The Role of the Visitor: A Few Thoughts on my Appreciation for Good Curation (Courtney Escoyne)

I have spent a lot of time in museums and galleries this semester. I mean a lot. That’s what happens when you sign up for British Art in London. But I’ve also spent time in the same galleries we visit in class–The National Gallery and the V&A immediately come to mind–on my own, whether for an assignment or just for my own personal enjoyment. I have been many kinds of visitor on these trips. I have been part of a student group, looking at a specific object being lectured on by my professor; I have been a student looking at an entire gallery (BM’s Enlightenment Gallery) or single painting (Thomas Gainsborough’s Daughters Chasing a Butterfly) on my own for an assignment; I have been a wanderer through the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the V&A. I have long been aware of the different ways one can enter and view a gallery, but I never really considered the fact that curators have to take into consideration the wide variety of people who visit their work and the even wider variety of purposes a person might have in doing so when planning these galleries.

That’s what I found so fascinating about Peta Motture’s lecture. Every single part of any given gallery has been seriously thought out and planned to both communicate knowledge and (hopefully) keep visitors engaged–even down to the size, color, and type of font on gallery texts. The whole process of figuring out the right balance between communicating information to someone who is an expert (or at least adept) in a given field without being dull or reductive and without alienating the visitor with little to no prior knowledge of the topic on display seems, frankly, mind boggling. It cannot be assumed that every single person will go through the gallery the way the curator has planned, nor that they will examine each and every object. The question then becomes one of how to get enough of a sense of the gallery’s topic through any given object and text so that every person comes away with at least some increase in understanding on the topic. As I said, mind boggling. My respect for curators has been raised even higher, and I think that hearing about everything that goes into creating an effective gallery or exhibit has made me appreciate all of the great ones I have been to even more.

Mughal Exhibit–Celestial Orb–Courtney Escoyne

Wandering through the Mughal Empire exhibit at the British Library, I found myself transfixed by the beautiful calligraphy, artwork, and even weaponry on display there. However, the object that really grabbed my attention did not fall into any of these categories. In the portion of the exhibit devoted to science and medicine, I found myself transfixed by a brass and silver orb dating from the seventeenth century, about five inches in diameter, finely engraved with astrological signs and small notes written in Persian. This “celestial sphere” was used to obtain the positioning of stars and constellations.


The sphere is attributed to an astrolabist named Ziya al-Din, whose name is inlaid on the sphere.  He came from a family of astrolabists and astronomers who were closely associated with the ruling Mughal court. He was the grandson of Shaikh Allah-dad [Sheykh Ilhadad], the official astronomer to Emperor Humayan (c. 1508-1556), who had his own observatory and was heavily influenced by astrological predictions. This orb serves to demonstrate the Mughal dynasty’s patronage of scientific fields and the emphasis they placed on astronomy.

What I find fascinating about this piece is that it served a practical function while still being mesmerizingly beautiful. This celestial orb could be treasured as a piece of art in and of itself. That it served as an instrument that helped to make sense of the stars, the movement of which had a significant influence on affairs of state because of the emphasis the Mughals placed on astronomical predictions, makes it all the more precious. I find the orb to be as brilliant as the stars which it charts—at least, almost.


Link to the V&A’s page on this item:

Week One–Courtney Escoyne

(Belated post, this was meant to be up during our first week of classes)

A few points from our rather varied discussion this week and our escapade to Asia House:

For most of the Ahura Ensemble performance at Asia House, I was primarily focused on the dancer. Not only did I enjoy watching her because her musicality was superb and the choreography seemed (to me) to do a good job of interpreting the mood of the given musical piece and/or poetry, but it was also interesting to watch it from a more technical perspective. The use of the wrists and hands and the resistance in her arms reminded me a lot of the port de bras (ballet term for “carriage of the arms”) used in Flamenco, which I believe is somehow related to classical Persian dance. Also, many of the steps and positions seem to have echoes in today’s ballet—such as a movement much like pas de basque, arms that mirror fifth en haut, and a travelling step that gives the appearance of gliding, a quality similar to bourrée. This is particularly interesting when one considers that the origins of classical ballet are typically traced back to the seventeenth century court dances of King Louis XIV of France, definitely well after the beginnings of Persian dance.

On a different note, in class we spoke a little about the differences between oral and written communication and how the two are perceived. When I took sign language in high school, I remember learning that the vast majority of communication when speaking to someone is actually entirely non-verbal—facial expressions, body language, etc., have as much, if not more, impact on the meaning of a statement than the words themselves. People can say one thing and mean another—this is illustrated well when you look at the dialogue for a film and then see it acted, because how it is played can completely change the tone of a scene from what it looks like written on a page. Perhaps this is part of the reason our culture is so inclined to believe what it is that we read: we see nothing but the words, and there is no reason to doubt them because we always read things literally unless there is cause to do otherwise. In the same line of thought, how do we read tone in written communication? Is it a matter of knowing the personality of the speaker, the syntax of the writing, or both? And how does the nature of our message change with our written medium (ie texting as opposed to email as opposed to written letters)?

One final idea: grace. (Here comes the ballet metaphor.) I have never described a ballerina as graceful—or anyone, for that matter—who wasn’t strong. I don’t mean big and ripped or tearing through whatever they are doing, because while that is strength that would not be grace either. But I also don’t see grace as being fragile or soft—grace is not easily breakable. Grace, in movement, is using your strength to create lightness. It is a balance. I think the idea of grace being a balance does not apply just in ballet, but in every application of the word. Grace is sort of an in-between state—like Eros or a philosopher—between two extremes.

Rumi–Courtney Escoyne

The music is by Coldplay (“Postcards from Far Away”), and the poem is (obviously) by Rumi (excerpt from “A Thirsty Fish”):

“I don’t want learning, or dignity, or respectability.

I want this music and this dawn
and the warmth of your cheek against mine.

The grief-armies assemble,
but I’m not going with them.

This is how it always is when I finish a poem.

A great silence overcomes me,
and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.”

I have so far found with Rumi’s poetry that I tend to like certain lines but not others within a single poem, or that I react more strongly to one part than another. These lines really struck me the first time I read this poem, and they sort of stayed in the back of my head until I realized that this poem was the obvious choice for this assignment. I tried not to over-think my reaction, so this isn’t overly choreographed–I made it up by marking the steps in my dorm room kitchen and then did a single take of it where I happened to find available space. The music was added later (on recommendation from my flatmate), and I find that both its title and tone reflect the paradoxical presence of both closeness and distance in these lines of poetry. Choreographically, I pulled a little from a Kenneth MacMillan variation I learned a few summers ago for the final gesture (back of hand to opposite cheek) and a little port de bras from the Indian inspired ballet La Bayadere (not the same culture, but it has the right feeling).