Stupid curators

Maurice Davies, 28.08.2013
Why we should listen to the public
Two media stories caught my attention this week - both featuring museum curators being incredibly stupid and members of the public being incredibly sensible.

The first was on CNN’s website, where journalist James Durston provoked dozens of comments with a piece titled Why I Hate Museums.

His article is marvellously provocative, the key point being that he finds museums rather dull, or as a user named baniadam101 writes: “For a normal regular person, I am one of those who agree with the author; museums need to change and adapt, they are indeed boring. I like to go to museums, but soon get bored.”

So how do the profession’s finest respond to these thoughts from their users?

Here’s a typical example from a user calling themselves TheCurator: “Curators like myself expect you to be intelligent enough to look more deeply at items on display, to feel an emotional connection with those that have come before you, and to draw parallels between the objects you're looking at and things you encounter in your everyday life. It isn't the museums' fault that you can't seem to grasp any of this.”

A user named Davidji makes a far more measured response: "I like museums and spend my holidays visiting as many as I can but some of the people who run these places seem to see guests as a necessary evil. You are expected to keep quiet and not touch anything...

"It’s like being a kid at a funeral. Some museums are a celebration of life and others feel like an audit of life. I think the author is taking aim at the latter."

That phrase beautifully sums up problems at the heart of much museum thinking. “An audit of life” is the perfect description of the deadening approach of many in museums, preferring to pin things down and inventory them than to bring them alive.

Durston sums up his views: “It feels to me like someone created a rule back in the first days of museums - ‘stick it in a case and let people look at it’ - and that no one has had the courage or the imagination to take things on a step since.”

Here he hits the nail on the head; in the 21st century, museums are still dominated by an essentially 19th century technology - putting things in glass cases or on the wall with little labels. Of course there are other approaches but this is the main technique used by most.

Why don’t more museums break the mould? The answer is given unwittingly in a response to my last blog about museums that forget their public in a discussion on the Museums Association LinkedIn group.

Cindy Howells poses the rhetorical question: “What is more important? That the public should be having fun, or that we should be protecting hundreds of years of research and the collections we hold for the heritage of the nation?”

If preservation trumps fun then museums are really in trouble.

The second example is the farcical row between the National Maritime Museum and the National Gallery of Australia over which of them should own two rather sweet paintings by George Stubbs of a Kangaroo and a Dingo - apparently two of the blessed symbols of Australia.

It turns out the Australian National Gallery has bought them, but they’ve been export barred so Greenwich can try to raise enough millions to buy them, which I guess rests primarily on the strength of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s nationalism.

Now the two museums are shouting, or at least sniffing, at each other through the press. In The Guardian Christine Riding, senior paintings curator at the Maritime Museum, claims: “The Stubbs paintings, which have never left England, would be a transformational acquisition.”

In The Telegraph Australian National gallery Director Ron Radford dismisses the London claim as “very tenuous” and says: “These paintings should be in Australia, in the national art collection… they should belong to the people of Australia.”

Honestly! You do wonder how much the two protagonists really care about the people rather than their own curatorial glory.

And, as ever, the people are far more sensible, with many comments making the same point as a user named necronancy in the Guardian: “Couldn't they share them? Why does it always have to be all or nothing?”

As so often, while we are preoccupied with our arcane museum arguments, the public cut through it all with the perfect solution.

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Anonymous
MA Member
14.09.2013, 13:16
Thank you for this. Of course the MA does lots of good stuff. It would be good to see a post about the value of public-friendly curators some time, among a series on the value of different types of post.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
13.09.2013, 10:39
In reply to Anonymous at 13.09.2013, 08:54: Point taken. We will be more circumspect with our blog headlines in future. It is important to reiterate though that the MA is about a whole lot more than just a blog headline.

We are very active currently with work on collections, advocacy, workforce development and fighting against funding cuts to museums at national and local level, and continue with day-to-day support of the sector through training events, networking meetings, and professional development. This, alongside Museums Journal, Museum Practice and the other services that we provide, is what membership fees go towards.

