Intention versus Interpretation: Curating Personal Identities from Silk Gowns to Facebook

Mona O’Brien

A case displaying seventeenth- and eighteenth-century fabrics from India, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

During our recent Human Constellations group trip to London, I found myself standing in front of the above display of garments in the V&A. On first glance it seems like a nice display, visually interesting but not overwhelming. Yet I walked away from it with a head full of questions and a gnawing sense of existential doubt.

The central dress was sewn from Indian silk embroidered cotton in eighteenth-century England. The red man’s robe (banyan), to the left, is made of fabric dyed and printed in South-East India; it was made up in Europe, in a style influenced by the Japanese kimono. These clothes, passive objects, have multiple identities, based on their materials, styles, and how they are displayed. Are they art objects? Historical objects? Ornaments for a body? Displays of wealth? Are they British, Indian, European, Japanese? They are all of these things to differing degrees, and the weighting is entirely dependent on the individual viewer.

A museum may display these garments with the intention of telling a particular story, or making a specific point, but much the same way as we often kill the author when we read, we come with our own minds, backgrounds, and ideas. Something as mundane as an old kettle, simply intended to show the development of technology, might have a particular emotional resonance for a viewer who identifies it with a similar one that used to live in their grandparents’ kitchen. Thus, a display intended to provoke thoughts about technology might instead prompt musings on family histories.

Display of kettles and coffee makers, Science Museum, London

The display and interpretation of passive objects is no easy thing. But what about active agents (animals, historical actors, AI, you and I)? Humans have always taken an active role in curating their identities, from how we dress (Anne Boleyn wearing yellow on the death of Catherine of Aragon) to how we perform emotions. The advent of the internet has further expanded our curating horizons, now we can each have our own virtual museums courtesy of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.

Collections are never neutral, all archives and museums have a focus such as local history, fashion, etc. Things are always omitted sometimes out of practicality, sometimes because of more sinister motivations. Similarly, our online displays seek to portray a particular image of ourselves, to show that we are happy, fashionable, globetrotters, deep-thinkers, charitable, hard-workers, fraught with philosophical doubt, politically engaged, and good cooks. It’s beyond obvious to state that most of us never give unbridled insights into our lives online (at least where we are identifiable, the realms of anonymity have been seen to bring out horrifying honest opinions). There is always more that could be said, or some ignored underlying tensions, thoughts, or emotions.

A brief analysis of my tweets: lots of medical history, and a fixation with Barry’s Tea.

But who is to say that our Twitter profiles, etc. are interpreted the way we would like them to be? For instance, if I tweet a photo of my current read and a cup of tea, with a caption like ‘The Lonely City: Beautiful, thoughtful book from Olivia Laing. Read it!’, I would intend this to show my appreciation for this book and hopefully prompt others to consider reading it. But someone else, Viewer A, might read the tweet and think that I am being terribly pretentious, and trying to show-off or look erudite. Viewer B might argue my tweet was motivated by the desire to show off an aesthetically pleasing picture I took with an artistically placed cup of tea. Unless Viewer A or B questions me about the tweet they will pass on from this cabinet in my virtual museum, and the next time they see a tweet from my account it may contribute to the overall image they are constructing of me (‘Oh, another pretentious book tweet!’; ‘She likes photographing pretty cups of tea’). I will be curated in their memories, and our images of me may drift farther and farther apart.

What are the consequences of the distance that develops when my intention is not discovered by the viewers’ interpretations? Is my identity my own possession? Do I share it with my viewers (both real and virtual)? Is it an external construct? Or is it a dual thing consisting of separate private/internal and public/external parts? If so, although my intention is significant, is my identity ultimately defined by me or by the external world?

In a museum we cannot have a question and answer session with the objects or the displays beyond what appears on the display boards (unless there is a guide or curator present).  And, to me, the beauty of museums is that they do not (usually) try to tell you what to think. But, based on my questions about personal identity, I am curious to discover if there are tensions between intent and interpretation in collections, particularly in galleries and museums. Is there ever a ‘wrong’ way to understand a collection? What discourses (in the Foucauldian sense) are at play when we interact with collections? What is the relationship between the curator and the viewer, and how is this transmitted through the curated objects? What are the relative positions of intention and interpretation?

This seems like rather a lot of questions for the end of a blog post, but it is my intention to devise answers for them over my time as a member of this project. Interpret that as you will.



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