We all agree that museums need curators, but do we all agree on what it is that curators do? Are they holders of specialist collections knowledge? Cultural programmers? Custodians? Facilitators? Communicators? All of these, or none?
Through the University of Cambridge Museums’ Art and Science of Curation project, we are beginning to map the rich and diverse landscape of curation. We are exploring areas of common ground and difference, with the aim of improving and enhancing our understanding of the curator, and to raise awareness of the diversity of the curatorial role. Ours is a cross-disciplinary consortium of museums, and we hope that this sharing of experiences will enable more effective partnerships, and strengthen and stimulate cross-disciplinary working. It is clear that these discussions are relevant beyond our own eight museums, with considerable interest in the project from across the museums and wider cultural sector.
By turning the spotlight onto the role of curation we will enable our audiences to better understand what museums are about, and enable us all to advocate more powerfully for the role of museums in the wider cultural and social landscape.
Our starting point in this project is a growing set of short essays by curators from different disciplines and museums, in which they outline their personal view of their role as a curator. These vary from practical descriptions of day-to-day tasks to more reflective articles about curation within a particular discipline. They all contribute to capturing and building our understanding of the diversity of the curatorial role.
Do art and science curators operate in different worlds, meeting only to battle out their differences? The debate is not just about the two cultures – art against science – but about capturing a far richer and diverse field of views. Curators of social history collections, for example, have a different approach and emphasis. Curators in small museums have little time for scholarly research, as they struggle to keep their museum open, but they are no less curators. Should diversifying the curatorial workforce be a priority? And how do we feel about the appropriation of the word by those outside the sector – curated fashion collections, music events and restaurant menus?
These questions help challenge assumptions that curation is a fixed and homogenous phenomenon. We need to rehabilitate curating, and curators, as a rich and diverse thing, and I invite you all to get involved in the discussion.
The essay contributions are complemented and enhanced by an events programme which enables us to explore and debate these ideas more fully. We have brought together curators from different disciplines in a series of panel discussions. At the recent Museums Association Conference in Cardiff, three curators from different backgrounds and disciplines spoke about their roles. Katy Barrett, a historian from National Museums Greenwich, reflected on her journey to become a curator and how her view of the role has changed.
She suggested that a curator should be an expert in people as much as in objects, creating and developing networks and a robust personal identity, and that time spent on the front desk of the museum is as important as time spent in the stores.
Jenny Powell, from Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, outlined the challenges of curating a static collection, reflecting the vision of one man, Jim Ede, with a collection that includes found pebbles and objects alongside important works of 20th-century art. Mark Carnall, from the University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology, challenged us with a robust defence of the importance of science curators, and their effectiveness in breaking down barriers and stimulating engagement with visitors.
This term, the UCM are hosting a series of seminars around the broad themes of curation, and then the debate will continue over two days in December when we will be bringing together curators, cultural thinkers, researchers and practitioners to discuss 'Does the Museum just preserve the museum'. This conference is jointly hosted by CRASSH and the University of Cambridge Museums. We encourage anyone with an interest in museums and culture to join us, or to get in touch about contributing to the project.