We have taken on board your, and others' comments about the soundbites produced by blog headlines. The tone of these will change. The substance, the positive work that the Museums Association does on behalf of our members and the wider sector, will not.
Anonymous
MA Member
08.09.2013, 11:40
Ah, the Museums Association- a group that takes your membership money then spends time badmouthing what you do for a living.
Patrick Steel
MA Member
Website Editor, Museums Association
12.09.2013, 11:47
Hi Anonymous -

At the risk of sounding defensive, the MA shouts very loudly and positively for all members of the profession, advocating to local and central government, pointing up best practice, and offering training opportunities, networking, and career development for all who work in museums.
Anonymous
MA Member
13.09.2013, 08:54
Hello- there's a mismatch between what you're saying above and what I can see on the list of blog post titles: the soundbites don't match the rhetoric. Headings matter, as they are what people see when they scan webpages.
Anonymous
MA Member
06.09.2013, 15:46
Many people in museums enter the profession to research, conserve and interpret the objects in our care but we do not do this in some sort of geeky vacuum. Many of us also pass on our enthusiasm for collections and museums to others in a number of ways including working with schools and other groups in our museums, leading "behind the scenes/collections tours", public talks about the collections or collectors and wider aspects of our subjects. We even outside events such as field trips, workshops, and local events where we get valuable publicity for our service. Therefore, specialist curators have a good history of opening up collections to public use and an early example is The Rev. Henry H. Higgins who started a “Circulating Museum”, loan boxes to schools, in 1884. He even helped to found the Museums Association and was its first President. Not too bad for a man interested in collecting.

We now have a decline in curators and conservators, and an apparent rise posts with titles that include words like "Communities", "Outreach" or “Partnership”, often accompanied by a well-staffed department. Many of the people in these posts do good work, often with disadvantaged groups, and do a lot to get new visitors into museums. Let us consider the objects they use when they are doing this valuable work. Where do they come from? Who provides the information to the facilitator using those objects, who may not be a specialist in that particular subject matter? Preferably someone with knowledge of that collection or object and not a search engine or on-line encyclopaedia. Who looks after the object when it returns from its travels and who cleans it up, removes the crayon or other substances from its surface and makes sure it is fit to use again? A conservator or a curator does this so please; do not call some of us stupid for caring about the things in museums and galleries, or for spending time researching those collections. Without this important background work it would be difficult for many of the current initiatives to be so successful, and museums and galleries end up as static, unchanging displays, surely no fun for anyone.
Anonymous
06.09.2013, 18:03
Interesting to note what appears to be another fad or fashion, the rise in posts that include words like "Communitiy Engagement", "Community Curator", "Outreach", or "Partnership". All well and good if these are in addition to existing service delivery, the real curator, but from what I have observed these new posts are at the expense of expertise and continuity. I think one should be very cautious about fads and fashions. They generally leave no lasting legacy, and in the rush to be seen to be up to date and relevant there is every risk that what is good in existing service delivery gets chucked out.
Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
09.09.2013, 19:20
I do find my job title a tad combersome. 'Hi, I'm from the museum, here to engage you.'! so I will ask it to be changed to The Real Curator. I can be stupid sometimes but I am qualified to curate. I read but was far too busy to post areply to the CNN travel writer's article. I find round the clock television news reporting dull, whereas museums are jam packed with ideas which can be unlocked to change lives.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
09.09.2013, 19:35
Goodness, that is quite a mouthful that job title! Maybe I ought to be re-branded, from conservator, to Senior Decay Management Specialist. I mean, why use one word when four will do? Job title inflation, could be a whole blog topic.
Brendan Carr
MA Member
Community Engagement Curator, Reading Museum Service
10.09.2013, 23:47
On the other hand I do quite like the statement of intent attached to my particular job title and at my age it's good to be considered fashionable! Conservator at Temple Newsam House, that's a great job to be doing.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
12.09.2013, 11:52
Indeed it is. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. It could be much worse. I do feel sorry for young curators and conservators trying to forge their careers these days, the gradient, and number of obstracles, is greater now than ever.
Anonymous
MA Member
05.09.2013, 15:10
The only boring thing about museums are prejudiced, ill-informed, one sided points of view on this issue. We have all heard this unhelpful erroneous rubbish about curators before. Yes, criticise individuals where they are wrong but do not make generalisations like this as they are inherently wrong. One wonders how long you are going to continue undermining yourself and the MA with such comments. All museum problems are not the fault of curators. Most of us see the bigger picture and have moved on from this puerile oversimplification of a complex issue. Isn’t it about time you and others in the MA management did too?

