89. Tehmina Goskar Critically Engages with Curation, Wherever It Happens

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Dr. Tehmina Goskar, director of the Curatorial Research Centre, co-founded MuseumHour with Sophie Ballinger in October 2014. The weekly peer-to-peer chat on Twitter “holds space for debate” for museum people all around the world.

This month, Goskar officially steps back from her role at MuseumHour. This episode serves as both an “exit interview” for Goskar’s MusuemHour work and a chance to highlight other projects that she has founded based on her curatorial philosophy.

In this episode, Goskar discusses founding the Curatorial Research Centre, democratizing culture through her Citizen Curators program (in association with the Cornwall Museums Partnership), and how over six years of MuseumHour conversations have shaped her work.

Topics and Notes

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Transcript

Below is a transcript of Museum Archipelago episode 89. Museum Archipelago is produced for the ear, and only the audio of the episode is canonical. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, refer to the links above.

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For the past 6 and a half years, more or less weekly, museum people gather on Twitter for something called MuseumHour. Together, these people form a peer to peer community, supporting discussion and debate between those who work in, enjoy, and challenge museums in society.

Tehmina Goskar: That's the beauty of MuseumHour. It is entirely independent. It is not an organization. It is just about holding a space so other people can talk with each other.

This is Dr. Tehmina Goskar, who co-founded MuseumHour back in October 2014. Goskar also founded the Curatorial Research Centre.

Tehmina Goskar: Hello, my name is Tehmina Goskar and I am the director and curator of the Curatorial Research Centre. And that's an organization I started back in 2018, very much to support fellow curators from around the world and also to make progress in modernizing curatorial practice.

This month, Goskar officially steps back from her role in MusuemHour. I wanted this to serve as both an exit interview and a chance to highlight other projects that she has founded based on her curatorial philosophies.

Tehmina Goskar: Museum Hour started back in October, 2014. Sophie Ballinger, who was the co-founder with me, got together over Twitter. We've never met in real life. Goodness knows whether we ever will. Sophie was based up in the North of England. I'm based in the far West of Cornwall. But we both decided we'd give the idea of these discussion-based hours that were kind of finding their feet on Twitter at that time. So we decided to give it a go and it's grown and grown and grown and changed a lot since then. Of course Twitter's also changed hugely in terms of who participates, who feels confident about speaking up, who lurks in the background. There is a lot of polarization on the platform now.

And so we've changed and adapted MuseumHour to all of those trends that we've seen happen, including its growing politicization as well. If I'm being honest, I kind of treated the whole thing even six and a half years on as an ongoing experiment in trying to understand how it is people like to communicate with each other and how it is that you can provide some kind of support for this peer to peer contact is what we're really after.

On Museum Archipelago, we look at museums as a medium. And Twitter is also a medium -- one that has changed since MuseumHour started six and a half years ago. Since then, Twitter has shifted from a simple subscriber model, one where you see all the tweets from the people you follow in the order that they tweeted, to a system that uses algorithms that optimize for other factors, such as engagement with the tweets. This can make a global conversation about museums difficult.

Tehmina Goskar: With the change in how Twitter is managed and how the concept of driving engagement and algorithms are dictating what we see on our timelines, there has absolutely been an impact on MuseumHour because of that. We've got to work much harder to try and get ideas for topics, for example, or people's ideas out to as broad and interested audience or participation group that we can. And that, that has proven very difficult, in fact, particularly of late, because people's timelines are so manipulated by Twitter's algorithms and because there's so much more noise on Twitter now than there was. So I'm kind of glad that MuseumHour has managed to hold its own so it retains a light structure. It does support those intimate conversations, as well as supporting bigger thoughts and opinions and even ones that people disagree about in one space.

I’ve participated in and even hosted a few MuseumHours, and the thing it reminds me of the most is a museum conference, or the conversations you might have at a museum conference, which is yet another medium. But, interestingly, Goskar says that MuseumHour has never been about recreating that experience.

Tehmina Goskar: That certainly isn't the kind of experience you usually get, unless you are fortunate enough to be able to afford to go to very expensive, large international museum conferences, for example, like the Museums Association Conferences in the UK or any of ICOM conferences. But we've never really perceived of MuseumHour to fill that kind of gap. We're still kind of exploring what it is that we think we're doing. And that's just by way of being very honest about not having an agenda and letting sort of the emergent process of MuseumHour happen.

