Do we need specialist curators?

Giles Miller, 03.07.2012
Can knowledge survive when specialists leave?
I have just said goodbye to retired curator Richard Hodgkinson who left the museum 54 years after taking up a junior position here. His knowledge of the microfossil collection is second to none.

Another colleague Andy Currant is about to retire after more than 40 years of service. Can we replace this sort of specialist knowledge?

As the curator of a collection of over a million objects that is consulted regularly by scientists, I would argue that specialist curators are vital. Here are 10 points illustrating why.

First I'll start with my definition of a specialist curator. This is someone who has in-depth knowledge about the collections in their care, an appreciation of their significance and a working knowledge of the external community likely to use them.

Some curators publish research papers on their own areas of expertise but I'm not including that in my definition. Nobody in the world is an expert on the range of subjects that micropalaeontology covers!

Databasing

The million plus items in my collections are unlikely to be databased individually during my lifetime. Some knowledge of the relative importance of different parts of the collection helps decide on priorities so limited databasing resources are used to their best potential. Updating identifications of our specimens is also important so knowing "who is publishing what" can pay dividends.

Conservation

As with databasing, important decisions need to be made on what needs conserving. Conservation is one of the main remits of the museum and is vital to maintaining the heritage locked up in our collections. Having someone to argue scientifically why something needs conserving helps to prioritise conservation projects.

Enquiries

It's important to provide accurate information to enquirers. While useful information can be gleaned from museum card indexes and registers, these rarely include historical details.

I've been here for 18 years now and have a pretty good feel for the microfossil collections but I still occasionally rely on retired members of staff to point me in the right direction with an interesting anecdote or two.

Media

Some of my fellow curators are always being called on to make statements about news articles related to their subject. Meteorites, human fossils or dinosaurs are in the news every week.

These high profile judgements emphasise why the museum is important and the public expect such authoritive statements from specialists at the museum. OK I hear you say - micropalaeontology rarely makes it to the news. That is one of the reasons why I decided to start my blog!

Loans

Before our collections are sent out on loan we need to make judgements on their travel suitability and value for insurance purposes. Sometimes loanees want to carry out destructive techniques on the specimens so curators have to advise senior managers about whether these should be allowed.

Disaster and risk management

We know where are most important specimens are so they can be rescued in the event of a disaster (fire, flood, earthquake). You would think a specialist curator is not required if we have lists already. However, I came to work last Monday morning to find my second floor office and part of the collections area outside flooded. This is strange because I am two floors below the roof!

Knowledge of the collections present in the affected cabinets was vital to quickly dealing with the issue. Some people think that databasing all our collections is the answer to replacing specialist curators but this would not have helped in this instance.

Acquisitions

Should we acquire a collection or not? Knowledge of collectors and their history is useful as is knowledge of the site where it was collected. My experience is that having a specialist on the books also encourages donations. Specialists build up relationships with potential donors, enhancing the value of the present collections by encouraging new donations.

Exchanges and disposals

These follow the same principles as acquisitions but in reverse. I've heard several horror stories over the years where collections or specimen related documentation have ended up on the skip because the people disposing of them had no idea of their value. Many curators can't bear to think that their collections should be disposed of or exchanged. However, these projects are neccessary so some knowledge of value is essential before disposal decisions are made.

Visits

People come from all over the world to visit our collections sometimes at vast personal expense. Before planning a trip they need to know for certain that we have collections that suit their specialist needs.

Sometimes we need to encourage use of our collections from relevant external stakeholders. I am glad that my colleagues Tom and Steve have been brought in specifically to help me with this remit.

Education

Educational activities include roadshows like the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, public speaking e.g. Nature Live or input to displays in the galleries of the Museum. Without specialist knowledge, specimens can be poorly interpreted or interesting stories not brought to public attention. All of these activities make the specimens more relevant to members of the public.

So you can tell that as a specialist curator I'm in favour of them. No surprise there. I'm not criticising non-specialists either.

In these days of austerity, curatorial support is becoming stretched increasingly thinly and staff expected to cover wider subject areas.

The days of a person like Richard Hodgkinson staying their entire career in one museum job on one subject may be over but it does not pay to overlook the importance of specialist curatorial knowledge.

This post is a reproduction from the Curator of Micropalaeontology blog by Giles Miller of the Natural History Museum, London.

