University of Cambridge Museums

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Art & Science of Curation: Curation in a Cast Gallery

The Art & Science of Curation is a project which explores ideas around Curation and the role of the curator. Over the coming year, we will be inviting people from both within and outside our museums to share their thoughts on curation.  We want to build a body of writings which articulate and explore the many different ways in which a curator can curate, and each week we’ll be posting a new piece of writing here on our blog.  If you feel you’ve something interesting to say, do please get in touch about contributing. Find out more about the Art & Science of Curation on our website.

Curation in a Cast Gallery
Robin Osborne, Director, Museum of Classical Archaeology

Robin OsborneAs Museums go, a Museum like the Museum of Classical Archaeology is an oddity. This museum consists almost entirely of plaster replicas of sculpture in stone and bronze, the originals of which are to be found elsewhere. No unique objects here! Not even any obscure and unidentifiable objects, on which primary research has to be done – all the sculptures were chosen precisely because they are outstanding examples, and outstandingly well known. Not much conservation here either. Not only is the responsibility for conservation rather different when the object is a copy, but plaster is pretty stable and inert.

So what’s a curator’s job here? Actually, precisely the same as in any other museum. The curator is a facilitator, and what the curator facilitates is the access of the public to the object on display. Or, to look at it from the other end, the curator’s job is to maximize the impact of the object.

Curators remove barriers. Barrier no. 1 is ignorance. If no one knows about the objects in a museum, no one will come to see them; those who do come to see them won’t know what to do with what they see and will go away bemused. So job no. 1 is to ensure that visitors have a chance of understanding what they are looking at. Job no. 2 is imparting enough knowledge in the wider public so that visitors want to cross the threshold. If we start with labels and hand held information boards, it is equally important to drip feed knowledge through other media – local papers, radio, television. Not many curators can make a national splash with ‘a history of the world in 100 objects’ chosen from their museum – but if not themselves, then through others.

But of course there isn’t any single thing to know about an object. Objects have multiple lives, they have acquired meaning throughout their existence from their context, and that context has continually changed. And that is still happening. Objects – and sculptures not least – impact on one another. Change the arrangement of your objects – or add a new and different object to the existing display – and you change what those objects mean.

That’s discovery! And that’s why for the Discoveries show at 2 Temple Place, the Museum of Classical Archaeology chose to focus on the way that finding a new object changed the way of thinking about well-known objects. And conversely, too, how that new newly-discovered sculpture gained an extra life when taken away from the context in which it had been displayed in antiquity, and put instead in the company of other sculptures – in this case in the company of other works by the same sculptor.

Enabling visitors to make discoveries, to have that flashbulb moment where they see a connection they have never seen before, realize the significance of something they have not thought significant previously – that’s the curator’s job. Sometimes what does it is changing the colour of the gallery walls, sometimes it is turning a familiar object round so that it is seen at a new angle. Sometimes it is making a crucial new purchase. Ten years ago the Museum of Classical Archaeology transformed itself by acquiring a cast of a kouros (standing naked male figure dating to the sixth century B.C.) excavated only 30 years ago on the Greek island of Samos. At more than 5 m. high, this dwarfs even the most colossal of the other sculptures in the Gallery. For many visitors coming face-to-face with a knee turns out to be one of those flash-bulb moments.

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