Defining the title ‘curator’ in a modern heritage context

By: Dr Tim Ewin

Abstract/summary

The existing definitions of a museum ‘curator’ are inadequate within a modern heritage context and interpretation of what a curator does varies according to who you ask. It is suggested that this lack of an accurate definition has contributed to a loss of appreciation for the unique and important roles museum curators and curatorial knowledge contributes to both the heritage sector and society as a whole. This has led to the prevailing trend of replacing curators with more specific job roles (like collections managers and digitisers) within museums or that the title has been appropriated for another role (e.g. assembling content for an exhibition or website) and that these posts do not adequately retain or generate curatorial knowledge.

In order to clarify what a curator is and why it is important that these skills should continue to be resourced within museums, the following definition is proposed: ‘An employee of a heritage organisation (e.g. museum or art gallery), who’s role it is to understand the heritage (be that cultural, historic or scientific) and objects pertaining to the heritage of the communities that organisation serves and make this information available to anyone who may wish to access it, facilitate dialogue surrounding it and develop and manage collections relating to it.’ It is hoped that this definition will form the basis of more accurate debates about what society needs from museums and curators. Furthermore redefining the title curator will stimulate debate as to what the heritage sector delivers to society and that safeguarding provision for curatorial knowledge should be incorporated into regulatory schemes of best practice and minimum standards.

Article:

What a well-used term curator is. Everyone has heard of one. Many have even worked with one, even in today’s world of collections managers, outreach officers and exhibition designers. But what do we mean when we say ‘curator’, what is the definition of a curator and do we really need a definition?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) states that a curator is; “a person in charge of a museum or art gallery”, or “who is a superintendent or manager”. This however is not a very accurate definition for all people employed in the culture sector in Britain with the title “curator” although, I am aware of a few who do meet this definition. In modern museums, in addition to the use of manager in the OED definition, the title curator is also used for collections managers/officers, those creating exhibitions (particularly in contemporary art), those involved in community engagement or those plainly doing research. So, the title is used in different contexts (in Britain) and it gets even more confusing internationally and therein lays the problem. There is no satisfactory definition for what a curator does in modern museums and heritage organisations. There is no definition on the collections trust website (28/01/2015) nor is there one on the MA website (28/01/2015). Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult to clearly argue if “curators” are needed by museums or not. And people do argue this point (e.g. http://www.museumsassociation.org/maurice-davies-blog/15052012-what-next?utm_source=ma&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign =23052012).

To those outside of museum theory (i.e. the public) when put to them that there are museums (I am talking about publically funded ones) without curators this has been met with consternation? However, to many in the culture sector, the questioning of do we need curators is met with a range of responses from “Of course we do” to “No and good riddance to luxuries holding back progress in museums” (http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-curator/). What then normally ensues is a debate as to what is important in a museum and therefore if curators are valuable or not. Furthermore, there is a sense of apathy as many roles traditionally carried out by curators still continue to be invested in, particularly outreach, collections management, digitisation and exhibitions. However, depending on people’s own experiences in the heritage sector (everyone has heard the tale of the ‘Old School Curator’), their definition of curator and therefore what they are actually talking about, when discussing curators, is different and thus the argument becomes less clear and important areas of work get neglected.

Thus, I feel that the heritage sector needs to define what is meant by ‘curator’, not only because it has come to mean very different things but that many curators are no longer being replaced like-for-like. Various aspects of what was traditionally regarded as curatorial work have been split off and professionalised, complete with their own performance indicators and specific criteria. Many of which have been embedded in the museums accreditation scheme (In the UK at least). Associated with this, there has also been a plethora of “best practice” regarding areas like collections management, exhibitions and outreach to the point where it is suggested that these are the only things museums should do (http://www.museumsassociation.org/maurice-davies-blog/15052012-what-next?utm_source=ma&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign =23052012). Thus, there is a definite sense that curatorial posts are less necessary than these types of specific job role. But is this really right?

Unfortunately, it is not right (as far as I am concerned) as even if all of these aforementioned specific roles are employed within a museum, they still do not cover all the important aspects of work a curator does (or did), nor does it provide all the services expected of museums, as suggested by the 2013 Britain Thinks survey commissioned by the Museums Association (http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916) and corroborated by members of the public I have corresponded with. Because of this, I feel strongly that something vital is being lost by replacing curators with other job roles, not just regarding museums and the heritage sector but to society as a whole.

This “something vital” is essentially a thorough understanding of the heritage (be it scientific, historical or cultural) and the objects pertaining to that heritage of the communities which the museums  and heritage organisations serve and the many benefits that this knowledge provides outlined below). I will now refer to this “something vital” as curatorial knowledge. So curatorial knowledge is a combination of subject specialism, knowledge of collections and their relevance, knowledge of the communities the museum serves and the ways in which the academic parts of their knowledge can be used and made accessible. This need not be an individual’s sole occupation within an organisation and it is frequently combined with another area of work (often collections management).

The benefits of curatorial knowledge are broad and profound and are essentially the currency which any heritage organisation does its business with. This knowledge essentially enables museums to function effectively, maximising both the use of resources and the impact of any museum work, be that outreach, exhibitions or community engagement. It also further ensures that collections can be properly developed, managed, used and that objects can be disposed of responsibly. There is a continual need for curatorial knowledge in every museum service and many heritage organisations and therefore this knowledge is not a luxury nor can a good level of service be provided without (even if collections managers, community officers etc. are employed).

