Why Curators Matter

In the past when people within the museum sector have made a fuss about people outside the sector ‘mis-using’ the word curator, or more often, the verb curate, I have laughed it off. I don’t care if people want to curate their instagram feeds, festival line ups or special menus. I don’t care if, outside the museum, the word is taken to mean ‘choose’, ‘select’ or ‘organise’. The meaning of words changes. Words become trendy, and then passé. Life goes on.

What does bother me is when people who do work in, and make decisions about, museums do not seem to grasp what a curator is, what their role in the museum is. The news of a restructure of a regional museum service to delete the posts of curators in favour of engagement staff has sparked debate in the Museums Journal, on twitter during MuseumHour, and has now caught the attention of a National Museum director, and the national press. It would seem, from the sector and journalistic takes on this development, that in the popular imagination, there are two types of people who work in museums:

The ‘expert’ curator, a specialist in their subject, stuffy, learned, possible academic, ensconced in their ivory tower of research, jealously guarding ‘their’ collections from the public vs. The engagement professional, cheery, probably younger, female and more likely to be from a ‘diverse’ background, a woman of the people, able to communicate with the outside world, chat to visitors, bring people into the museum and make the museum exciting to them.

This binary division of museum staff does not hold weight. Yes I have encountered both stereotypes in my decade of working in museums large and small. Yes I understand the frustrations of public facing staff who do a lot of the leg work and emotional labour of engaging people with museums while the work of curators remains somewhat opaque. But in most regional museums, there is not the luxury of separate teams and silos, everyone does everything.

In the comments on the Museums Association website, one person suggested that the debate was confusing the roles of curators and collections managers. But again, in most museums, these jobs are one and the same. The curator in the local authority museum is, more often than not, the one with access to the collections database (if you’re lucky they’ll know how to use it) and the stored collections. They have not just subject knowledge, which can be brought in, or researched, but knowledge of the collection. It’s not knowledge about geology that makes a geology curator valuable, but knowledge about this particular collection of geological specimens, when they were collected, why, how they have been catalogued, how they are different from other similar collections, how they are physically organised and stored, and where they are.

At the risk of becoming the ‘we don’t know where everything is’ woman, I have to keep repeating, in every space I have access to senior managers, funders and decision makers, WE DON’T KNOW WHERE EVERYTHING IS. Collections work has long been so undervalued that almost every museum I have ever worked in has a huge ‘documentation backlog’. Where they are willing to admit this, they make it seem like this means there are perhaps a few dozen newly acquired objects waiting to be accessioned, thoroughly catalogued and lovingly packed away in a well equipped store. No. It usually means that there are thousands of objects in a cramped store, unlabelled, or labelled with a number that connects to nothing, unsorted, undocumented, undiscoverable. Which brings me to another, lesser spotted, catchphrase – we don’t know WHAT everything is. We don’t know what we have. We don’t know what we don’t have.

This means that when a member of the public, or an engagement focussed colleague, asks if we have anything related to X, or for us to suggest some collections for a handling session on Y, it takes an enormous effort to locate those things, both in the documentation and physically. Knowledge of the collections, again, not the subject, the collections themselves, is crucial to this task. Answering these enquiries takes several times as long as it should because we don’t have the collections information to hand. If museums were able to concentrate resources on collections documentation and management, if we could just get a handle on our inventories, then curators could answer enquiries quicker and with more contextual information. Engagement could be more rich with access to all of the available collections, and all of the stories they have to tell.

Museum colleagues who deal primarily with public facing interpretation and engagement are incredibly skilled and expert in their fields. That’s not the debate. But without curators who know how to manage and access the collections, what are they going to engage people with? The thing about museums, what makes them special, what makes them distinct from community centres, arts spaces, rooms for hire, is the collections. The objects. All of these objects, which someone at some point thought was important enough for the museum to preserve for posterity, become a room full of useless stuff if there is no one there to document it, to keep track of it, to record and make accessible the stories and the information that makes it interesting. Those people are curators. That’s what the word means.