The sector needs reconciliation not further division. Museums are more than just “fun” but that is not to say that “fun” is not vitally important. I think most museums recognised this but they also recognise that they have to balance a plethora of demands irrespective of budgets to remain effective.

You and the MA should recognise this too if you are to remain relevant to the sector. Also you are never going to win any support by calling a group of people “stupid”.
Maurice, I think you and others in the MA hierarchy also need to detach your experiences of individuals from the job role of curator. There is nothing in the job description which states that curators should be dull, obstructive or anti-progressive with regards to (the MA’s idea of) contemporary museum aspirations. Indeed, many curators are nothing like the stereotype you erroneously keep peddling. Instead, you and the MA need to take seriously the value of the job role of curator. What would be really helpful is if the MA could work more persuasively and conciliatory with curators, to effectively incorporate these key skills and make museums more efficient, effective and engaging places for the good of the sector and society. Just vilifying curators as you do will not improve the sector’s lot; on the contrary, it will make it worse. It also makes a completely mockery of Mark Taylor’s previous (dubious) assertions that the MA “does actually support curators”!

A crass belittling of a subset of the heritage community is never going to win a “debate”. So, can we please have something more balanced and worthwhile in future? It is hard enough running an effective museum service without having to contend with unhelpful prejudiced infighting like this coming from the top of an organisation purporting to “support” the “whole” sector.
Anonymous
MA Member
05.09.2013, 12:51
Hello- I think provocative starting points provoke polarised arguments. A heading like 'stupid curators'- whether intentional or not- runs the risk of being insulting, especially when seen at a glance next to 'too many specialists', and although it might get some heated responses, I'm not sure how useful they are. I manage a team of very enthusiastic curators. We work extremely hard to make collections accessible- using less historically important objects in more hands-on ways. I don't think we are aiming to keep things for some kind of rainy day in the future, except the most irreplaceable ones. Rather than polarising 'debates', why not focus on the great deal of common ground and goodwill that exists between staff in many museums. I think we'll get further by looking for convergences of interests, not forcing divergences.
Anonymous
05.09.2013, 19:26
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
04.09.2013, 16:21
If James Durston hates museums then why does he go to them? I just read his little rant and I think it is a stupid article. As pointless as a broken pencil. The value of museums as repositories of collective memory has been demonstrated clearly and strongly. Imaginative curators and education officers bring the narratives to life for visitors, this will be the vast majority of museums working towards and achieving that aim. There has to be a balance between preservation and access for a simple reason, to ensure some kind of future access.
Anonymous
MA Member
04.09.2013, 16:58
Why does "future" access trump access today?
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
04.09.2013, 18:51
I was not aware that it does. Future access does not, and ought not to trump access today. By getting the balance right both are possible. Conservation is not about the past, it is about the future. The whole point of conservation, in its widest sense, is to ensure some kind of intergenerational equity and is applied to those things to which a value has been placed in the hope that something is passed on to future generations. That concept is entering the mass consciousness more and more in respect to spaceship Earth and its finite resources. It will apply to anything that we place a value on.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
04.09.2013, 16:39
Yikes! Perhaps as a citizen Durston feels he should visit museums and has a right to visit them. And perhaps he'd like museums to meet his interests and needs. That seems perfectly reasonable as museums are publicly funded (or as charities get tax exemptions) and claim as a basic principle that they hold their collections and exist for everyone's benefit. Your suggestion that he should stay away might be acceptable for a private collection, but I don't see it as appropriate for a public museum.

