I wasn’t at the British Museum today. I just followed the whole thing on twitter, which is futuristic in itself.
The conference asked ‘What is a Curator of the Future?’, but judging from the tweets on the #futurecurator hashtag, people are still very unsure about what being a curator means now. It seems with so much insecurity in the sector, people are also insecure about what the role should be now, how central it is to what museums do, and who has the right to the term.
I have worked in museums for over five years, but I’m not a curator. I never say I am one, even to people outside the sector who I meet socially, and to whom the term would probably be easy shorthand for ‘someone who works with museum collections’ and would save a lot of faff explaining what I actually do. One of the reasons I would never say I am a curator (apart from the fact that’s not what it says on my job description) is because there is a sense of hierarchy to the term; it has a higher status that collection manager or museum assistant. Museum traditionalists can be affronted by new uses of the word cropping up for example, in the context of tumblr blogs and pop-up boutiques being curated.
I think there is a bit of insecurity going on for some people who have gained the title and position of curator through their dedicated study, academic excellence and specialist knowledge. They are defensive about the idea that you might not need specialist knowledge to be a curator, and that a different set of skills, and versatility, may be of more use to the museum now and in the future. Those with generalist Museum Studies degrees, or who have built up diverse skills and experience on the floor, on the other hand, may be defensive that they don’t have the specialist academic knowledge of a traditional curator, and this might prevent them from being taken seriously in some institutions. It was an interesting experience following the conference on twitter, only seeing the selective snatches of what each delegate found notable enough to tweet. It was often quite clear which side of the debate individuals fell on, as they would tweet and re-tweet snippets which reinforced their view of the debate.
There are undoubtedly special skills and talents required to be a good curator; not everybody can do it. #futurecurator has helped me crystalise my own ideas about what it means to be a curator (and really it’s different in every museum): someone who looks after collections, knows how to interpret them (through knowledge, research, and understanding of audiences and communication skills) and crucially creates or produces something new which helps people enjoy and understand these collections. If curators aren’t producing anything new, whether its research, exhibitions, new interpretations, adding to collections, then collections stagnate. If there were only collections managers and not curators, museums would not be moving forward.