University of Cambridge Museums

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Art & Science of Curation: What is a curator?

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.

Claire WarriorWhat is a curator?
Claire Warrior is the Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Curator at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich

It started with an object, as perhaps these things should. A model crest pole, made from the black stone argillite, by the Haida people of the Northwest Coast of Canada. It was on display in the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology whilst I was an undergraduate and from it, and from the Museum’s curator, we learnt about the interplay between tradition and culture, and a great deal more. Within this miniature artefact, so much had coalesced, not least consummate artistic skill, myths, complex histories and many layers of cultural knowledge. My astonishment at the capacity of one small thing to convey so much set me upon a career path that I have followed ever since, one that constantly challenges me to think about how people and things interact, about how histories are constructed and about how knowledge is created, transmitted, made and remade. I have now worked in various museums for seventeen years, starting as a gallery assistant and moving between roles in documentation, exhibitions and interpretation. Having begun with a specialist interest in ethnography, thanks to that model pole, I find myself running the interpretation team at a national museum. Here, I will reflect on what I believe curators do and, in tandem with this, what museums have done in the past and may do in the future.

Despite the clichéd dusty image, museums are far from the static time-capsules that they are sometimes perceived to be. In fact, they are constantly changing in a myriad of ways. Objects may enter collections, as acquisitions, loans or purchases; they may exit the institution temporarily on loan, or more permanently if they are deaccessioned or returned to their owners. Permanent displays are really no such thing, but rather shift subtly over time, whilst many museums mount temporary exhibitions that frame their collections in a new light, sometimes juxtaposing them with artefacts from elsewhere, asking different questions and making alternative associations. Museums have more recently been conceptualised as central to vast networks of objects and people, within which both are seen to have agency. These networks expand far beyond the institution’s walls, and embed museums in the imperial and colonial contexts within which many collections were formed. The vastness of these interconnections makes museums truly mind-boggling places, linking artefacts, people and places across time and space.

As others have commented, to curate means to care for. This caring happens in different ways. There is a very pragmatic physical care of artefacts that happens, often in tandem with conservation staff, to ensure that they are preserved. There is the care that ensures that we know where things are within the museum, in store or on display, which is designated collections management. But the caring I am most interested in is of a different nature, and it is this that I believe is a curator’s most substantial role. To curate is, for me, to understand what objects may tell us, through research into and an understanding of their histories (or ‘lives’ as they are sometimes known). It is to know your collections in depth and to appreciate their complexity, to understand their originating context and how they have travelled from there. Objects do not speak for themselves. Something of their histories is inherent in them, of course: what they are made from, how they were made, whether or not they have been used – much of this we can glean through sight and touch, and through the cumulative experience of having seen other such things. Yet much now relies on the information that accompanies objects. Museums are about both the material world and the written word: the ‘cabinet of curiosity’ for the cognoscenti, in which objects in and of themselves were the primary focus, no longer exists. Of course, things have the capacity to engage us through their materiality in unique ways. The most powerful objects are those which catch our eye, dazzle us and demand our attention and, through aspects of their being, engage our emotions, moving us in ways that may be hard to articulate. But more often, words written or spoken are a vital counterpart to things, institutionalised in the museum through catalogues and accompanying documentation. Now, when we display objects, we usually display a few well-chosen words too.

Curators have become the facilitators of stories, incorporating new narratives into objects’ histories, and entangling objects with people’s lives in new ways.  Thus curation is caring for objects and the stories they may tell, treasuring the lives they have lived. It is about expanding upon these stories through research, writing their biographies, contextualising them and understanding them in the fullest sense possible. It is about deciding how and when to convey this information: through highly-structured exhibitions, or catalogues, or talks.  It may also be about reconnecting objects with other people who have also cared about them. My current PhD research focusses upon the intersection between family history and national history in the museum, looking at the ways in which families use objects in the home and the histories they construct around them, and how these histories can find their way into the museum context. For an institution like the National Maritime Museum, naval families are a key source community, with a deep and abiding interest in its collections and displays. Whilst not curators in the professional sense, family members look after things, have a significant impact upon what enters the museum and when, and what they know about objects is firmly embedded within the catalogues, thus forming a key part of how they are understood. It is important that curators help to maintain active relationships with such people, to ensure that these histories live on.

Museums do not exist in splendid isolation, if indeed they ever did. Most curators have exited their ivory towers and firmly shut the door behind them, entering into dialogues with their audiences that are much more fruitful for both parties. Taking the idea of dialogue to its logical conclusion begs the question whether we are somehow all curators now? Despite the ubiquity of the term, I would argue no, nor should we be. The reciprocal exchanges of a dialogue in no way preclude or substitute for expertise. Museums are sites of negotiated authority, in which curators remain responsible for the objective documentation of their collections, shaping credible narratives around artefacts through research and exhibitions. Museums’ raison d’être is in part to be places where those who have spent their lives building up expertise share it and collaborate with others, learning from each other. They have become much more democratic institutions than they ever were, and as a result are exciting and challenging places to work. Although issues of power, knowledge and authority are tricky to negotiate, museums and their curators now recognise the need for many voices contributing to their work and the benefits that flow from this.

Thus, for me, being a curator is contingent upon open-minded expertise, upon authority and specialist knowledge tempered with a desire for dialogue. It is no coincidence that curator and curiosity ultimately share the same etymology, for curators combine a pragmatic concern for objects with a thirst to know more about them through research. We are curators because we believe that the artefacts in our collections are powerful, moving, unique and fascinating. We are curators because we want to know what their many lives have been, to share them with and learn from others about them, to make connections and build relationships. We care about things, with their glorious complex capacity to engage people across time and space, and we hope that our work will help others to care too.

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This entry was posted on August 21, 2014 by in Behind the Scenes, News and tagged , , , , , .
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