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Curating Cool

Ben Hamley

Curating Cool

Cool is timeless. It tells us about our time and place, and it underpins the choices we all make, as we increasingly curate our lives.

Can the term curation be only truly applied to physical spaces and traditional art?

No, because the concept of curation has grown from a much more holistic and philosophical place that we often give it credit for.

‘Curation’ is a term that has etymological roots in the medieval latin term ‘curatus’ (one responsible for the care of souls). Incidentally, this is the same root as ‘cure’ which we’d all now associate with the medical profession more than the cultural sector. When we look at the institutions in which ‘curators’ are now found–museums–we also find that these institutional concepts are descendant from a Greek team ‘Μουσείον’ (mouseion) meaning ‘a seat or shrine of the muses’.

As we create, collect and curate, we apply our own personal aesthetic criteria to the fruits of the world. No matter how we do this, we present back to the world a story about who we are, simultaneously recasting the artefacts (digital or physical) that we have chosen in the context of this new story. What curation offers us is a mode of self-expression.

So, what has this got to do with cool?

It feels a little unnatural and self-absorbed to try and define cool. But we all have an intuitive understanding of what it means and–putting aside our egos for a moment–we can mostly agree that cool is an aspirational idea. Cool is even more interesting because it covers so much conceptual ground. It’s most frequently used as an epithet (slang) and is now part of our punctuation for surprising, new or interesting things. When we think of people though, cool becomes more ephemeral; a status of sorts. What is it that makes someone cool?

There is an italian word–Sprezzatura–coined in the 16th century by a renaissance author, Baldassare Castiglione. It means “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. Cool. Calm. Confident. In fact, we can trace the idea back even futher, to the Roman philosopher, Quintillian (35-95 AD) who is understood to have said that ‘the perfection of art is to conceal art’. This enduring idea of someone who has total control and mastery of their craft; skillfully expressing themselves, is the most intuitive definition of cool that we all share.

Except–we all have our own criteria or ‘aesthetic system’ that we apply to make decisions about the things we like. So your ‘cool’ and my ‘cool’ are likely to be completely different–yet neither is more or less valid than the other. We could quite easily agree that something is ‘cool’ if it fits within the parameters of our respective aesthetic systems and is executed surprisingly well. With this knowledge, we gain greater understanding of the things that give meaning to the lives of others.

At the Queensland Museum, we’ve just kicked off a project called ‘Curators of Cool’. We’ve invited six ‘cool’ people to explore the museums collection and select a few key objects which appealed to their individual aesthetic systems; what they think is cool, then present these objects in a micro-exhibition to tell the story about the work they do.

Because cool is so subjective, we used the following definition to select our first six curators: people with developed followings or recognised influence in a sociocultural system. They can be collectors, creatives, distributors, editors or producers of cultural properties and their status affords them an ability to define the aesthetic criteria by which other cultural properties are assessed by society. In short; they define what is cool through their work.

By introducing new stories, aesthetics and systems of meaning, we’re hoping to breakdown “a shared assumption underpinning much intellectual theorising about culture: that is that the masses cannot distinguish between good and bad culture” [1]. Nowhere has this been more prevalent than in the history of modern museums where “by the end of the nineteenth century… visitors to the new museums kept a reverent silence and no longer spat of the floor or brought dogs and small children” [2] as the upper classes began to set out new conventions for how “high culture” should be consumed. Just to clarify–I’m not saying that spitting in public is OK… what we’re talking about here is controlling the way publics ‘should behave’ and limiting the stories of discovery we tell to the world to the choices of the ‘elite’ and ‘privileged few’ of institutional science.

Although the ‘high culture’ conventions of the 19th century may now be falling out of favor in the mainstream, certain cool people are the key to understanding how these changes take place. As they develop and refine their individual aesthetic systems; what they do, and more importantly HOW they do it [3] creates an image that other members of society relate to, aspire to, copy, transform and combine into their own lives. This influence is what seeds certain aesthetic judgements among others and drives increasing references or uses of certain things that we call ‘trends’.

I am interested in how museums can take better advantage of the communities in which they operate to tell stories about the ideas that shape our time and place, not just the past–the now.

[1] McKee, 2007
[2] Ohmann, 1996. 158-159
[3] Sprezzatura

As curation becomes a more widely understood form of self-expression, what other opportunities are there to explore multiple points of view at the same time?

What is the role of a museum in a future where our encyclopedic strongholds of significant historical objects can be accessed and researched without ever having to visit?

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