Since beginning my training in art history in college, I have always felt a bit confused when faced with the title of “curator”, which has become popular in the art world nowadays, expecting to find a clear definition. However, the reason for its considerable influence may be precisely its unusual flexibility, allowing everyone to use it as a convenient way to transform their identity.
The imported nature of the term “curator” can be seen in the variety of ways in which it is translated in different fields in Taiwan. In the museum system, “curator” is often translated as “研究員” (alternately translated as “researcher”). For instance, in the 1994 issue of The Lion Art Monthly, Sophia S. T. Wen translated C. V. Horie’s article “What is a Curator?” as “研究人員是何許人” (“What is a Research Staff?”). However, in 1998, as Lin Mun-lee, then director of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, invited Fumio Nanjo to curate the Taipei Biennial, while the Taiwan Museum of Art (now National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts) held the “the International Chinese Art Curator Conference” and later published its final report, another translation – “策展人” (used exclusively to translate “curator”) – was affirmed through public sector activities and publications. Since then, though the two terms correspond to the same English term, they have curiously been used in separate contexts, as if they have no relationship to one another.
When mentioned by critics, “curators” are usually assumed to be “independent curators”. For instance, in his article “Returning to Curating: Contemporary Curatorial Trends and Observations”, Lin Hong-John pointed to the pioneering roles of Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps in the 1970s to distinguish them from the earlier “exhibition-making” institutional system inside the museums or art museums and proposed that “curators should become ‘creators’, or, to be more precise, a kind of creative ‘work/work’ that moves beyond the fixed system.” (Note 1)
Over the decades, however, although “curating” (策展) remains as indefinable as ever, this notion which was originally intended as a departure from the institutional system has become the new mainstream, to the point where it is conceivable for the emergence of “curators” (策展人) within the system itself. In past discussions, this concept has appeared in various forms, i.e. “public curator” (公務策展人) (Note 2), “institutional curator” (機構策展人) and “in-house curator” (館內策展人) (Note 3).
No matter how we label them, museum workers who were involved in the planning of exhibitions in the past probably were all subjected to the same bias, as described by Chen Tai-Sung: “Public curators are often seen as narrow-minded conservatives who execute the ‘will of the director’ and secretly promote ‘political agendas’ and “public policies’ […] passively enforcing administrative orders. “ (Note 4) Because of this, it has become the norm for museums to invite outsiders to plan exhibitions in order to break the impression of being a conservative institution. But this practice has once again led to the discussion of the need to cultivate “in-house curators”.
It is for this reason that, before we take up this topic, it might be helpful to draw a more accurate picture of “in-house curators”. Given that museums have hardly been mentioned in previous discussions, through the following interviews with museum practitioners from the National Palace Museum (NPM) and the National Museum of History (NMH), both well-established museums in Taiwan, we hope to provide another perspective to consider these “in-house curators”. Although the collections, exhibitions, and goals of these museums differ from those of contemporary art museums, it is undeniable that they have the most experience with art exhibitions. As we continue to discuss the importance of the role of “in-house curators” in contemporary art, it might be worthwhile to look at the examples from other neighboring disciplines.
The Challenge and Benefits of Abundance: The National Palace Museum
Current exhibitions at the NPM can be roughly divided into two major categories: permanent exhibitions and thematic exhibitions. Organized by the Department of Painting and Calligraphy, permanent exhibitions such as “the Expressive Significance of Brush and Ink”, located on the second floor of the NPM Northern Branch, display calligraphic works from the museum’s collection on a year-round basis. Although it is a permanent exhibition, the exhibits are changed periodically. According to Chiu Shih-hua, assistant curator at the NPM, the purpose of the permanent exhibition is to provide new visitors who lack knowledge in art history with a brief introduction of the development of classical painting and calligraphy through the works on display. Take calligraphy as an example. Within the limited exhibition room, the curator seeks to present an art historical perspective by including calligraphic works from the Pre-Qin period to the modern era. Furthermore, periodical changes can also help hold the interest of regular visitors, apart from giving museum collections their required breaks.
On the other hand, thematic exhibitions have always been the focus of the NPM’s painting and calligraphy exhibitions, offering the curators opportunities to explore specific themes. Nonetheless, it is interesting to learn about the planning process and whether the museum has a standard procedure in place. As Chiu Shih-hua points out, there is, in fact, no specific or collective schedule for planning thematic exhibitions. Most of the plans for future exhibitions are gathered irregularly by the head of the department, who then submits them to his or her supervisor. The planning schedule is often very tight as well. Routine reports, administrative paperwork for exhibition demands, and the complicated procedures to apply for museum collections, all contribute to reducing the available time to organize an exhibition.
For instance, the use of public institutional funds must conform to legal regulations, and bidding must be conducted if the exhibition cost reaches a certain amount, for which the curator has to handle the required paperwork. In addition, when the curator compiles a list of exhibits based on the exhibition theme, he or she has to consider the condition of the museum pieces, the interval between its last exhibition, and the support of the Department of Registration and Conservation. The restoration process could sometimes be delayed if the artifact is in poor condition or has not been shown recently and must be replaced or taken out entirely if it cannot make the exhibition. This in turn affects spatial planning and requires even more time and energy.
When we talk about “curating” (策展), this kind of tedious and time-consuming administrative work is something we rarely take into account. However, this is what people working in museums or art museums spend most of their time on when planning exhibitions, and is not often revealed in the results. However, this work is equally as important as the exhibition theme and the selected museum collections. I believe this is crucial to the discussion of “in-house curators”. Compared to independent curators, in-house curators should theoretically be able to bear in mind the specific administrative demands to avoid unnecessary discussions and learning curves, while accommodating the needs and limitations of the institution.
