Collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Collections and Curation: Objects, Knowledge, and Desire

Instructor: Türkan Pilavci
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

Collected objects tell a story. But who establishes the narrative? Commanding vast private or institutional resources, many collectors are also vested with the power of knowledge production. What they collect, and how they organize, display, and contextualize their collections, all serve to set the terms of historical and aesthetic discourse, making meaning and ascribing value to not only the collected objects, but also the cultures that produced them. Typically ensconced behind the neo-gothic or -classical facades of academies and museums, collections exude an aura of objectivity. But, how can we understand the material, political, and discursive forces that impel collectors and structure their collections? Who has the agency to collect? Who has the power to determine archaeological priority and meaning? How does collecting recast the objects of antiquity as objects of desire—and what does this “romance relation” tell us about power and the boundaries of “East” and “West”? How have collections in turn shaped the collective identities of modern African, Middle Eastern, and Asian nations, constructing and representing their cultural, historical, and political values? 

In this course, we will explore the history of collecting and the curatorial practices that shape perceptions of material culture. We will read from a variety of art historians, archaeologists, and post-colonial theorists, examine material objects in their uncollected and collected contexts, and ask: How do collections become something more than the sum of their parts? How do collections function as public memory—and what do they memorialize? To what extent, and with what methods, are we capable, in the 21st century, of peeling back the multiple layers of meaning that have accrued to collections over time? As we inquire, we’ll draw on texts by Susan Pearce, Allison Karmel Thomason, Yannis Hamilakis, Frederick Bohrer, Svetlana Alpers, Horst Bredekamp, and Lorraine Daston, as well as codes of ethics put forth by museums and international organizations such as ICOMOS and UNESCO. If each new context only complicates the biographies of collected objects, what sort of best practices are in place for the present?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
June 07 — July 05, 2023
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet on Wednesday, June 28th.


Registration Open

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