Legacy post – The Rise and Fall of the Curator

This post was originally posted to the Collections Trust blog on the 14th December 2011.

What are the essential ingredients of a museum? If you’d asked this question perhaps 10 years ago, the list would have been pretty straightforward – walls, objects, respectful visitors, curators. The mental archetype of the museum in the popular consciousness would have been a place with things in it, cared for by people who knew about the things. Probably wearing tweed, and almost certainly male.

Fast forward a decade, and the picture is nothing like as simple. Walls? Pah. A museum is so much more than walls – it is an attitude, a belief, a set of principles, a pop-up in a shopping centre, a tent on the foreshore of the Thames.

Things? So 90’s. Yes, of course we need some stuff, but only to the extent that they help us tell the human story of the world. Collections are the heart of the museum, but they are (or should be) subordinate to design, interpretation, narrative and experience.

Respectful visitors? Sod that, culture-nazi. Museums are places of joy, celebration, learning, entertainment and egalitarianism. They’ve even got kids in, for god’s sake. Where once the museum had every right to expect its visitors to be quiet, well-behaved and have at least a nodding acquaintance with clerical latin and taxonomy, nowadays it is very much the duty of the mountain to make itself available for Mohammed.

And Curators? Well, thereby hangs a tale.

Every good story needs its heroes and its villains. It needs simple 2-dimensional characters we can boo and cheer at. And in the story of the progress of museums in the past decade, it is very often the curator that has found themselves the villain of the piece.

If the thrust of museum discourse is essentially progressive, the curator has come to represent everything that is retrograde about the ‘old’ museology. Where much of the rhetoric about museums is about openness and equality of participation, the lazy characterisation of curators is as hoarders of knowledge, using their control over ideas to exter control over their colleagues – indeed over the museum itself.

The archetypal curator is essentially an academic – highly specialist, extremely focussed and driven not by the impulse to share knowledge with a non-specialist audience but by the urge to enhance the general fund of scientific understanding. This is a gross characterisation, of course, there are many curators whose greatest gift is communication but there are just as many for whom the public role of museums is an unfortunate inconvenience to be tolerated not celebrated.

The heyday of the ‘old-school’ curator in England really ran between 1890, the great period of expansion and collecting (not just in museums) and the 1950’s. During this period, the supremacy of the curator as the arbiter of knowledge and objective truths was largely axiomatic – nobody really questioned it. Then, of course, society changed, and museums changed – the great expansion of social policy, the invention of social history, the re-coding of the museum’s role in society all happened between 1960 and 1980, and things have never been quite the same since.

Today, in all but the largest National and Regional museums, the idea that every collection (not just every museum) should have a curator is almost an anachronism. The assault on curatorship came from numerous angles all at once:

  • There was the argument of simple economics – as museums have had to increase delivery on diminishing budgets, the idea of a specialist curator attached to every collection became simply untenable. Indeed the idea of having a specialist curator in every museum (along with the concept of having in-house access to a professional conservator) is now regarded simply as a financial impossibility by many.
  • Then came the Collections Manager – if you look back over the last 10 years of Museums Journal recruitment ads, there is a marked trend. People stopped advertising for specialist roles like ‘curator’ and ‘documentation officer’ and instead started advertising for more broad-spectrum curatorial roles like the slightly suspect ‘keeper’ and, particularly ‘Collections Manager’. The Collections Manager was expected to bridge two worlds – the world of business process/management and the world of curatorship. In the process curatorship came to be seen as a set of repeatable processes, and started to become detached from the idea of scholarship and subject authority.
  • Then came a profound shift in the design idiom of museums. We abandoned almost completely that onslaught of skeletons and picture frames and handwritten labels and camphour fumes that characterised the Victorian museum and embraced instead light, space, sparseness – the idiom of the art gallery and the experience. Where once people came to a museum to see as many unusual things as possible, now they come to experience the whole museum.
  • Then came the Internet, and with it the appropriation of the word ‘curate’. People today curate their shoe cupboard, they curate online exhibitions by choosing some pictures, they curate social media strands of conferences (apologies for that one). A ‘curator’ meant someone who had deep specific technical and/or scientific knowledge of the subject of their collection, and who used that knowledge to develop the collection, to research it and to enhance the general fund of knowledge. Like an academic forced to perform on a reality TV show, the need for the curator to reduce this knowledge to a form suitable for public exhibition was not always a comfortable fit.

There are all sorts of reasons, practical and political for the devaluation of the currency of curatorship. And yes, there is a case to be made that the control exerted over the museum by its curators had become a limiting factor on its ability to change, and that some degree of positive action was necessary to redress this balance. But we have to guard against the risk of going too far in the opposite direction.

The Collections Trust’s vision of a sustainable museum is inherently about balance. Like the Ancient Greeks believed that health was a question of keeping the humours of air, earth, fire and water in balance, we believe that a healthy museum is one in which four priorities – humans, collections, knowledge and money – are kept in equal and mutually respectful balance.

A balanced museum cannot function without curatorial knowledge. Curatorial knowledge cannot function without the support of learning, access, outreach, gallery and web. Neither can function without money. None has a purpose if they are not used.

The risk of not having access to ‘old school’ curators is that museums will gradually stop moving forward, and will instead begin to feed on the knowledge and collections accumulated in the 40 years either side of the turn of the century. A revolving video in the Natural History Museum tells visitors that ‘90% of the worlds species haven’t been discovered yet’ (how do they know??) and yet many museums have quietly stopped acquiring, stopped carrying out new research.

Two candidates have emerged in recent years to backfill the loss of specific knowledge that comes from having a curator. One is crowdsourcing, the other is joining together what remains of the UK’s ‘network of expertise’ into Subject Specialist Networks. The crowdsourcing vision holds that knowledge of the collection is not the preserve of the museum, and that if we can but unlock the vast untapped reserves of knowledge in the community, we can extend the idea of participatory culture to embrace participatory curatorship. I have always been troubled by this – the flipside of the ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’ is the ‘immense self-reinforcing stupidity of the crowd’ – the fact that when crowds are right, they can often be more right than experts, but when they are wrong, groupthink can make them forget to question.

Subject Specialist Networks are a vital, indeed thriving way of opening out specialist knowledge, of filling gaps and of helping people support one another – but they are an adjunct to, not a replacement for, the idea of having curators in museums working with their collections.

And so what to do? We cannot go back – a return to the hegemony of the curator would help neither curators not the rest of the essential functions of a museum. But perhaps we could made some different decisions about how we go forward. Instead of regarding curators and ‘other staff’ as being at odds, perhaps we could focus instead on their common aim to preserve heritage and to make it available for education, enjoyment and research. I think too much has changed to re-assert the old role of the curator. Perhaps instead we could think about how we assert a new role that is fundamentally predicated on balance.

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