In addition, Chiu Shih-hua mentions that the greatest advantage of planning exhibitions at NPM is its enormous museum collection, which gives the curators more room and flexibility in devising exhibitions. They also get to showcase their familiarity with the collection when they curate thematic exhibitions that highlight the museum collection’s distinctive features. An example is the exhibition “Facets of Authority: A Special Exhibition of Imperial Portraits from the Nanxun Hall”, which is currently showing in the Northern Branch. The portraits of the past emperors and queens, which used to be kept secret in the royal palace and were not easily accessible to the general public, are presented systematically after many years of academic research and demonstrates the uniqueness of the NPM from other ancient art museums. Furthermore, the in-house curator’s familiarity with the museum facilities and spatial environment expedites the planning of exhibitions, an advantage that most independent curators lack when dealing with exhibition spaces.
A Collaborative Approach to Exhibitions: The National Museum of History
When discussing exhibitions, Liao Hsin-tien, director of the renowned National Museum of History, believes that people working at the NMH have a broader scope of responsibilities in handling exhibitions than what is usually assigned to “curators” (策展人) in Taiwan. Conceptually similar to the situation mentioned by the curator at the NPM, not only do they have to plan the exhibition and select the exhibits, but they also have to handle the administrative work, as well as the promotional and educational activities. Although the NHM also appoints a “curator” who is responsible for the exhibition, they prefer to consider exhibitions the result of a collaborative effort, rather than the work of a single person.
Take the exhibition “Highlights from the Permanent Collection” as an example. The museum appointed several senior curators (研究人員) to devise themes and look for related materials and research studies. They then use this to draw up the exhibition plan and select the exhibits. During this process, the curators, museum collection staff, as well as the director himself, all provide input to form the framework for the exhibition. However, unlike earlier exhibitions of the NMH, Liao Hsin-tien hopes that their future exhibitions can be “research-oriented” and pose questions that contribute and respond to current academic issues. Furthermore, the planning and designing of exhibitions is not only the privilege of the in-house curators and the collection staff. As Liao Hsin-tien points out, all of the museum divisions are entrusted with the task of exhibition planning. This is intended to diversify the museum exhibitions and help ease the pressure caused by a tight exhibition schedule.
As is the case with the NPM, those who are in charge of exhibitions at the NMH also have to handle the administrative work. According to Liao Hsin-tien, public institutions such as the NPM and the NMH are funded by the state budget under legislative supervision. Such legal obligations require additional paperwork and compromise the curator’s ability to demonstrate his or her professional knowledge, as well as reduce the time and energy spent on the actual exhibition. These are the prerequisites of the public system. However, under the aegis of the museum, in-house curators are provided with an annual exhibition budget and get to work in a more stable environment. These are the privileges of working within the institution.
Since the NMH is currently closed for renovation, while the museum is still holding exhibitions in other venues, there are presently no specific venues where the museum staff can realize their research and exhibition plans from recent years. The museum reopening is therefore of great public interest. When asked about this question, Liao Hsin-tien says that owing to greater demand for construction work after companies returned to Taiwan as a result of last year’s global pandemic, the renovation project has been delayed and cannot be finished according to plan. However, before the museum reopening, they will host an introductory event at the end of the year at the National Taiwan Arts Education Center near the National Education Radio. The museum is scheduled for a trial run in mid-2022. Redesigned from the ground floor to the fifth floor to provide space for exhibitions and public service, each floor will be renamed and serve a thematic purpose: the Dai-chien Hall (大千廳, first floor), the National Gallery (國家畫廊, second floor, unchanged), the Formosa Evergreen Hall (寶島長春廳, third floor), the Lotus Pavilion restaurant (荷風閣, fourth floor), and the Sancai Hall (三彩廳, fifth floor). It is worth waiting to discover whether the permanent and thematic exhibitions planned for the trial run of the museum will offer a fresh perspective.
In conclusion, when we use the museum as a starting point to understand the role played by “in-house curators”, we can see that the obligation to serve specific political purposes or those in power has diminished considerably, and the way in which people plan exhibitions there and the underlying academic research are not unlike what curators outside the institution have to handle. However, the crucial difference lies in the institutional administrative work they have to do. This work is not reflected in the actual exhibition and is therefore overlooked in discussions, but it is this seemingly repetitive, tedious, and time-consuming work that is the key to a successful exhibition. These kinds of everyday administrative details are the reason why artists are able to count on the excellent support of the exhibition team, and why everything else – from educational activities to exhibition publications – can be accomplished.
Furthermore, their long-term experience with the museum’s collections is a major resource for planning exhibitions and an important basis for their academic advancement, which is an advantage over independent curators. Public institutions like museums and art museums don’t usually focus on scholarly achievements. However, as the number of art museums in Taiwan gradually increases, it is necessary for them to offer art historical or theoretical perspectives that emphasize their distinctive features. In-house curators should enhance their knowledge, use exhibitions to establish the museum’s identity, and be able to devise long-term projects better than independent curators. This is the inevitable response to a changing artistic landscape.
Note 1. Lin, Hong-John. “Returning to Curating: Contemporary Curatorial Trends and Observations”. Artco Monthly, vol. 203, Aug. 2009.
Note 2. Chen, Tai-Sung. “Curating, the Machine, and its Social Experiment: Imagination and Expectation of Public Curators”. Artco Monthly, Vol. 204, Sep. 2009.
Note 3. Chang, Yi. A Study of the Role of In-House Curators in Public Arts Museums of Taiwan─A Case Study of Taipei Fine Arts Museum. 2019. Graduate Institute of Arts Administration and Management, TNUA, Master’s Thesis.
Note 4. Same as Note 2.