Museum Practice: Curatorial theory by Halona Norton-Westbrook

In my new book Museum Practice the third section ‘Processes’ focuses on the internal processes of various kinds within museums which develop and deliver the ‘resources’ (explored earlier in this blog) into outputs or products delivered to the ‘publics’ considered in the last part of the book. A group of chapters consider the development of exhibitions, trends in permanent museum exhibitions, and exhibition design and display. Two chapters survey developments in curatorial theory and practice, seen here as connected to but not limited by collections and exhibitions, in which curators acquire, select, arrange, research, present and interpret things for people to look at. This section also considers a process within museum practice—repatriation and restitution, including human remains—which is assuming increasing importance, and raising questions about the very nature of the museum, the legality of its collections and displays, and relationships with source communities.

In Chapter 15, the important topic of curatorial theory is broached by Halona Norton-Westbrook who offers an up to date synthesis of current curatorial thinking across different types of museums based on secondary historical and theoretical literature, but also surveys and interviews with leading international curators from a range of disciplines. In this chapter ‘The Pendulum Swing: Examining the Past, Considering the Present of Curatorial Theory’, Norton-Westbrook traces the historical development of curatorship and gives voice to the experience of past and present participants within the museum field. ‘This exploration operates under the assumption that theory and practice are fundamentally intertwined,’ she writes, ‘when we speak of one we necessarily invoke the other.’ The chapter aims to draw attention to ‘the commonality that is to be found in the experience of curators of various disciplines’. At the same time, it ‘seeks to engender a more nuanced awareness of some of the subtle continuities (and discontinuities) that connect (and separate) the ideas and practices of curators to one another across space and time.’

Halona Norton-Westbrook currently serves as the third post-doctoral Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Toledo Museum of Art. The fellowship program, underwritten by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, endeavors to train the next generation of museum leaders by giving them opportunities to learn the Museum’s inner workings firsthand as part of the executive staff. Fellows not only take part in strategic planning for the institution but are also immersed in curatorial work. Norton-Westbrook, who received her BA from Mills College in Oakland, California, holds an MA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and a PhD in Museology from the University of Manchester. Her doctoral research centered on the history of curating in American and British art museums. Norton-Westbrook has worked on a number of diverse curatorial projects at museums in the US and the UK, with past engagements at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, the Mills College Art Museum, the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, and London’s Garden Museum. Norton-Westbrook’s curatorial focus at the Toledo Museum of Art is primarily in modern and contemporary art.


About mccartco

Conal McCarthy is a former museum professional and academic who has published widely on museum history, theory and practice. He is the Director of the Museum and heritage studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand.
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