‘Under all this dirt the floor is really very clean.’ Thus a story of Lydia Davis begins – and ends. Such shortest short stories are the US-American author’s signature feature. I took notice of her writing when she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013 and I bought the collection ‘Can’t and Won’t’. Reading the book I first was uncertain if I liked the texts, some amused me immensely, but many puzzled me. Something let me bear this uncertainty and the more I read, the more I enjoyed the stories. When I came to the last page, I loved the book. I could not say that I liked all stories or that I was overwhelmed even by a single one – but all in all they created a very specific story universe I really relished to tour.
This experience came to my mind when I visited the exhibition ‘Gallus – a quarter and a whole’ [Gallus – ein Viertel und ein Ganzes], a participation project of the Historical Museum Frankfurt. All inhabitants of the quite diverse neighbourhood called ‘Gallus’ had been invited to take part in creating this exhibition and to contribute their view on their living space.
Wandering through the exhibition I first felt confused. I knew little about Frankfurt and nothing about the ‘Gallus’. The fact that there was neither a general introduction nor precise directions how to handle this specific exhibition tried my patience sorely. Moreover, the single exhibit units were very different, whether in relation to the topic, the form of expression or the creators (artists, children, single persons, groups…). But at a certain exhibit, suddenly it clicked and all pieces fell into place. Whereas the contributions I had seen to this point all dealt more with the Gallus of today (like the collection of crown caps and pieces of broken glass found by children on the street or the painting depicting a huge sun symbolising warmth and optimism characteristic for this quarter), this one commemorated the inmates of a concentration camp located from 1944 to 1945 in this same neighbourhood.
The graveness of this contribution, the anchoring of the presence in this deeper historical stratum somehow helped me to locate all other parts: a system was established. Again, taken together the splinters turned into facets, a universe emerged which felt rich and interesting because of its diversity. I left the exhibition inspired and with a clue about what life in this Frankfurt neighbourhood is like.
Both events I experienced as highly satisfying – and for both events those moments were essential when the single pieces began to develop connections and formed thus a whole being more than the sum of its parts.
The question which intrigues me now from a curator’s point of view is how to support visitors not to lose their patience before reaching this point. In both cases external circumstances helped me to stay attentive: I read Lydia Davis’ book on a long train ride, I visited the exhibition with other exhibition makers with whom I wanted to discuss the exhibition afterwards.
But how to foster intrinsic motivation? Today a newspaper article fell into my hands which seems to comprise an important hint. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology, explains – based on her studies with children – that there are two different types of mindsets: the fixed and the dynamic one.
Whereas children owning a fixed mindset believe in the irreversibility of their intelligence and tend to react with frustration when facing obstacles, kids with a dynamic mindset view their intelligence as developable and hence they consider effort as an engine for improving it. One way to support a dynamic mindset (thus the article reads) is to praise a child for its endeavours.
In my opinion the interesting point is that solely teaching children the importance of stamina does not seem to be enough – teachers also need to impart the conception that intelligence is not something given but something to cultivate: that learning can be learned.
At this moment I have no idea how to bring together this insight with curating a specific exhibition. Teaching such a conception seems to be more the case for pedagogy, the task of schools, and not for a single exhibition. But perhaps there is a way to communicate, to make comprehensible, to break down this understanding in the frame of an exhibition. Anyhow, the question how to create an entertaining exhibition which has bothered me now for such a long time, is joined now by this one: how to support visitors in experiencing patience as promising?
Lydia Davis: Can’t and Won’t. Penguin Books 2015.
‘Gallus – a quarter and a whole’, curated by Angela Jannelli, Puneh Henning and Franziska Mucha, Historical Museum Frankfurt 24/04/2015 – 06/09/2015
‘The kiss of death for the girls’ [Der Todeskuss für die Mädchen], interview with Carol Dweck, DIE ZEIT 37, 10/09/2015
First photograph: Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech
Further photographs: ©Ariane Karbe, published by kind permission of Historisches Museum Frankfurt