By Jaime Uranovsky
While curatorship is a profession which may involve the handling and keeping of ancient objects and works, the industry is anything but archaic.
Indeed, the acts of remembering, of honouring heritages, of selecting new content, and of making museums and their pieces accessible and relevant to new generations is constantly being adapted and reworked. Who better, then, to participate in this exciting and creative venture than young, emerging future-curators themselves? South African Friends of the Israel Museum (SAFIM) gave this chance to two South African students. Marc Smith and Julia Kabat were studying towards their honours in curatorship at the Centre for Curating the Archive (the CCA) at UCT when they heard about a unique opportunity for budding curators.
SAFIM, run by Suzanne Ackerman (Chairperson) and Sarin Goott (Coordinator), was offering two CCA graduates a fully funded three-month internship at the prestigious Israel Museum in 2017. While the programme was established ten years ago, 2017 was auspicious in that it was the first year in which South African interns participated. Julia, one of the interns, describes the goals and benefits of such a venture: ‘The aim of the programme was to afford South African curatorial graduates the opportunity to immerse themselves and to be exposed to the workings of a world-class international museum…. [The internship is] instrumental for graduates to gain international experience to share their newly acquired knowledge, skills and experience with local institutions who strive to have the same international standing as the Israel Museum.’
Indeed, founded in 1965 and located in Jerusalem, the Israel Museum is one of the world’s top archaeology and art institutions and welcomes 800 000 patrons per annum. The museum has accumulated almost 500 000 pieces and displays items and artworks ranging from prehistory to today. This made it the perfect location for Marc and Julia to gain hands-on experience in their field, and after attending the presentation which launched the programme, they made it through the selection process, which included filling out ‘a questionnaire with a number of questions pertaining to curatorship, museology, current education and our ambitions. Based on the responses, a number of applicants were short-listed and called in for an interview, whereafter the successful applicants were informed that they had been selected for the internship programme,’ says Marc.
Once in Israel, where they arrived in early May, the Capetonian interns quickly learnt how to best manage their time. Julia notes, ‘The internship … was very intense, so it was important to establish a routine to ensure that we also had adequate time to explore Israel and indulge in its melting pot of culture and world-famous tourist sites. Our work week ran from Sunday to Thursday [from 9:00 – 17:00], being standard practice in Israel to accommodate Shabbat. This took a while to get used to!’ After the two friends, who met during their honours year at the CCA, became accustomed to their schedule, they were able to spend their free time travelling. And travel they did!
Marc recalls, ‘Every place I visited held something unique and special. Julia and I travelled throughout as much of Israel as we possible could and included, but were not limited to: Nazareth, Haifa, Acre, Rosh Hanikra, Sea of Galilee, Golan Heights, Dead Sea, Baha’i Gardens and Temple, Mount Bental, Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Masada, and Ein Gedi. A tour of the West Bank constituted another enlightening experience. Partaking in the local culture and cuisine of these locations, as well as within Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, certainly added to the overall experience of interning in the country of Israel.’ While travelling allowed the interns to make, as Marc states, ‘the absolute most of the entire experience from start to finish in every sense possible,’ it was also intrinsically linked to their roles at the museum. Julia notes, ‘Travel for Marc and I was a priority as it is vital that one always considers the larger historical, cultural and political environment of a space when you are working as a curator or an aspiring curator, especially in Israel, which is one of the most culturally and historically rich countries in the world.’
While at the museum, the interns were assigned a plethora of duties and tasks within multiple departments, which gave them insight into the many sectors which, combined, allow the Israel Museum to operate as efficiently as it does. One begins to understand just how packed their days at the cultural institution were, when, after asking what Marc and Julia’s tasks were, one is met with the cataloguing of experience after experience, each one totally different from the last.
