Realia Problem

What precisely is the difference between librarianship and curatorship?

This was the question rattling round my head this afternoon as I sat in the cafe overlooking the bizarre elephants’ graveyard that is the Transport Museum. It was a game of definitions brought to my attention a nanosecond after discovering the term, ‘realia‘.

The general consensus seems to be that curatorship is about the collecting and arranging of physical artefacts or artworks while librarianship is about the collecting and arranging of information. But when you consider the idea of realia, the vernacular theory doesn’t work. Ned Kelly’s armour is held in the State Library of Victoria while at the same time, the armour of a Samurai warrior is held by the Hunterian Museum. Geology libraries will hold rocks and ore samples and fossils but the Dudley museum of my childhood holds rocks and ore samples and fossils too.

While the ‘handling’ involved in librarianship is undeniably focused upon information, the information is usually reified in some way and librarians will have to take care of physical books, journals or pamphlets. To me, a postmodernist with an interest in semiotics, the physical items held in museums or the artworks of galleries can be ‘read’ and have information extracted from them just as one can do with any book.

Maybe libraries, museums and art galleries should all merge into gigantic postmodern depositories of culture. ‘Leviatha’TM I think they should be called. Or, what the hell, just call ’em ‘Wringham Centres’. After me.

Perhaps this area of consideration will finally put an end to the bullshit “But is it Art?” problem regarding found pieces such as Marcel DuChamp’s famous ‘Fountain’. While the artist hasn’t made the piece, he has curated it. It is widely believed that curatorship and librarianship are artforms (in spite of professional degrees in said disciplines resulting in MScs now rather than MAs) so the individual promoting a found piece is most certainly an artist.

Now let us never dwell on that again.

This is the problem of realia: that a rock or a suit of armour is considered a piece of library realia rather than a museum artifact or a found piece of art belonging to a gallery is purely an arbitrary matter of convenience (due to where the funding is coming from or to which institute the piece was donated) rather than the product of any intellectual attempt at classification. One might argue that the stuff in libraries is there to be handled by scholars while the stuff in museums is kept untouched for preservation purposes, but I doubt that just anyone can go into the State library of Virginia and try on Ned Kelly’s helmet, possibly saying “Hello, I’m Ned Kelly” while doing so. (You have to be a friend of the head librarian to do that).

This all makes me wonder about my own collections. I collect religious ephemera (specifically the pamphlets that religious hoodlums give you in shopping precincts – the next time you get one, don’t chuck it out but send it my way). I’ve often wondered whether I do this as a librarian or a curator or an artist. As the actual information in these things is pure bumph, no librarian would include them in an objective collection. The ‘information’ rather lies in the ways that they are printed, distributed and in the ways the text positions the reader and the pamphlet’s author: so are these curated pieces, as one might include in a museum? Or can they be considered objet trouvĂ©?

What of the collection of ? Is he a librarian, curator or artist? Or should we not get caught up in such trivialities and just enjoy the pleasure his odd books provide.

That the two disciplines fall under the umbrella term of ‘collecting’ is undeniable but the actual difference to me is hard to pinpoint.

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