I'm pretty shocked by some of the attitudes my little blog has teased out.
Anonymous
MA Member
05.09.2013, 12:11
I do not think you are shocked at all. I think you got exactly the reaction you were hoping for.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
04.09.2013, 19:58
Perhaps Mr Durston is not quite sure what he would like to see, how he would change service delivery. I could not discern any particularly practical suggestions. He does not enjoy the experience. Maybe it is him, maybe it is the museum, maybe it is a bit of both. We do not really know, do we? His comments about an exhibition "Souvenir Nation" made me laugh, for the right reasons, I agree! Blockbuster exhibitions continue to be well attended, a big draw. They cost a lot of money to put on. The austerity factor throughout the sector will be having an effect. Mr Durston's perceptions and experiences of curatorial attitudes are far removed from mine (i am not a curator, btw). Maybe I have been lucky and privileged to have worked with the curators of Temple Newsam House, who made it into probably the best interpreted historic house in the UK. Quoting Dr Adam Bowett, a leading furniture and decorative arts historian, independent, he knows of no other museum that had done so much with so little.
Anonymous
02.09.2013, 19:45
It has been my experience that curatorial and collections staff are very much aware of the public, and try very hard - often with incredibly limited resources - to put on public programmes and tailor exhibitions to the needs of the audiences. Public focus is at the heart of what museums do, and those of us behind the scenes are just as aware of that as those working on the front lines of public engagement. To call us 'stupid' is both insulting and ignorant. For the last decade the literature has been full of people (including yourself) worrying about the ongoing loss of specialist knowledge and curatorial skills, and now you badmouth specialist staff because we're not 'fun'. In order to make museums fun, firstly you have to have well cared-for collections - or else you have nothing - and you have to have an expert knowledge of those collections in order to interpret them and bring them alive for audiences. To be successful, museums need to have staff who are collections-focused as well as being public-focused, or else in the future there will be no collections for the public to enjoy.
Dan Gordon
Keeper of Biology, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums
02.09.2013, 13:46
I don't think this is a particularly new argument. The fact is that different museum visitors want different things. You don't have to look hard to find the view that the museum you describe, the bright, screen filled 'fun' interactive space, is actually unpopular with many visitors. For example, see this rather pretentious but none the less interesting blogpost on Natural History Museums by Justin Erik Halldor Smith - http://bit.ly/JTEAgQ. The comments are especially interesting. 'Breaking the mould' in the way you describe can end up being just as prescriptive as the didactic 19th century approach. It's difficult to make a museum all things to all people, and I think creating more tailored,personalised museum experiences will be one of the big challenges for museums in the future.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
02.09.2013, 12:10
I should perhaps clarify that I called my blog 'stupid curators' as opposed to 'stupid museums' or similar because two of the main people I quoted (as being a bit daft) are both curators. Another one is a director and another is a collections manager. In general they do seem to be rather more on the 'objects' side than the 'audience' side, but the key point was that the public's thoughts about museums are often far more sensible than those of museum staff.

Of course, there are lots of curators who are brilliant at communicating with diverse audiences. The crucial thing is that people who are skilled at engagement and who care passionately about audiences should have primary responsibility for displays (and arguably all of a museum's other key decisions). In a public-facing organisation it is plain stupid to give the lead on public-facing activity to anyone who has a different focus.
Anonymous
02.09.2013, 11:46
Museums have developed from diverse heritages and practices; some are closer to the display instincts of commercial trade fairs after the Great Exhibition of 1851, while others adhere to the 'white cube' modern art gallery or the more scientific arrangement of 'specimens' of natural history science and ethnography. Each has something to bring and it is wrong to generalise or make assumptions that 'sharing' is better; any more than it would be to think separation is; neither is necessarily and requires thinking through.

