Learning to Embrace the Unsettling: The Benefits of Owning Our Involvement in the Curatorial Process

By Mitchell Edwards

Over the past two weeks, I’ve found our class time together has generated a number of important and thought-provoking discussions—conversations that have risen from the practical demands of the project at hand, yet belong to a larger discourse that continues to shape methodologies fundamental to the discipline of history.

To be honest, this seminar is unlike any history-oriented class I’ve ever experienced. At times I’ve felt strangely uncomfortable, unprepared and altogether ignorant of the questions and issues our project has led has to encounter. Never before have I been faced with the realization that my own historical outlook will inevitably contribute to how a certain place is presented and remembered in the public sphere—a sphere that includes people whose lives are very much wound up with this particular place’s meaning. It’s unsettling, and yet, I am coming to realize that this feeling ought to be more familiar to practitioners of history.

While discussing the dilemma of “voice” a couple weeks ago, the audio and narrative teams debated as to how exactly our project will be conveyed to those listening. In many ways, this is the kind of conversation we’ve felt looming on the horizon throughout the beginning months of the course—a somewhat spooky reality we’d rather ignore than confront head-on. As experienced throughout this course, critiquing and commenting on the forms other audio walks have chosen is all “fun and games” until your project is faced with the reality of having to tackle those very same decisions. This task takes on greater complexity when working within a collaborative, group environment. Just as we’re using a multiplicity of interviewees’ voices to breathe life into the Pointe’s history, so is our very group comprised of a myriad of opinions and interpretations—some conflicting, some complimentary, but all inherently unique.

Our conversation related to “voice” elicited many interesting points-of-view. Some students suggested the narrator should be someone from the Pointe, a resident whose life will inevitably be represented by what is said in our walk. Other students proposed the narrator should be one of us in the class, and still others asked about the possibility of having a more “neutral,” third party narrator. Of course, this one dilemma formed greater dimensions once we considered the number of narrators, whether or not there would be one male and one female voice, and how different languages would be represented within such a framework…Suffice it to say, the ensuing debate uncovered a treasure trove of methodological questions and concerns.

In the end, though, my thoughts were directed not so much towards the actual voice(s) that will speak for us, but the posture with which we will frame this narrative. A tenet of the practice of oral history that I have often found refreshing is its devotion to transparency. While historians of other genres might go so far as to acknowledge the idea that history-making is an inherently subjective practice, oral historians take one step further and embrace said subjectivity, warts and all. In other words, instead of furthering the awkward dance often witnessed between practitioners of history and the subjectivity of their work, oral history uses this dynamic to its own advantage. There’s no avoiding the fact that stories, memories and interpretations of the past are subjective, so why not enlarge our perspective so that it moves beyond what things are being narrativized to why these particular narrativizations are taking place?

Similarly, I believe distancing our class from our current project would be somewhat antithetical to our overall aim. The voices we’re using to elucidate issues and themes inhabiting the Pointe are subjective, and so, inevitably, is our own project. To be sure, I believe we have the responsibility of striving for the most fair and inclusive narrative, but we should not conflate this ideal with what will ultimately be produced. Compromises will need to be made, voices will remain silenced, and, in the end, our audio walk and booklet will only tell a few selected fragments of the Pointe’s story through the medium of a few selected voices. For this reason and others, I have come to believe that how we position ourselves as co-authors of this project is incredibly important. As active agents in curating a place’s history, will we attempt to distance ourselves from what is being made public or will we fully acknowledge and embrace our intimate roles in these processes?

I’m of the opinion that one way we could actually do the latter is have our own class members narrate the walk. For me, such a decision gestures to our intentional ownership of the project we’ve framed, shaped and produced. Far from being the definitive history of Pointe Saint-Charles, the walk and booklet we ultimately create will merely constitute a contribution to an unfinished conversation. Understanding our involvement in this light might alleviate some anxiety. This privileging of transparency not only allows us to be honest with ourselves regarding how certain methodological questions are answered, but provides the same honesty to those who will experience the results of our decisions first-hand.