What’s your specialism?

So Neil MacGregor is concerned about the ‘erosion of curatorial strength’ in regional museums. As funding cuts bite and staff numbers in smaller museums decrease, there is an inevitable corresponding decrease in the number of traditionally specialist curatorial staff. MacGregor, speaking to a select committee as part of the Countries of Culture Inquiry, highlights the knock-on effect this has for the work of local museums, and how national museums can help. There is the suggestion in MacGregor’s answers to the committee that small museums will be unable to take full advantage of opportunities such as loans from the BM because of a lack a curatorial knowledge about which objects to make use of, and a lack of knowledge about objects in the museum’s own collections. While this is undoubtedly true in some cases, it is more likely the lack of time available for research, as opposed to a lack of skill or pre-existing knowledge which makes a difference. As MacGregor goes on to acknowledge this comes back down to lack of funding, demands on staff time and therefore a lack of opportunities for small museums to do the work they would like to be doing:

“What is lacking at the moment very often is that in museums and galleries outside London you have very clever, engaged and hardworking people whose capacity to initiate and carry through projects is very limited, which is demotivating, and the absence of new projects and ideas makes it harder for the local museum to persuade the local authority that this is important. It makes it harder to generate civic pride and everything that flows from that.”

As an early career curator of a small local authority museum I often get asked what my specialism is. At first I dreaded it and it took me a while to know what to say. I have degrees in Visual Culture (which often needs explaining in itself – it’s a broad subject which gave me good grounding in the history of art, design, film, material culture and even the history of museums and the interpretation of collections, but I definitely don’t feel like I came out with a specialist knowledge of any one area (and who does from an undergraduate humanities degree?) and Museum Studies, another broad and generalist course. Depending on who I’m talking to, I’ll say my specialism is collections management, or that I don’t have a subject specialism but I’ve got experience in several different areas of museum work which qualifies me for my role in a small museum that involves exhibitions, collections management, education, marketing, managing staff, retail, social media etc etc etc.

Part of this debate is about the increase in generalist Museum Studies graduates. For young people starting out, unless they have a lifelong passion for a particular subject, or even if they do, Museum Studies can feel like the right choice over continuing a specialist academic path. For one thing there is the ubiquity of this specific qualification as a desirable or even essential requirement for job vacancies. Secondly, who wants to risk spending years attaining a Masters and then PhD only to find there are only a handful of museums in the whole country who employ a specialist curator in your field, none of them are hiring, and the people in post are digging their heels in until a retirement which keeps getting later and later?

The other issue is the ongoing debate about what the role of today’s curator is. Curators and other museum staff are increasingly required to be jacks of all trades, which as the saying goes, makes them masters of none. Curators now have to be more engaged with community work, with generating content for websites and social media, with the business of keeping museums going from day to day. I spend a lot of my time working on projects to engage people who aren’t already visiting the museum or necessarily even aware that their local museum exists or the services it provides. In the meantime, the people who are already engaged with some idea of what a local museum service should be do come in and they still expect there to be an ‘expert’ curator available on site. This has struck me especially in the last couple of weeks when I have had members of the public showing up at the front desk and asking me questions as varied as identifying something they found in their garden or the best way to preserve a fish. Although I am not, as I have said, a specialist, I do have research skills and knowledge of , or access to, resources which the man on the street may not, and so I am generally able to answer these queries in a way that satisfies or to signpost enquirers to someone who will be able to give them a more educated answer, and they go away happy.

To return to Neil Macgregor’s comments, and to give him his due, he acknowledges that Nationals like the British Museum are becoming the only organisations who can afford to employ specialist subject curators and engage in new in depth research and scholarship, which is why their national programmes supporting staff in smaller museums are so important. In this climate we cannot expect small museums to have a numismatist, a natural history expert, an archaeologist, and a fine art connoisseur on staff, but the staff who do work in these museums, doing the valuable work of keeping them going, must be able to access the advice and expertise of the specialists out there.

While a jack of all trades curator may not be a master of one particular field, a good one should have the research and interpretation skills, as well as the understanding of their particular setting and audiences, to enable them to effectively exhibit and interpret collections about which they are not academic experts. The next generation of museum curators across the country are not going to be specialists in the traditional sense, but they do need to have the skills to research and interpret new and unfamiliar subjects, and they will need networks and resources in place to help them access external knowledge and expertise where they need it. I’m not saying there will be no place in the future for the specialist curator, but that their place will be at the centre of a knowledge sharing network whose benefits reach out to even the smallest museums.