Curating Gerontology

04 December 2019

Professor Desmond (Des) O’Neill is a Geriatrician in Tallaght University Hospital and Trinity College Dublin. He tweets @Age_Matters

One of the great challenges of gerontology is how to capture the immense complexity of later life and its splendid richness. The studies and sciences of ageing have evolved into an ever-wider range of disciplines, from biology through sociology and health care to policy and culture. While the terminologies and ontology which each has developed are helpful in deepening specialist areas of knowledge on ageing, the very variability may actually obscure our abilities to see the bigger picture. Our challenge, as Hesiod wrote in his Theogony in 700 BCE, is how to find unity in diversity, and how to find a permanent principle in the midst of flux.

Achieving this end is surely the domain of curation, an under-the-radar skill which requires wisdom, expertise, perceptiveness, and investment in time and bridge-building. As articulated by one of the most eminent of art curators, Hans Ulrich Obrist, curating at its most basic is about connecting cultures, allowing us to make junctions, a form of map making that opens new routes through a city, a people or a world.

Delegates at the November 2019 meeting of the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) in Austin, Texas were fortunate to experience expert gerontological curation in a novel series of symposia, the brain-child of outgoing President, Michal Jazwinski. Hinging on the conference theme of strength in ageing through networks, he invited six different elements of the society – including biology, sociology, health, education and humanities – to prepare a symposium. A novel approach was to appoint a rapporteur to each symposium, and to bring these together for six concise reports in an omnibus symposium.

The resulting session was a marvellous distillation and juxtaposition of progress in scholarship in ageing, one of the most thought-provoking congress sessions in gerontology in which I have ever participated. Topics included technology and social media in later life, metabolomics of ageing, optimizing surgical care for older people, educational strategies in gerontology, a range of networked research strategies by early career gerontologists, and the many levels of relevance and resonance of museums to ageing.

Discussion was lively and engaged, for example attempting to bridge challenges of terminology such as whether the use of the term ‘rapid ageing’ as a negative in the biology of ageing denies the positive benefits of ageing. Bringing us together in this fashion may allow to reshape and better align our perspectives and discourse. Indeed, a salient point made by a Russian-trained gerontologist was that Western scholarship may be too focussed on analysis and neglectful of synthesis, a deficit that this overview was certainly aiming to address.

To get to this point required a significant amount of organization, leadership and dedication from all concerned. Planning started a year prior to the meeting, involved multiple email communications and international telephone conferences, selection of symposia and rapporteurs, and the development of timelines for early submission and sharing of slides with each other and the rapporteurs. However, this exercise was enormously worthwhile and is one which should be considered investing in for future gerontology congresses.

In parallel the meeting gained from what the public might more readily identify as curation through a fascinating pairing of the museum symposium with an educational site visit to the prestigious Blanton Museum of Art of the University of Texas.  Set in a beautiful building and housing the monumental Austin, a light-filled late creation of the artist Ellsworth Kelly, the focus was on late-life creativity. Curated by an expert educator with a background in arts education for medical students, and a curator of modern and contemporary art with a particular interest in the art of later life, the experience was eye-opening in every sense.

Art museums can be intimidating settings, and we were completely disarmed and sustained in a virtuoso display of pedagogy by the director of education in the art of an open, fresh and inquiring approach to absorbing art. We then paired up with another delegate with whom we had not previously been acquainted and sent on a task to find artworks with a specific focus, ranging from joy and courage to one your grandmother would want.

This was a refreshing way to engage with colleagues, question what deep concepts might mean, and rediscover the strength of art to express the liminal, moving beyond the psychic constraints of mundane existence, stepping out of time, and attaining new, larger perspective. Tasked with matching art to joy, my partner and I lighted on a glittering late-life creation from the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, which then became the focus of an enlightening overview by the curator.

Both sets of experiences asserted the potency of careful curation, reflecting the Latin origin of the word which is to ‘take care’. Ageing is the most extraordinarily complex development of modern society, and just as we take care to curate valuable works of art with care, so too we need to take care that we frame and exchange concepts of the richness of ageing with care. The humanities and arts provide us with opportunities learn how this might be done, and great credit is due to the GSA for expert curation these initiatives in Austin: I look forward with anticipation as to how this exercise of care and communication will be further developed in the 2020 GSA meeting in Philadelphia.


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