Museums need a workforce that represents their communities, is respected and rewarded equally, and delivers and supports the ambitions of this manifesto.
A case study on the Citizen Curators programme, led by the Curatorial Research Centre in partnership with Cornwall Museums Partnership
Citizen Curators was originally developed during Tehmina Goskar’s placement on the Arts Council England Change Makers leadership programme (2016-18) with Cornwall Museums Partnership and the Royal Cornwall Museum.
As a career curator, Goskar felt the sector was falling out of love with curators, mired in accusations of gatekeeping and elitism. She developed Citizen Curators to demonstrate that anyone with the right support and inspiration could become a good, modern, ethical curator, centred on public benefit and valuing the knowledge that comes from our collections.
The Citizen Curator programme to me can be summarised in one word: democratisation.
From 2018 to 2021, Goskar, now director and curator of the Curatorial Research Centre, developed and delivered the programme in collaboration with Cornwall Museums Partnership and seven museums, thanks to the support of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.
The goals of the programme were two-fold: to diversify and democratise the voices that interpret our museum collections; and to be the start of a credible alternative pathway into museum work.
It was pitched as a flexible work-based curatorial training and museum awareness programme aimed at volunteers from our communities. Museums gained experience in diverse recruitment, as well as a mini workforce enhancement to undertake research and projects that time and space-strapped small museums often struggle to undertake.
In 2021 it presented an opportunity for museums to practice with remote volunteering as the programme went wholly digital.
It’s made me review my life. I left school at 16, I didn’t go to university, I didn’t do anything. I educated myself through art.
Eighty diverse participants successfully completed the programme, which itself was not about outputs but about changing the way we think about museum volunteering in a more equitable way.
Nevertheless the breadth of outcomes was astonishing and unexpected, from taking over window displays of disused high street shops, making films about physical and mental ill-health, daring to reinterpret contemporary art well outside traditional norms, challenging museums to decolonise interpretation, and building relationships with student partners abroad. The Citizen Curators made these decisions, not always without a little expected friction.
The greatest achievement of the programme, in spite of challenges of capacity at museums to provide support and practical assistance (and a little bit of cynicism over their ‘right’ to call themselves curators), was the impact on pathways: more than 20% have gone onto museum jobs, nearly 40% have remained volunteering in museums and nearly 10% have gone on to traineeships in the sector.