Learning to Curate

* Slightly revised 10/2/13 

A happy convergence has lately emerged from our Humanities Labs: undergraduates are doing serious curatorial work for Duke's Nasher Museum, in web exhibits and physical installations. In the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge, affiliate faculty Richard Powell challenged students in his Fall 2012 Modern and Contemporary African American Art to create an online exhibit drawing from the collections at the Nasher and other North Carolina museums. The result, African American Close-Up: Prints, Photographs and Works on Paper from North Carolina Collections, is gorgeously presented and impressively researched.


Down the hall in BorderWork(s), under the tutelage of Lab Co-director Philip Stern, undergraduates in the Maps, Art, and Empire group independent study (aka Empire Maps Back) recently celebrated the opening of Defining Lines: Cartography in the Age of Empire, which will be on view at the Nasher through December 15, 2013. The shows's companion website is, like Close-up, beautifully designed and rich with the students' research on cartography. The curators will be giving a Gallery Talk at the Nasher this Thursday 10/3 evening at 6pm. (Four of them - Rachel Fleder, Lauren Jackson, Beth Blackwood, and Jordan Noyes - are pictured below at the exhibit opening.) 

This administrative "geek" was especially charmed by the "Process" section, which tells the story of how Defining Lines emerged from the BorderWork(s)'s model of collaborative, open-ended learning. The students write:

The following year consisted of many evenings locked in our lab space, arguing about which maps would stay and which would go, whether parentheses were alright in our title, and how to best articulate a complicated subject in 120 words or less. Each member of the group probably wrote and rewrote the wall text for their maps enough times to match the length of a final term paper.

Richard Powell has also attested to how much his students learned from painstakingly revising their curatorial essays for Close-up. Once the "security blanket" of writing to get a grade from a single professor is removed, the question of what counts as "good writing" can open up in interesting ways. Sometimes a label is worth a thousand words!