Comments

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Anonymous
13.01.2013, 17:24
It's not only specialist curators in larger museums who are under threat. All curators seem to be having their roles cut down and specialised to the point of endangerment. One can understand this with things like conservation and education, both of which have good reasons to be separated out into specialist categories. It's more questionable when you get into things like 'interpretation specialists'. Surely the task of interpreting objects was always something that curators did? The problem is that the big funding bodies have been led along by this trend for so long that they've lost the ability to question it. Now, in order to get funding for some projects, you are virtually required to give the interpretation of your displays over to private consultants. When those private consultants turn out also to be acting as advisors to the funding bodies giving out the money, then you've got a massive conflict of interest. The big losers in all this are the museums and the staff who work there, but taxpayers and lottery ticket buyers should be asking questions too about a system that uses public money to line the pockets of the private sector
07.11.2012, 09:14
It isn't just collections and the information they hold that are at risk from the national trend to get rid of specialist curators - as important as these are. A young person coming into the museum with a beetle or fossil to be identified can be stimulated to embark on a natural science carreer - or at least to develop an amateur interest, which will benefit everyone, If he/she is turned away or fobbed off with inadequate information because there is no-one available with the neccesary knowlege, that could be the end of the matter.Also, the natural history curator often has/had a great knowledge of the wildlife of his/her locality (biological records centres included) - which is of great value in planning desisions. A former Museum where I was curator in the 1980s, Kendal, is now threatened with losing its natural science curator and, already, Derby, Coventry and Sheffield, among many others, have already lost them. It is a dire situation which saddens me deeply. It all seems part of the general trend of 'dumming' down in Society.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
10.07.2012, 16:57
Heather - arguably the wider issue is specialist knowledge/income generation (and not just in the UK): http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/09/museums-are-about-the-art-not-racking-up-big-numbers-on-crowds-and-revenue.html
Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
04.07.2012, 23:59
Specialists are definitely one of the important species in the museum habitat and we should be worried at any threat to our sector's biodiversity.

Working in a local authority museum, being a generalist is in the job spec, but i have worked with specialists from other museums and their knowledge has always been useful. With tight turn around times for exhibitions, nothing can beat a handy expert who can answer all your queries on the collections, so freeing up valuable to concentrate on ensuring the exhibition meets the needs of its various target audiences and opens on time.

Specialists can save us from the banal and the shallow and we have all visited museums or have put on displays where the latter are unfortunately all too evident. Specialists can also help emphasise the unique and the original in our museum collections and without that we can't so easily compete against our rivals for people's valuable time.
04.07.2012, 16:48
I wonder if there is an Art/Science divide?

I can see that all the people who are in favour of specialist curators are scientists, and as someone who is hoping to follow in their path I agree that the natural sciences need specialist curators.

It is also important that semi specialist natural science curators in smaller collections and local museums have a good net-work of colleagues around the country.

Does an art or cultural curator need to be specialised in the same kind of way? Please weigh in.
04.07.2012, 11:27
The Specialist Curator is essential for a specialist collection. A collection of mounted skeletons prepared and used for teaching purposes might not require a specialist curator. But a research collection, containing specimens with locality and other data associated does, and especially so if the collection contains type specimens, which must be available to the international research community. In these collections, specialist curators are not a luxury but a necessary requirement to avoid derelictions of the duty of care.

Reasons for this include the fact that knowledge of the value of specimens in such a collection, as well as the research track-record of the specimens, remain in a growth phase. A specialist curator is needed to keep track of and add to this knowledge, including appreciation of the historical and scientific importance of individual specimens in the contemporary context.

Also, the curator of such Collections must have a “longer view” than any single researcher using the collections. It is sometimes very difficult for a driven researcher to see beyond the value of his or her own techniques and project -scope when accessing the collections.

Perhaps the historical data such as “collector: C. Darwin” are of no particular interest if a particular anatomical feature deep within the interior of the specimen represents a golden key to a successful thesis. Or maybe the muscles are of little interest to those whose interest lies in the bones underneath. Of course the specialist curator must also know how great the value of such investigations might be, and must be able to form an impression of the competence and long term value of a particular investigation.

This cannot be done without the curator’s having research experience themselves, enabling an informed dialogue with any potential user of the collections. The greater the curator’s knowledge of the past and present details of their collection the better they will serve its users. They can bring additional information outside the scope of an individual research project to the attention of researchers, as well as advising on how best to use the material available in their own collection and those worldwide.

The potential for harm to collections where well-meaniing maintenance is undertaken, blind to the deeper significances of the specimens is sometimes greater than that of curatorial neglect. The answer is adequate core staffing with long-term posts and a weather eye on succession. Preposterous, I know, but there are a lot of crazy ways to spend money that Museums like to indulge in now.
Patrick, Website Editor, Museums Association
MA Member, MJ Subscriber, MP Subscriber
03.07.2012, 15:48
Victoria Herridge on Twitter, in answer to the headline, says "Yes, yes, a thousands times, YES!"

https://twitter.com/ToriHerridge/status/220116736429666306
03.07.2012, 13:43
We do need specialist curators, principally in museums with large collections that are routinely worked on by scientists, artists and other users.

Where specialist curators cannot be employed, usually due to the lack of funds, there may be huge reliance on knowledgeable volunteers and scientific associates to help out with enquiries.

However, this is not a long-term solution for museums, because specialist knowledge of large collections develops over time and requires continuity and commitment.

Without curators who manage particular collections for a number of years, documentation and conservation standards may fall and bibliographic updates are unlikely to be added into the documentation of specimens and objects.

This may lead to the loss of historical information and impacts on the scientific, cultural or commercial value of collections.

On the other hand, we need a range of early career and senior curators working together to pass on essential collections knowledge and best collections management practices from one generation to the next. This mechanism is crucial and implicit in the concept of cultural heritage.