The Psychology of Museum People – Who Would Want to be a Curator?

The Psychology of Museum People – Who Would Want to be a Curator?

I find myself using the phrase ‘museum person’ more often these days to discuss people who work in my sector. This is partly a way of acknowledging some of the contexts of the museum world: there are more jobs than just curator, and ‘museum worker’ doesn’t not fit either since there are people behind the scenes in museums who are not workers, many of them volunteers. But it’s also true that there is a certain type of person who involves themselves in museums. I’m not talking about demographics, but about the psychological appeal of museums as a career. 

As I observe my fellow workers, not only in museums but in the wider arts sector, I sometimes get frustrated as they say, and believe, they are doing something for the benefit of ‘the public’, or ‘for everyone’ when in fact they are doing it for people like them. I am lucky in this respect, in this aspect of my work, because I am able to be honest and upfront about this from the beginning. I am writing this blog for insiders. 

With low wages and poor prospects for career progression, museum jobs fall into the category of jobs that people do for the love of it. Because museums are also places where people enjoy spending their leisure time, many museum workers take this to the extreme, with museum visits, books and social media bleeding into their social life. (If you are reading this, its probably in your spare time, not on the clock, and you may have found it on twitter, where you follow museums and other museum people). There is also a tendency towards a sense of self that is bound up in one’s career. To be prepared to give up the higher salary you could make in a similar role in another sector, you have to convince yourself you really, really love your job, that is it part of who you are. This makes it particularly difficult for ‘museum people’ to accept criticism of museums. 

Museologists and psychologists have studied the reasons why people make collections of things. Sometimes these are sentimental, sometimes studious, sometimes about investment. Collectors are seen as elevated above mere accumulators or hoarders by their sense of purpose and taste. Collecting makes a physical manifestation of passions and power. A collection outlasts the collector, and carries on their name. 

Other people’s stuff

Who would want to be a curator, though? What drives a person to want to work with someone else’s collection of things, arranging them, displaying them, reading and writing about them? The earliest account written about how to manage a collection, known as the first treatise on museums, is Samuel Quiccheberg’s Inscriptiones from 1565. Quiccheberg worked managing the library and collections of the wealthy Fugger family and later the cabinet of Albert V, Duke of Bavaria. He wasn’t writing about his own collection, but his employer’s. We don’t know a lot about his life; he was clearly well off enough that he was able to study and travel (some of it aided by his close relationships with wealthier contacts) but not wealthy enough to acquire his own collections. Instead he worked arranging the library and collection of his employer, and wrote his Inscriptiones advising other wealthy collectors how to do the same. I can’t say what was in it for Quiccheberg, maybe he was the first ‘museum person’ and did this work for the love of it? Maybe in this work he found a way to maintain his proximity to wealth, power, and objects that he could not have possessed himself. Maybe he just hit on a good business model in telling rich people how to organise their things, like a renaissance version of Marie Kondo or The Home Edit.

Today, when most people outside of museums think of a curator, if they ever do, it is probably a fine art curator that they imagine. This is certainly reflected in representations of curators in popular culture, who are usually glamorous gallery girls (if they are not treasure hunting archaeologists). Being a curator is an aspirational career, but why would someone aspire to be an art curator and not an artist? Why curate when you could create? I think it may be because the curator is perceived as having power over the artist. Being a tastemaker, they also have power over the audience. 

Curating vs managing collections

Like most people, when I started out in museums, I wanted to be a curator. Which is to say I wanted to be creative, to put on exhibitions, to make decisions about what went in them, to write about objects and ideas and to share them with people. That is the glamorous side of museum work. It’s public facing, people see it, reviews get written about it. Those kind of curators get kudos. Those kind of jobs are incredibly desirable and therefore very hard to get. I realised, perhaps too late, that there was no easy path from my then temporary admin role to curating an exhibition. (To this day I have never been trusted to curate an exhibition).

In reality there are as many kinds of curators as there are museums. Some people who do the traditional work of the curator, of caring for, researching and exhibiting objects, are not even called curators. Yet it remains the most recognisable role associated with museums, and is shorthand for any job that involves working with collections of objects and images.

Curators outside museums

These days, curators do not just work in museums. This fact that is extremely upsetting to many a museum curator. Perhaps this is because they have worked/volunteered/studied/‘done their 10,000 hours’ for that elusive title, only to find that an Instagram influencer has declared themselves a curator too. How dare they? Curators can ironically get very upset about misnaming and cultural appropriation when it is their curatorial culture that is being appropriated. Museums, being preservers of things as they are, have a hard time with the idea that the meanings of things can change. Curators, being in the business of naming, categorising and describing things, don’t like the word being used in such an unauthorised fashion.

The power of curators

What all these roles have in common is a degree of taste-making, categorising things and identifying some things as worthier than others, whether that is worthy of the insta grid, the major exhibition or the cataloguing resources. Even the behind the scenes museum people, quietly working to document collections, have this power. In our search driven age, what gets written about an object makes a difference as to whether it is found and accessed, or stays on the shelf. Early curators, as described in my decolonising the database posts used their power to denigrate objects from some cultures, while elevating the cultural production of people like them. In the provincial museums that developed in the UK following the example set by the first nationals, Kate Hill argues, founding curators used their power to establish a niche for themselves at the centre of cultural life, while claiming their work to be for the benefit of others:

It is my argument that although the new public museum was partly developed, predominantly by the middle class, as a cultural asset for the improvement of the working class, it was equally part of a reorganisation of urban cultural provision which allowed the middle class to demonstrate authority, stamp their own values onto culture, and provide suitable leisure for themselves.

Kate Hill, Culture and Class in English Public Museums, 1850-1914, 2017

I find echoes of this attitude in contemporary museum discourse around social benefit and ‘museums change lives’. I am not arguing that museums cannot have a public benefit, or enact social change, but nor should we uncritically assume that they have the power to change lives. We should always be mindful about our motivations for doing the work we do, and consider our role as curators within the context of those people and structures who have come before.