Marc spent most of his time within the Department of Development and International Relations. He reflects, ‘I was lucky enough to be extensively involved in the execution of the Israel Museum’s International Council, an annual event that grants the Israel Museum an opportunity to show appreciation to its supporters while enlightening them about the museum’s current trajectory and future projects.’ His duties at the museum ranged from liaising with foreign embassies to digitising to cataloguing archival material to restorative maintenance to preliminary exhibition researching to developing concepts.
Julia’s experiences were just as varied, and she worked in the Marcel Lorber Department of Asian Art, the Design and Architecture Department and the Prints and Drawings Department, as well as in various others. ‘During my time in the Asian Art Department, I photographed every artefact and art object on display in [that] section of the museum…. This project of documentation was valuable as I gained new knowledge about Asian Art, of which I previously knew very little about…. [I] was also exposed to the way in which historically and culturally rich art-objects are curated in an accessible and user-friendly manner for the public,’ Julia recounts. Other tasks included restoration, research, editing photographic scales, testing interactive displays, and creating number systems for and cataloguing of artefacts.
Another aspect of Julia and Marc’s experience was the opportunity to meet other interns.
During the internship, we were joined by students from Milan, the United States, France and Canada. We made life-long friendships and have all made a pact to reunite one day in a country that none of us have visited before,’ Julia says. These sentiments echo Marc’s, ‘[The interns] were all such spectacular individuals showing much promise, and ranged greatly in terms of nationality. We became close quite quickly and had some wonderful adventures together, both inside and outside of the museum.’
Interestingly, when asked about the highlight of their trip, Marc and Julia answered similarly. The former says, ‘What made it easy to settle into our home-away-from-home for three months was the immense and warm hospitality we were met with everywhere, both inside of and outside of the museum…. The people I met along the way did nothing short of making Julia and I feel completely welcome and at home in a foreign country. It was the people who at the end of the day taught me so much about myself and educated me in terms of my profession and aided me in discovering more about myself.’
Indeed, Julia notes, ‘My favourite part of Israel were the people, their astounding faith, belief in traditions and their joie de vivre. The sense of community formed an unbreakable bond between people, which is something very enviable and hard to come by in a world where we all lead very insular and egotistical lives. People in Israel have so much respect for customs and traditions, such as the sabbath, which forces one to slow down and spend time with family and loved ones. It’s something that we deem a luxury; yet somehow the Israelis got it right, as their work ethic goes unhindered and they are just as productive, boasting some of the greatest technological developments to date.’
After arriving back in Cape Town with a wealth of experience under their belts and their passion for curatorship and the industry as strong as ever, one can only wonder what’s next for the graduates. Julia ‘[hopes] to continue practising as a curator within the context of the Art Museum. This is a rather utopian thought, considering the cut-throat and uncertain nature of this job. My confidence and optimism with this trajectory is a privilege, as I am surrounded by self-made successes on a daily basis who ‘dreamed big’ and fought hard until their visions became a reality. This environment being the Zeitz MOCAA Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, where I am currently the SAFIM Assistant Curator of Painting.’
Marc ‘[is] extremely passionate about uncovering the reasons behind the interactions that exist between society and culture, especially in relation to the art world and creative industries, and how these come to influence an array of societal aspects whilst predicting where developments will lead us across societies and generations. To this end I’d want to engage with the public on an ongoing basis through working in and with museums and similar institutions by bringing together projects that through mechanism of exhibition making, in-depth research, and curation, will educate the public and encourage individuals to engage with creativity in insightful and progressive ways across disciplines and topics. Along the way I’d like to further my postgraduate studies to such a point that I’d be engaged in facilitating research in visual culture, the interaction between the arts and society, as well as the creative industries at research centres and museums. Academia is very near and dear to my heart, so being able to pursue this passion professionally and to educate other minds through academic teaching and knowledge production would be an absolute dream come true. I find giving back through teaching to be an extremely rewarding experience.’
There’s no doubt that, if these aspiring curators are anything to go by, our collective, cultural past, present and future are in the most capable of hands.