Campaign for Good Curatorship at the 2015 MA conference

Campaign for Good Curatorship at the 2015 MA conference

By: Timothy A. M. Ewin

Campaign Committee member Paolo Viscardi was part of a panel session at the 2015 MA conference discussing the role of the curator, how this has changed and how are the needs of the sector impacting on the role of curators and what key positive attributes are essential for today’s subject specialist”. Here are the excellent points Paolo made:

1. The need for knowledge: We live in a society that is information dependent, underpinning an increasingly knowledge-based economy. The museum sector is well placed to support the growth and development of such an economy, able to provide quality information to inform and inspire innovation. Our sector can also support social mobility within such an economy, by acting as an accessible interface between our broad audiences and the (sometimes intimidating) face of scholarly research. However, for the primary information contained in collections to be properly utilised, there is a need for specialists who can ensure quality care, development and interpretation of collections.

2. Curatorial communicators: Historically, the curatorial role has provided the specialist knowledge needed to enrich collections by researching objects and their context, by adding new objects and by providing information essential to ensuring long-term care and appropriate use. But this is not a justification for allowing hobbyists to simply pursue their interests, there is a need for specialists to take a strategic approach to their work and communicate widely about what they are doing, both with other specialists and with the public. The passion that drives specialists is contagious and inspirational. We are in a privileged position and we should share the joy of what we do with our audiences, since it helps them to engage with collections in ways that are normally reserved for a privileged few. This is where social media and innovative approaches to sharing knowledge offer exciting opportunities.

3. The good curator: Good curatorship is not simply about skills, although skills are important. It is not simply about knowledge, although knowledge is vital. It is about having the willingness and ability to share our skills and knowledge with colleagues to ensure the best possible care for our collections. It’s about embracing new opportunities to share the passion we have for our specialisms in order to inspire and engage our audiences, to make them aware that the collections we love exist for their use and enjoyment just as much as for ours.
For me, the role of curators has changed in that they’ve needed to be able to make their knowledge more accessible to a wider range of museum professionals to deliver more sophisticated public engagement with little training on how to engage. So what would help this in the future is provide training to people with expertise to engage more effectively. Another thing is that many other areas of the museum community have been much better at advocating their roles/unique importance/impact with simple to understand targets and performance indicators. Curators have not done this and need to. Curators still play a unique role within museums and despite the professionalization of particular areas historically covered by a curator, there is still a need to employ experts on the collections, now and in the future. This is partly why the campaign for good curatorship was really set up.

Whilst it was great to see curatorship discussed at the MA conference at this panel session and another chaired by Jilly Burns (http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/05112015-developing-curatorial-expertise-must-not-fall-by-the-wayside-warn-delegates), it would appear that this was a topic which was still felt to be underrepresented (http://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/museums-journal-blog/17112015-reflections-from-birmingham – see point 9). At the campaign, we do hope that the Museum Association will start to do something serious about this, both at their conferences and within their general operations. Wider recognition of these issues is needed. Curatorial knowledge also needs to be engrained in future museum resource planning. The MA must do more for curatorship than just administer the Esmeè Fairbairn fund.