Ann Sumner is the director of Birmingham Museums Trust

We must support regional curatorship

Ann Sumner, Issue 112/12, p18, 01.12.2012
Are regional museums sleepwalking into a situation in which university expertise replaces curatorial research?

This question was recently debated by over 100 curators, directors, students, representatives of auction houses and grant-giving bodies at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

It was organised by Birmingham Museums Trust and the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Advanced Studies, and it gave us all food for thought.

While participants’ experience of partnerships was overwhelmingly positive, the worrying trend was the decline in regional fine- and decorative-art curator posts, which necessitated a growing reliance on university expertise.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, pointed out that although 70% of grants still go to the regions, he had observed a decline in ambition among regional curators, suggesting that acquisitions are a low priority and time for detailed research for grant applications is limited. Are regional curators being asked to do too much and is the research agenda being squeezed out?

Susan Foister, the deputy director and director of collections at the National Gallery, explained that the gallery’s experience is that partnership with universities has played a crucial role in the development of the gallery’s research strategy.

This is balanced by a national programme of support for regional curatorship, through specialist subject network (SSN) study days and Art Fund curatorial traineeships.

University partnerships support, but cannot replace, curatorial skills. Exchange of expertise goes both ways – universities are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate social impact, and the curator brings invaluable experience of communication with audiences.

Collaboration can result in lasting relationships between university researchers and curators and each side can learn from the other. However, is the success of partnerships masking underlying problems?

Are regional curators becoming facilitators for academics rather than researchers in their own right? Ideally, partnerships should leave a legacy that benefits both sides in the longer term.

Curatorial work cannot be seen simply in terms of short-term projects. More support for research could perhaps be fostered by individual giving, and regional Friends organisations should also be encouraged to support curatorial research.

The debate highlighted the fact that many regional museums do not even have research policies. While regional curators are faced with budget restraints that often make it impossible for them to travel or to maintain research libraries, research can be relegated to a low priority.

In this climate it is all the more important that regional curators benefit from the support of SSNs and professional groups in order to expand their expertise, particularly because most are having to become generalists rather than specialists.

It is clear that collaboration with universities is currently filling a gap created by the decline in expert regional curatorship. Such partnerships can be mutually fruitful. The danger is that the success of partnerships could become an excuse to reduce curatorial posts even further.

University research cannot replace the role of curator, and museums need strong research policies and a commitment to support curatorial research.

Also, in order to attract high-calibre young curators to the regions, a robust career structure is needed. Birmingham Museums Trust and the Art Fund have a shared interest in this area and will continue to explore opportunities.

It is hoped that the Museums Association’s conference 2013 will debate the subject before a further workshop in two years’ time.

Ann Sumner is the director of Birmingham Museums Trust



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