Museums have their own cultures of collecting, display and education, which can offer visitors truly unique and diverse experiences. I agree with Cindy's point about expertise, and I also feel more Curators should be employed rather than teachers or generic museum educators, to provide quality learning experiences visitors can trust and who impart a closer relationship and respect for the objects.
Anonymous
MA Member
02.09.2013, 09:16
Who are these curators who never care what the public think? That has not been my experience at all. I think you'll also find the curator is often at the mercy of the registrar or collections manager or museum director when it comes to exhibitions. But it's easy to point the finger at people who you *percieve* as "getting in the way" of whatever policy it is you're trying to push.
31.08.2013, 11:22
My comment about preservation for the future versus 'fun' does not mean they should be mutually exclusive. Curators such as myself are continually struggling to find new and exciting ways to tell the stories behind our collections and research. Often we come up against financial restraints. It's far cheaper to write a panel than build a working replica. Objects in cases are cheaper to display than employing a person to actively interpret them in a gallery. I remember one gallery full of heavy duty hands-on things to do, designed by engineers - a week after it opened several items were completely wrecked. There are few true artefacts which could survive long term public handling, so replicas, or objects behind glass have to be used.
But the essential fact is that a museum is a collections of objects and the preservation of those objects is the curator's job. They are ones who look after the objects, study them and make them accessible to the rest of the world. This includes interpreting them and telling their stories for the education and enjoyment of the public. So often though, I have seen objects in the hands of non-curatorial museum staff who are basically giving over wrong information in a wonderfully fun way. Can this be right? It takes years to gain knowledge of a specialist field, and such specialist jobs are increasingly at risk in museums. Soon there may be few specialists outside the Nationals, and even within them there are less than there were. Articles like this which knock the professionals are not going to help anyone, especially the very dedicated museum curators who spend many long years caring for their collections. Far better to support the role of the specialist, and ensure they have budgets and facilities to work with interpreters of all types to help museums to continue to provide both accurate and enjoyable experiences.
Reyahn King
MA Member
Head of HLF West Midlands, Heritage Lottery Fund
30.08.2013, 14:40
Hi Maurice
As I tweeted at the time, the problem is that curators often write what they think they 'ought' to write - according usually to some fact-based canon or fear of their peers' lack of approval - rather than writing - simply - the most interesting thing! NPG at Montacute had a brilliant label of a portrait of Hobson - explaining how Hobson gave his name to the phrase 'Hobson's Choice'. I wanted to know that not when the artist painted it, or whatever canonical nugget professionals worry about. I don't think the problem is the installation / display / story telling technique - it's forgetting to step into the audience's shoes.
Anonymous
MA Member
29.08.2013, 05:36
The challenges that surround this debate have been around for some time and are not just applicable to museums but other institutions such as the National Trust - that balance between display and visitor engagement, conservation and income generation. I would like to think that multi-disciplinary teams share in the development of exhibition design leading to an well balanced exhibition with dare I say it contains the possibility of a display case which can still have a function in the 21st century. Finding that wonderful balance is something that we all are striving for does it always have to center on fun or preservation coming out on top, curatorial or visitor services.
28.08.2013, 18:57
Are you saying that fun trumps preservation?
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
29.08.2013, 15:16
Well, yeah - with fun standing for everything museums do for today's audiences
29.08.2013, 15:26
But that's a cop out. Preservation *is* one of the things museums do for today's audiences. The question is what to do when there's a conflict between preservation and fun - for example, preserving something by keeping it in a case, or letting people 'have fun' handling it in the knowledge that it will damage the object.
Maurice Davies
MA Member
Head of Policy & Communication, Museums Association
29.08.2013, 16:15
I think museums preserve primarily so that *future* audiences can use things. There's obviously a balance between use and preservation, but generally museums have got the balance all wrong and try to prevent any change to objects, most of which have already changed (and many been damaged) many times in their long life. And one person's damage is another person's patina of age...
Anonymous
06.09.2013, 20:53
Many museums are founded with explicit aims and goals that are laid out in their foundation documents, with the trustees then entrusted to make sure that the museum follows those aims and goals in everything that it does.

