I spent all morning Tuesday talking about Green Community, first straight to a camera for a short web tour and then to a group of sharp and knowledgeable students from Smith College. From a variety of liberal arts majors, they are spending this fall in Washington interning at various Smithsonian museums. Dorothy Moss, their instructor, has been lining up opportunities for them to visit other museums and hear from the curators. Tuesday was National Building Museum day
Without having attended all of the other museum visits they’ve had…which would have been great, since I still consider myself a novice in the curatorial biz…I spent the first part of our time together talking about what the Building Museum is not: not an art museum; not a science museum; not a history museum. And then talking about what the Green Community exhibition is not: it’s not a history exhibition; it has no original artifacts; and, it’s not neutral. Green Community is an advocacy exhibition.
Advocate. A wonderful word. It's from the Latin ad+ vocare. Various dictionaries define advocate, when it’s a verb, as “to summon for counsel.” The noun, advocate, is the one who is summoned. The prefix, ad, is the Latin preposition meaning to, toward, and for. It’s directional and it takes an object; that is, there’s always a thing at the other end to, for, or toward which the action is directed. (Latin geeks will smugly remember that ad takes the accusative ending) Vocare, the Latin verb, means to call, to summon, to name. The Italian and the Spanish words for attorney, avvocato and abogado, respectively, hew close to the original Latin; the attorney is literally the one summoned for counsel. An advocate speaks for and calls to. A blizzard of derivatives—the etymological kind, not the weird financial kind--falls from vocare: advocate, avocation, convoke, equivocal, evoke, invocation, invoke, provoke, revoke, vocation, vouch…voice.
So, what is an advocacy exhibition? Green Community, like the 2 Greens before it, speaks for, in support of, the content and calls to the visitor to listen and to act. The curator for an advocacy exhibition, then, deploys a different voice than she might use for a more traditional kind of exhibition. My previous exhibition, Tools of the Imagination, a thematic history of drawing tools and technologies from the 18th century to the present, was in the latter category. I chose the artifacts, drawings, and my words to illuminate and give context to the subject matter, but I wasn’t trying to convince anyone of anything. The take away message of Tools was not that the volutor was the better way to draw Ionic capitals, or that digital models were superior to cardboard. Not that I don’t have opinions on these things myself… they just weren’t germane to the narrative. (btw, volutors rule)
To be persuasive, to be an effective advocate, requires that everything--the original writing, the selection of quotes, the material and arrangement of the space, the colors and the graphics, the selection of each image, and of course the selection of the projects themselves—call to the visitor and speak for the goal of sustenance. The “calling to” and “speaking for” is directional, but it is not one-way, as the Smith students reminded me. Their questions and challenges demonstrated that an advocacy exhibition’s content is never entirely closed. It’s just the opening statement.