Before my internship in the National Museum of American Jewish History’s curatorial department, I held fast to a one-sided perception of curators. I wanted the job, provided by Penn’s CURF program, because I knew I would write biographies and conduct research, but I can’t say that I was particularly interested in the actual curation. I equated the work of a curator to that of an engineer; I imagined a precise, uncreative person cooped up in an office, steaming over strict exhibition installation schedules. Even worse, I envisioned an elitist, a quasi-politician refusing to get down on their hands and knees and make the art of which they so pretentiously speak. I admittedly wrote the rest of the curatorial staff off in a similar fashion, associating them with banal desk jobs removed from actual installation. I assumed that museums left all of the “dirty work” to brawny men in overalls. Though many of my Art History and Fine Arts friends at Penn wanted (and still want) to work in museum curation, a curator, I thought, is no artist.
I began my job in early June, a month before the opening of Hemmed Up: Stories Through Textiles. Hemmed Up would be the first temporary exhibition in an artists-in-residence series, part of the museum’s recent initiative to increase involvement in the arts. The exhibit would consist of only one piece, a “textile work” of many individual strips, intended to speak to the Jewish factory worker experience of the early 20th century. It would (literally) weave together quotes from Jewish poets and laborers; each fabric pattern would correspond to a letter in the alphabet, and strips would be arranged so that the artwork could be “read.” In a staff meeting two weeks before Hemmed Up’s July 9th opening, I asked the associate curator, the second-in-command to the chief curator, about the status of the piece and its installation plan.
“Well, it’s large,” she mumbled quickly. Distracted, she cupped her forehead in one hand and texted furiously with the other. It’s all business, I thought, feeling a tad of remorse. At this moment, I recognized that while working in curation positions one high up in art and history circles, I hoped that my friends would choose other careers. I did not want their spontaneity and passion for hands-on creation to spiral down the corporate drain. The associate curator interrupted my thoughts as she sighed, put her phone aside for a moment, and looked up at us.
“Besides that, the hell if I know.”
The chief curator threw his hands up in the air, adding, “The Hemmed Up artists are, well, artists. It’s two weeks before the opening and they haven’t told us anything about their progress. We’re just going to have to work with what they give us.”
I didn’t know what to think. Perhaps, to be a curator, one must forsake artistic spontaneity in order to keep an institution running smoothly. Perhaps the structured lens through which curators view art is not a flaw, but an unfortunate necessity.
On July 8th, less than twenty four hours before Hemmed Up’s opening, the artists arrived with a half-finished artwork and a giant box of fabric strips. They reassured the anxious and exasperated staff that they could complete the piece on time, and without extra help.
This sentiment did not last very long. Soon enough, we curatorial interns were sent down to help sew on the remaining strips. I am without question the last person on earth to trust with needle and thread, so I was sent to collect quote information, such as date, historical context, and location within the museum.
The first excerpt represented in the textile work came from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus.” The most famous line of this poem, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,” is emblazoned in gold upon the third floor (1880-1945) gallery entrance. As I stood in front of the engraved panel and checked it against the artists’ transcription, my stomach dropped. Instead of “yearning to breathe free,” the artists’ notes read, “yearning to be free.” It was 3pm, two hours before the museum’s closing, and the whole first section of the textile piece now needed redoing. After a few moments of panic (and poetry-nerd disbelief that someone would misquote “The New Colossus”), I ran down to the concourse level where the artists and interns were sewing frantically. I approached two members of the curatorial staff seated in the corner, texting away.
I nervously informed the associate curator and curatorial assistant of the mistake, expected them to make some remark about artists’ competence and speed dial a reserve of seamstresses. Instead, much to my surprise, the two staff members simply stood up and took deep breaths.
“We don’t have time to redo the whole quote,” the associate curator explained, “We’ll have to sew on top of what we have. Right now it says ‘be,’ and we need ‘breathe.’ We can fit a skinny ‘r’ strip in between the ‘b’ and ‘e,’ and use excess from thick ‘a’s, ‘t’s, ‘h’s, and ‘e’s to make the rest.” The associate curator paused and surveyed the concourse floor.
“Get everyone down here and ready to sew,” she instructed, as she grabbed a needle and sat down alongside the artists and interns. “We can fix this and still finish on time.”
Within minutes, the entire curatorial staff was sprawled out across the concourse floor, sewing the correct fabric onto the “New Colossus” section. I continued my job collecting information, but all of us--interns, artists, assistants, and curators--stayed as long as it took (luckily, only one hour past closing) to fix, finish, and install the artwork.
In the past, when my artistic Penn friends expressed desire (or succumbed to parental pressure) to work in museum curation, I bid adieu to “the artist” and accepted the imminent arrival of “the left-brained businessman.” But I had never watched a curator work, let alone problem solve. Curation requires both sides of the brain; a good curator must be an engineer, a businessperson, and a politician, but must also retain the hands-on, creative spirit developed in their art student years. Without this, art exhibitions become authoritative and instructive, when they should be inspirational. After working at the Jewish Museum, I no longer think that curators cut creativity out completely; perhaps, they only hem it.