Curating a nightclub

A crowdsourced exhibition, hosted by a university library, provides a case study in the challenges of curation.

Bookmark and Share

Sir Henrys Bar and Nightclub was a vital part of the social, cultural and musical life of Cork (Ireland) from 1977-2003. It was renowned locally, nationally and internationally for its vibrant music scene – both rock and dance scenes – and the sense of community that these scenes inspired in those who attended the club on a regular basis.

UCC Library hosted an exhibition entitled SirHenrys @UCC Library, telling the story of the much loved, now defunct, club. The exhibition was very much a creation of the virtual, social media, world. It began with a simple tweet that turned into a discussion and snowballed from there.

The exhibition was promoted primarily through social media, specifically through the exhibition’s Twitter, Facebook and Blog accounts. The actual items and material on show in the space, loaned by people who created the club, attended the club, worked in and ran the club, were garnered primarily through these networks.

In essence the exhibition was crowdsourced. Or crowd harnessed as a comment on the exhibition comments' book put it.

Curating the exhibition

Over a thousand items spanning the beginning to the demise of the club were gathered. When selecting, along with the other curators Stevie Grainger and Eileen Hogan , I was reminded of a lecture I attended as a third year Sociology student. The module was Media Studies and the lecture examined the concept of ‘Framing’. Irish sociologist, (and the lecturer for that course) Ciaran McCullagh in his book Media Power provides a succinct definition of what framing is and does:

"The basic argument about framing is that the media do not simply provide us with information on certain issues and events; they also provide us with perspectives on them. These place the events and issues within particular contexts and encourage audiences to understand them in particular ways. In effect, the media do not simply select events to cover; they also offer interpretative frameworks through which these are to understood"

Through choosing what items to include I became aware that we were not just presenting pieces in an exhibition in a neutral way. We were providing a particular perspective on Sir Henrys. As McCullagh says, we were creating an interpretative framework through which Henrys could be, and would be understood by those who came to visit the exhibition. This framing effect would be magnified for those who never attended the club. For example those students not born when the club was in existence would be learning a very small part of the story and that story they learned was framed by what we decided to include in the actual physical exhibition space.

This is a particular issue when you consider that Sir Henrys existed as a club for over twenty-five years. Twenty-five years is time enough for three or four generations of club goers and many music scenes to have stepped through its doors and climbed those infamous steps. How could we objectively condense twenty-five years into an intimate exhibition space? Would it be even possible to do so? Is it even possible to do this?

Any one piece we chose to exhibit meant excluding another twenty or thirty pieces. Choosing a picture of one band meant leaving out countless others. Choosing to reference DJ V meant excluding DJs W, X, Y and Z.

The act of curating by its very nature is an exclusionary exercise.

It becomes a further issue when you consider that this exhibition took place in a university library. This problematises because the university is an institution that can bestow legitimacy upon objects and areas of study. When we chose an object we were elevating it above another. When we chose one band we were, tacitly, claiming they were more important than another. This is not something we took lightly.

The way we tried to get around this issue of framing was to accentuate the virtual part of the exhibition – our social media platforms – Twitter, Blog, Facebook. These virtual sites were truly part of the exhibition. The social media side, for us, was as much a part of the exhibition as the physical space in the foyer of UCC Library. For us, the material on the Facebook page was, and still is, a richer representation of what Sir Henrys was. It goes some way towards providing a true representation of what Sir Henrys was and remains to those who went there. The Sir Henrys Blog is alive with people’s memories and stories in the form of guest posts. These blog posts composed of people’s memories of Henrys captures Henrys and its spirit far better than any physical exhibition could. The countless stories, pictures and comments, tweets, blog posts provide a richer, far deeper representation, of what Sir Henrys was and remains to be for those who attended it.

Perhaps for a curator / curators to really represent an object or phenomenon they need to incorporate the virtual world? This virtual world, by its very nature, provides a much larger canvas upon which to display the work.

Conclusion

The main lesson that I have learned from the process of curating this exhibition is to always ask the questions of who, how, why and what.

When I next attend an exhibition – whether that be in a museum, a gallery, a library or wherever, as well as enjoying the exhibition I will ask myself the following questions. Who did the choosing of the pieces contained within – what is their connection to the exhibit, who are they? How did they choose the pieces on show? How did they select them? Why did they choose these particular pieces as opposed to other pieces? What pieces are not on show? What pieces are lying in archive boxes? Or stored on shelves in some storeroom in the building? What pieces are not on show?


(An earlier version of this was originally posted on the The Riverside UCC and Libfocus blogs)

Martin O'Connor is an Academic Librarian at University College Cork.  He will be speaking about this project at Internet Librarian International 2016 in October.  You can find Martin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/martinoconnor3.