Interview with Ron Potvin
Ron Potvin is the Assistant Director for Professional Programs, Curator, and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Humanities at Brown University. Professor Potvin works at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. In this written interivew, Professor Potvin answers questions about his background and about cultural preservation. Read the interview below!
What led you to become a curator and focus on cultural preservation?
I like old stuff and old buildings. I knew that from a pretty young age. Although I wasn't a great student in high school, when I was a junior I wrote a paper about the historic architecture in my hometown. It was so good, the teacher accused me of plagiarism. In college, I gravitated toward history courses, because I really liked them, and they seemed easy. The summer before I graduated, I worked as a tour guide and researcher for a history organization in Newport, RI, which confirmed my professional direction. Finding a history job with a BA in history (other than teaching) is very difficult, so I returned to school and got my masters degree. After graduating, my former employer in Newport offered me a job as Curator of Manuscripts. The rest--as they say--is history.
What does your job entail?
In my current position, my responsibilities include care and preservation of the 1792 Nightingale-Brown House and its historic collections, about 1,200 objects. I also teach courses on museum collecting and collections, historic house museums, and material culture.
Why is it important to preserve culture?
I'm not sure that I would describe my job as preserving culture. Culture is a momentary and fluid combination of human ideas and interactions. Trying to preserve it is like trying to preserve a sand castle. As David Lowenthal said, "The past is a foreign country." What I am trying to do is preserve the emblems and symbols of past culture as a means to understand our present and to think about the future. A good curator/preservationist/historian does this by making the past relevant to modern audiences. They do this by making meaningful connections between the past and present that are instructive about the future. This, as you might suspect, is easier said than done.
What is the job of a curator and why are curators important?
In today's culture, everyone is a curator it seems. Retail stores curate the "collections" they offer for sale to the public. We use apps to curate the music we listen to. Suddenly, being a curator is cool--kind of. Being a curator of anything boils down to two skills--expertise and choice. A curator must be enough of an expert about something to make informed choices about what to keep and what to discard. In museums and in historic preservation, this is important because the things we choose impact how we, and the public, remember and shape culture.
Should all cultural heritage be preserved and is there any cultural heritage that should not be preserved (e.g. if the culture is offensive to a certain group)?
Not all culture should be preserved, but this is mostly an issue of practicality. There simply isn't enough room and resources to preserve every old thing, old building, and old idea. We must choose what to keep and what to discard, or ignore. But I think your question goes a bit deeper than that. We, as humans, don't always choose what parts of culture that we preserve. Portions of culture are preserved through a process of collective memory. Removing a monument does not eradicate the memory of what that monument represented. However, monuments may serve as means to reinforce a particular meaning or interpretation of a past culture, and removing them may gradually erode the power of that meaning. Contemporary cultures have always made judgments about the meanings of past cultures, from ancient Egypt to Victorians who covered nude statues with fig leaves. Toppling statues is nothing new. It's part of the process of cultural evaluation and renewal. When toppling one meaning, it's just as important to consider the meaning that replaces it. As a culture, most of us reject fascism, slavery, and oppression. But do most of us understand and agree with the systems that we are erecting in their place? Toppling a statue does not guarantee that the result will be justice and equity. We must all become experts about these ideas and make good choices. We need to curate the present and future as much as we do the past.
What do you think that the average person can do to help cultural preservation efforts?
We can all participate in remembering culture. Ask your parents and grandparents questions. What were their lives like? What was working like? What did they think about important events? How did they react? Use that knowledge to participate in forming culture. What media do you consume? How do you react to and with other people? In what ways do you choose to honor and dishonor the past?