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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.
Art & Science of Curation: What is a Curator?
Lucilla Burn, Keeper of Antiquities, Fitzwilliam Museum
It seems you can curate anything, from a flower show to a weekend or even a shopping list. As a classicist I don’t in principle object to this revival of the etymological origin of the word curator, which literally means caretaker. But I’m not sure I want to go along with the growing feeling that the activities of museum curators aren’t any different from those of people who collect shells and lay them out in patterns on their windowsills. I’m as likely to pick up shells from the beach as the next person, but I do have two problems with classifying this activity as ‘curating’.
The first is: where do we draw the line? Am I curating the laundry when I sort out the odd socks and hang them in a neat row on the line? Are nursery nurses ‘child curators’? Are supermarket shelf-stackers ‘curators of retail display space’? If not, given that these all exemplify ‘taking care of’, why not? Where is the boundary line beyond which the term turns (really) silly?
And secondly: how helpful is it for ‘people who have specialist knowledge of, and work in and with museum and gallery collections, safeguarding and sometimes increasing them for future generations, studying them to extend knowledge and understanding, and helping numerous different audiences to appreciate them through a variety of methods and media’ to have lost their right to use the rather convenient, shortish word formerly used to describe their profession? What are we supposed to say at parties? My suggestion is that rather than meekly accepting that no, we aren’t a profession, that we have no special skills or abilities, and that everyone is a curator now, we need to ‘re-brand’ ourselves. Suggestions, please, on a postcard…..