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Exhibiting Concepts, Experiencing Meanings

Current and future curatorial challenges

Convenors: Aristoteles Barcelos Neto and Steven Hooper

This international symposium celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Sainsbury Research Unit for the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. It brought together curators and specialists from within and beyond all three regions to discuss current practice in exhibition curatorship and to map out future collaborative possibilities. Besides a series of papers, there was ample opportunity for discussion and debate. Participants were invited to reflect on exhibitions and displays as loci for social relations, and on curatorship as involving processes of inter-cultural mediation and conceptual imagination.

Exhibitions involve person-object-person relations in a controlled spatio-temporal context. Recent modes of display have helped create new symbolic meanings in exhibitions, not just because of their intrinsic relational nature, but also because of shifting conceptual frontiers. Some curatorial and museological practices today challenge long-established anthropological and archaeological concepts. These practices, in turn, are challenged by ‘native’ concepts, many of them objectified through theoretical analysis. But how can concepts such as ashe, mana and pacha, theological complexities such as grace, virtue and echad, and inter-semiotic relations such as songs woven in baskets be made visible? No less problematic is the display of objects with little or no provenance information. How can these obscure objects be made relational in an exhibition setting?

These and other issues, focusing primarily on exhibitions as intellectual projects with significant cross-cultural implications, were addressed in this three-day symposium (11am Thursday 15 May to early afternoon Saturday 17 May, 2014). Academics and curators with responsibility for, or interest in, anthropological, archaeological and art collections from Africa, Oceania and the Americas attended along with students in these fields.

For more information on this event see the full Symposium programme and abstracts.