Those documents are likely to list the preservation of one or more key collections as being a major part of why the museum exists ( and perhaps why it has applied for charitable status). Those documents may also be treated as being effectively part of an implied contract with anyone who has subsequently donated items or funds to the museum. The foundation documents may well mention education and outreach as strategic goals, but they probably won't mention "fun".

If a curator insists on making those rules secondary to some other goal of their own, (such as "making sure that the visitors have fun"), then the trustees may be obliged to make sure that that curator's employment is swiftly terminated, otherwise, the museum may be in violation of its charter, or the trustees themselves may be liable to be removed for failing to do their jobs.

Additionally, many museums host collections that they do not actually own, or that are only entrusted to them with certain preconditions or expectations. In those cases, even if the curator and their organisation are minded to give visitors hands-on access, they might not be allowed to. You have potential damages claims and other litigation, and with enough attendant bad PR over non-curatorial behaviour, perhaps loss of accreditation status.

This isn't to say that these organisations can't do /anything/ - one option is to have a special category of "play items" that are classed as disposable "educational resources" rather than exhibits, and to let people handle those - but to characterise curators who don't put "fun" first as stupid, seems a little ... ill-informed.

If it's your own private museum, and you personally own the collections, then fine ... you can do with them what you want. But if the collections are on loan, or owned by special trusts that are set up specifically to make sure that those collections are protected, then they aren't "yours" to play with. You can create activities and story-telling around the exhibits, but often the exhibits themselves really do have to stay in those annoying glass-fronted temperature-and humidity-controlled boxes.

Eric
28.08.2013, 16:52
Interesting point, anon MA member - and you are right about multidiscplinary teams. Plus, a lot of big exhibitions are created by event-type companies who don't get the serious curatorial side. Conclusion? It is often out of balance and out of kilter, and discussions brokered by provocative articles are a good thing.
Anonymous
MA Member
28.08.2013, 16:37
Why does there always seem to be a default position that, if there's a problem with museums, curators or 'specialists' are responsible? Most exhibitions and dispays these days are devised by multi-disciplinary teams, which include education and outreach staff, designers, programme managers, and senior museum managers, etc, as well as curators. So don't blame the 'curator' all the time. To assume that museum staff are all 'curators' is a bit old fashioned, don't you think?
Jan Dawson
Exhibition Designer, National Museums Scotland
28.08.2013, 14:15
"I love museums TOO"! Sorry...
Jan Dawson
Exhibition Designer, National Museums Scotland
28.08.2013, 14:13
I love museums to, and work in them, and love that the objects they contain act like conduits to the past, and to people like us in another place and another time. It's so easy for that connection to be severed by the nature of the display, and I think this is what came through the most in 'that' article.

I enjoyed the article. I couldn't help but identify with it (feeling a bit of a traitor in the process). It's opened a can of worms that needed opening. I hope the debate it sparked continues until a compromise is reached and we begin to move forward again.
28.08.2013, 12:29
Well said! I saw that article and came away thinking that here was a writer throwing out a challenge, and that too many of the curators who commented briskly disappeared up their own a**es, becoming po-faced and preservatorial rather than curatorial.

I love museums, I work in them, I visit them, I get warm fuzzy feelings just from being around old stuff, but I also get really really bored in museums and you can guarantee I am first to the exit in a group of non museum friends.

I don't think digital everything is the answer - at all - but at the same time case/panel/case/panel displays are tedious. The best exhibitions (for me) seek to bridge the temporal perspective, and create drama out of a story. They don't say 'xyz happened 5,000 years ago, look and marvel', they attempt to say 'this is how it was 5000 years ago, people laughed, grunbled about going to work, lounged about and chilled just as we do, but this was the world around them'. Very hard to do, but when it works, it is brilliant, and in fact is rarely achieved through digital media, but through clever use of objects, staging, words and activities. Real time, real people, real connections.

Obviously balances have to be struck, but saints please preserve us from the cool iconic marooned objet d'art and intellectually satisfying but utterly exclusive word bombs.

Dumbing down is not the opposite end of the spectrum, but life, fun, interest and engagement are. No objects need be hurt in the making of this scenario. Promise.