Curatorial knowledge ensures museums serve society responsibly by not only understanding and caring for collections already bestowed upon them to keep in trust but also to ensure that other culturally, scientifically and historically important objects currently not in museums can be recognised and made accessible (though entry into the museum’s collections and with support from collections management, outreach and display expertise). Curatorial knowledge is a vital part of the service of understanding society’s heritage and safeguarding culturally, historically and scientifically important objects and facilitating intellectual access to them. It is what the public want (in my experience), as a bare minimum, from their museums/heritage organisations. However, curatorial knowledge, as fundamental as it is, does not appear directly on any performance indicators nor does it appear in Accreditation guidelines. Partly, I believe, because of a lack of clear definition as to what a curator delivers within a museum or heritage organisation context.

Without someone, i.e. a curator, who can spend the time needed to get a thorough understanding of the collections and the heritage in relation to a community or academic subject then a museum or heritage organisation, will not deliver services as effectively. These collections and the heritage it pertains to will then become mismanaged, misused, under-recognised and under-utilised. Not to mention that it will put up a significant barrier to anyone wishing to access the intellectual importance of culturally significant objects and the heritage of communities which value these collections.

The public expect museums to be an authority on their heritage as well as on the objects of cultural significance museums hold “in trust” for society (http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916) because, I believe, they want their heritage to be understood and be able to tap into that expertise as much or as little as they want. The public value curatorial knowledge because it is a fundamental part, along with other museum roles and pure academic posts, in keeping society’s heritage alive and accessible, now, and for future generations. This is significant as it is an important part of developing a fundamental appreciation of who we are and the amazing world in which we live. This is also why history, art and science are important. That is, to enrich people’s lives and that this knowledge is useful. Therefore, if museums only employ collections managers, outreach officers and exhibition staff, without any emphasis of curatorial knowledge, then they do not serve society as well as they (arguably) should.

Sadly an appreciation of curatorial knowledge is currently an under-recognised part of the culture sector but one deemed vital by many members of the public (http://www.museumsassociation.org/download?id=954916). Sadly, this is repeatedly missed by the modern trend for demonstrable value, outreach and “impact” focused surveys, indeed the highly publicised ‘Museums 2020’ missed out completely. The reasons for the loss of appreciation of this type of knowledge is roughly charted by Nick Poole’s article “the rise and fall of the curator” (http://www.collectionstrust.org.uk/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-curator/).

There are also further benefits to curatorial knowledge, summarised by Ewin and Ewin (in press) but to summarise I believe that all museums need curators or employees with curatorial knowledge. However, this still leaves open the question; what type of curator am I talking about? Well, based on the above description of the unique abilities of a curator, my definition is: An employee of a cultural organisation (e.g. museum or art gallery) who’s role it is to understand the heritage (be that cultural, historic or scientific) and objects pertaining to the heritage of their community and make this information available to anyone who may wish to access it, facilitate dialogue surrounding it and develop collections relating to it.

This definition is deliberately broad and I purposely do not restrict it to use solely within museums or on stored collections. This covers, I believe, the “something vital” missing from other museum roles like collections management, exhibitions and outreach and museum services which do not employ, enable or encourage staff to gain curatorial knowledge. However, it does not include the traditional definition as either a manager or director of a museum nor does it state that curators are a vital part of delivering an effective museum service (although I believe they are).

This definition is one which I hope others will tear up and rewrite to create something better or more accurate. However, I also hope it will spark debate about all the services heritage organisations, like museums, provide to society. Ultimately I hope that museums will start to move away from the limited forms of debate about collections verses outreach which have appeared in the name of “prioritisation” and realise that museum should fixate upon more than just visitor numbers, outreach events, community engagement and “blockbuster” exhibitions.

I want to emphasise that I have no intention for this article to restart the old “intrinsic verses demonstrable value” debate. Nor do I wish to turn back the clock to what has been christened by some as “the Golden Age of Curators”. I want this to lead to a balanced museum service which actually delivers on all museums’ priorities, expectations and responsibilities. I believe that starting with a standardised definition of a curator means we can start to have a proper debate about what museum services should deliver, what really should be regarded as a responsible museum and what services does society need from museums. I say this as I currently believe that as it stands, Accreditation scheme (28/01/2015 http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/supporting-museums/accreditation-scheme/) does not safeguard this and many in the sector do not seem to know why curatorial knowledge is important and why it should be retained, even in these austere times.

I also hope that this definition will begin to see curators regarded as a vital part of a heritage organisation’s service. That is, curators who are properly integrated are an important part of any team which delivers museum services and that they need to actively include staff with curatorial knowledge whatever is being delivered. I also hope that many curators stop seeing themselves as “the most important employee in the museum” and instead start to see themselves, as they actually are; part of team delivering a service to society.

The part I find most self-defeating about most museum debates surrounding curators is the sentiment that because something is regarded as “the most important thing” that everything else is secondary. This cuts both ways; those who are collections focused saying that collections are why museums are here and therefore they should take precedence.  Whilst those of a community focus insist that it is community engagement which is the most important part of museum work and collections are secondary. Neither is right and both are wrong for the simple reason that museums need to do both to deliver an effective service to society. Museums need to be more savvy than regarding one (or a number of) things as more important than anything else to the point where everything else is unworthy of resources. I am not saying do not prioritise, just don’t expect to be called responsible if you stop doing something altogether.

As such, I hope that redefining a curator not only facilitates a more accurate debate, but also raises awareness of the benefits that curators bring to museums and to society. This, I hope, will lead to changes leading to more balanced services, ensuring that museums and heritage organisations are both responsible to the collections they hold in trust to society and deliver the best services they can.

 

2 thoughts on “Defining the title ‘curator’ in a modern heritage context

  1. Very relevant discussion and clean cut approach from the author.
    In my humble opinion, It shows a weak point in the business development of museums around the world.

    Working in Asia on the development of a new museum, and organisation, I do miss (minimal) descriptions on museum standards to benchmark with. I can only fall back on a selection of similar museums for a benchmark and that choice can too easily be disputed by being considered baised.

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