The ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree

Every time I drive west down Duke Street past Landmark Mall (towards 395), I am cheered and comforted by the sight of an eclectically decorated ‘Christmas tree’ growing out of the sidewalk by the overpass to the Mall.

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Photo by David Konigsberg

This tree has become a fixture in my mind—a landmark, in fact. Over the past several months, it seems to have cycled through several rounds of very creative decorating—undertaken, I assume, by members of the community.

Lately, the tree has gotten me thinking about museum participation and the varying degrees to which visitor participation is shaped and refined by the museum.

While I love the collaborative museum-visitor model where the museum uses its expertise to guide visitors’ contributions, the tree reminds me that the spontaneous, grassroots, ‘uncurated’ (nothing is entirely uncurated, but you get the idea) approach to creative participation might have some merit.

The tree also reminds me of my own childhood experiences decorating the family Christmas tree. My mom, early childhood educator and committed proponent of unbridled childhood creativity, always insisted that my brothers and I be 100% in charge of decorating the Christmas tree. She encouraged us to start leading this project from a very early age so you can imagine how special our Christmas trees looked as we were growing up: a massive clump of tinsel here; a scribbled, original paper ornament there; a concentration of decorations on the lower portion of the tree where our short arms could reach—nothing like the composed and visually balanced trees that we saw at our friends’ houses. But we loved our trees and were always proud of them.

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Me and my late grandmother by our Christmas tree.

The urge to ‘correct’ the work of someone we see as less ‘qualified’ can be so tempting as to be almost automatic, especially in the case of young children. The drive for appealing and organized aesthetics is also powerful, and understandable. I’m sure some people drive down Duke Street and have to actively resist the urge to pull over and ‘fix’ the muddled assortment of random adornments on our community, year-round, sidewalk Christmas tree.

However, I think we might consider what we are sacrificing when we ‘edit’ someone’s participatory effort. The opportunity to see or learn something new from someone else, the opportunity to be impetuous and to proceed without a plan, and the opportunity to facilitate unmitigated ownership, self-esteem, and pride are just a few possible losses.

I am curious to hear from other museum professionals on this subject. Have you ever offered your visitors an (almost) entirely blank slate upon which to create something for the museum? If so, how did it work out? Did you learn something? Did visitors receive something valuable? Or was the result too jumbled and disconnected to be of value?

Several weeks ago, I dropped in on the DC Arts Center and saw an interesting effort at an uncurated community exhibit: the Center’s annual 1460 Wall Mountables exhibit for which the 1,460 square feet of gallery wall space is made available to community artists wishing to claim a 2’ by 2’ square to personally install their work. When I visited I saw only the blocked out walls and I am still yet to return to see the resulting exhibit, but I’m curious about the wonderful potentials of this laissez-faire, institutionally-detached approach.

When I was in college, I took a course on the topic of play. For one class session, we were let loose on a local day care center and invited to play, create, and display in any way that we chose using the materials provided. One particular room was my favorite; an eclectic mix of natural and found objects along with an open floorspace provided the opportunity to build, collaborate, and dramatize in unlimited ways—both lasting and ephemeral (creations could be left behind or broken down and absorbed into others’ work).

Perhaps I am being overly idealistic in considering the potentials of such randomness and disorganization in the museum, a place revered for its ability to cultivate the exact opposite environment. And maybe, not everyone finds an ‘uncurated’ Christmas tree quite so charming as I do.

However, I still remember what it felt like to work with those materials in that very unique class activity back in college: scary at first, but then therapeutic and very, very satisfying.