how many intricacies there are to negotiate within curating – legal or otherwise. There are certainly lots of plates to spin with little to no time to drop any! As with anything, the more experience the better to develop a personal skill set in curating.
Katie: It was brilliant to think about the bigger picture through questions like, “what is a museum?” “what should they contain?” and “how does the way we present artefacts influence our interpretation of them?” I think it is very easy for these bigger questions about what curators do and why they do it to get lost in the day to day running of a small and often underfunded gallery or museum. So it was useful to get some insight into curating from the perspective of the gallery staff and to be a Citizen Curators on the outside bringing those questions back into focus.
How has being introduced to modern ideas around curating influenced your practice?
Becki: We tried to use inclusive ideas around communities and communication within our project by targeting an audience of young teens and those with learning disabilities. Our aim was for there to be less barriers between the community and the collection through workshops in and away from the host museum. We hoped this gave a good stance to access and allowed us to keep conversations going long after the workshops within our online exhibition which we used as a mode of communication for all.
Katie: I am now really interested in re-presenting museum artefacts both in digital and physical ways both inside and outside of the museum or gallery environment and working with a range of people including audiences, to develop new ways of interacting with or interpreting them. I am committed to creating an open space where people feel happy and confident to respond in their own ways and to respect different responses from others.
Which specific elements or features of being a curator do you intend to keep hold of?
Becki: I am definitely anticipating on keeping hold of the use of research. Asking powerful questions to generate further knowledge is such a helpful skill. It can bring about purpose to an idea. Another element to the course that has resonated with me is how interpretation is viewed. Working within our target audience, I have realised how much scope there is for audiences to interpret the work curators do.
Katie: I really enjoyed the sensory workshop we did with people with learning disabilities where we responded to selected pieces of artwork through body movement, gestural drawing and mono-printing. It was joyous to see the way participants’ engagement developed over the space of an hour and half and how much delight there was to be had from the whole process. So finding different ways to respond to things that match peoples interest and capability seems important. Our experience together of team working, project management and logistics are all things that I will keep hold of as well.
What would you say to anyone else thinking of undertaking curatorial training?
Becki: I would recommend curatorial training to those who are interested as it really opens your mind to new ways of thinking which in turn flavours your perspective on a whole array of subjects.
Katie: Do it! It’s great fun and you’ll learn a lot about museums, power, research, interpretation, working with audiences, working as a team and best of all you’ll make something happen in your local art gallery or museum!
What next for you?
Becki: Myself and Katie from Falmouth Citizen Curators have applied to the Cornwall Museums Partnership for an Emerging Voices Bursary. If successful, we will continue our studies from our recent project Gut Reaction which looks at a Cornish feminist philosopher as an art collector. I am also planning a trip out to Grass Valley in California this Summer to delve into the history of the Cornish communities who migrated there during the gold mining rush. I look forward to sharing my findings in due course.
I am also eager to start a new course this September on Art Appreciation which ties in well with the completion of the Citizen Curators programme. Thanks to Tehmina Goskar, Cornwall Museums Partnership and Falmouth Art Gallery for the wonderful opportunity.
Katie: I am now working as a co-curator on the Whitegold Project, an arts regeneration project for St Austell. For Whitegold I am curating an International Ceramic Prize and a community brick making project called Brickfield. You can find out more at www.whitegold.org.uk. I also continue to develop my own practice.