While much ink has been spilled on the role of curation and curators writ large in contemporary culture, it’s useful to have a reminder of the power of the curatorial enterprise–to radically revalue objects, to change their contexts and transform them into something else, into artifacts. China Mieville’s Kraken (2010) explores the way curation can literally rewrite the world. An escatological urban fantasy with fluourescing bits of black humor, Kraken follows Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum in London, and what follows when the museum’s rare and enormous giant squid specimen suddenly disappears.
“I’m Billy,” he said. “I’m a curator. What that means is that I do a lot of the cataloguing and preserving, stuff like that.” (4)
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Harrow. You’re a curator, I think?” “Yeah.” “Which means what?” “Preserving, cataloguing, that sort of stuff.” Billy fiddled with his glasses so he did not have to meet anyone’s eye. He tried to see which way the woman was looking. “Consulting on displays, keeping stuff in good nick.” (21)
When the protagonist is asked, twice, in the opening pages of the book, what it is he does as a curator, he’s very vague. But we also learn that he was the staff member who prepared the giant squid specimen when it came it, and he’s known for having a good hand with molluscs–that is, that he is personally responsible for the museumification of the missing cephalopod.
Billy starts out self-effacing, a naïf caught in a bizarre chain of events. But after a journey through a London of competing apocalypses, Billy becomes convinced of the power of all-encompassing metaphors–and in doing so he reminds us of how museums can rename and recategorize.
At a climactic moment in the novel, to save the world from an apocalypse immenatized by a magician made of ink, Billy convinces the universe that a preserved giant squid is not a kraken, a totemic godling, but instead something more pedestrian but no less powerful–a museum artifact.
“Kraken’s a kraken,” Billy said. “Nothing to do with us. That? That’s a specimen. I know. I made it. That’s ours.” (487)
“….It’s not an animal or a god,” Billy said. “It didn’t exist until I curated it. That’s my specimen.”
He had birthed it into consciousness. It was Architeuthis dux. Specimen, pining for preservative. Squid-shaped paradox but not the animal of the ocean. Architeuthis, Billy understood for the first time, was not that undefined thing in deep water, which was only ever itself. Architeuthis was a human term.
“It’s ours,” he said.
And here’s the clincher:
“It’s a specimen and it’s in the books,” Billy said, “We’ve written it up.” (488)
For Mieville here, curatorial writing has Adamic power. Fixing the artifact into writing (and, here, it’s a once-alive artifact, a scientific specimen) changes the artifact as well as the world it inhabits.
This is why “curate” is still a word to conjure by in our culture. It still promises transformative power.