MuseumHour is just one of the volunteer projects Goskar works on. She is first and foremost a curator -- I term I still ask for the definition of after almost 90 episodes of this show.

Tehmina Goskar: Curating doesn't just exist in the museum world. And I think far too many people in museums think that being a curator is somehow a special feature of museums, but no other field, but that is just not true. The way I described curation is very, very simple. For me. a good curator is part knowledge creator, and part communicator. So the philosophy of the Curatorial Research Centre is very much to promote this 50% model as we call it, idea of a curator. That you should be as interested in communicating knowledge stories, ideas about people, about material culture, and of course the connections between them as you are in the research, in the generating of knowledge, and also to recognize that not all knowledge and not all research comes from a Western idea of academic research.

That's very important to me in my practice, but I would certainly also recognize expertise coming from lived experiences, coming from curatorial cultures, as I would recognize them in other parts of the world and certainly from other cultures past as well. So for me, it's very simple: I boil it down to a curator is 50% knowledge generator or knowledge creator and 50% communicator and wrapped ‘round that kind of equation is the very heart of the word to curate, which means to care for. So there must be some elements of intention and meaning and caring for what you're curating in order to authentically curate whatever it is you feel you want to curate.

Goskar founded the Curatorial Research Centre in 2018, and a few months later brought archaeologist and audiovisual specialist Tom Goskar aboard -- who also happens to be her husband. The Centre aims to work in partnership with museums, not just in a transactional manner. Research is the core of the Centre’s work. At every opportunity research answers the questions: why are things done like this, what should we be doing instead?

Tehmina Goskar: So why Curatorial Research? What on earth is Curatorial Research? It is critically engaging with the act of curation, wherever that may happen. The study of the phenomenon a bit like museology is the study specifically of museums. Curatorial Research is I would say taking a much more proactive stance towards constantly critically engaging with what curation and being a curator is all about and what it might be all about.

So from my standpoint, I am an action researcher. I am a pretty vocal thinker and I'm interested in systems. So that means that I'm. Always analyzing, always lining up the evidence to take a really good look at it. Whether that's exhibition making or collections research or that I might be now currently focused on so that might be diversity and decolonization. It might be more about the change in technical skills, a curator needs, or it might be as my current professional life is dominated by training others in how to be a curator, put simply.

These curatorial values and philosophy are on display in Goskar’s other project: Citizen Curators with the Cornwall Museums Partnership. Citizen Curators is designed to support volunteers by building their confidence and competence in key areas of curatorial work.

Tehmina Goskar: Citizen Curators a bit like my creation of the Curatorial Research Centre, was a long time in the making before it happened. So I was beginning to think that the idea of volunteer reliant or volunteer run museums needed some kind of channel into what I would call the mainstream professional museum world. And I felt that there was a lack of opportunity there that I felt that a program like citizen curators could fill. There were these really fascinating, bigger ideas, like inclusion, like decolonization of late that were not touching the small museum world. The idea came for Citizen Curators, which, but simply as pitched as a work based curatorial training and museum awareness course aimed specifically at volunteers from our communities and part of it was to sort of break down barriers between volunteers and collections and asking new questions of them.

Through my support, they had permission to, for example, browse the stores, browse the object, databases, come to their own conclusions, go outside the museum, talk to people about the kinds of things that they were coming up against to also bring their own talents and hobbies and ideas to the process.

There’s a similarity between holding the permission space for Citizen Curators and holding the discussion space for MuseumHour. For Goskar, both projects feed back into her work at the Curatorial Research Centre.

Tehmina Goskar: I've always been a practitioner. In the kind of museum, heritage, culture, arts world. That is what some people, and I would describe as, I bring my whole self to the table so I don't compartmentalize the voluntary activities I do. For example, running MuseumHour. And the professional activities I do to earn a living. So as a career curator, curating in all sorts of different contexts, not just exhibitions, but being engaged in collections research, critically engaging in the systems that museums use and take for granted, trying to understand the whole phenomenon of museums. I would say that my experience of MuseumHour has in parts quite heavily shaped how I see other people's views of museums. Other ideas and other thoughts about what museums can and should be. It's also helped me formulate and to check my own understanding and also my own, my own prejudices and biases, about museums and you know what I think a good museum is isn't what someone else thinks a good museum is. And that's okay.

You can find Tehmina Goskar at curatorialresearch.com.

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