The importance of curators

Sally Lewis, 27.08.2013
SW Fed Conference discusses democratisation of museums
Last month over 100 people gathered at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter for the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries (SW Fed) Conference and AGM - Curators: Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them.

Our keynote was given by Adrian Tinniswood the well-known historian, author, and trustee of various museums in the South West.

Adrian drew on entertaining personal anecdotes (the confusion in his family of the clerical curate with the verb curate), history (a Museums Association lecture given by Hoyle in 1906), and literature (John Ruskin's essay on the nature of wealth), together with observations on recent developments (such as the fashion for celebrities to curate high profile events), to introduce some important issues which continued to be discussed throughout the day.

These included the benefits and dangers of the democratisation of heritage preservation; to whom museums belong; and whether it is fair to suggest social justice should be at the heart of a museum's work.

Adrian was emphatic that the work of curators is not just that of a preserver but that they are also creators; that genuine participation of an audience is a good thing; and that the sector should be more confident about our role and achievements and not scared of losing control.

We then welcomed Tim Ewin, curator from the Natural History Museum, to talk about The Campaign for Good Curatorship, for which he is campaign manager.

Tim expressed a concern that there are some negative perceptions surrounding the role, and a legacy of poor advocacy, which together with the decrease in resources, could have a major effect on collections and their interpretation. He encouraged us to join the campaign to lobby for change.

Our next speaker was Sophie Cummings, collections manager from Swindon Museums and Heritage Services, on the pressures on curators to fulfil more varied roles whilst dealing with decreasing resources.

The audience were familiar with Sophie's description of needing to gather knowledge in new areas such as mental health and commercial awareness, in response to pressure resulting maybe from our own dedication as well as external sources.

She applauded the sector's response to this pressure but outlined the long term consequences. She then offered some practical measures based on sharing ideas and working together to support each other through social media, networking groups on LinkedIn, and by undertaking the AMA.

Our final speaker of the morning was Catherine Littlejohns, senior collections officer (public history) at Bristol Museums and Archives.

Catherine described working with several community groups which resulted in being able to display some evocative objects that would not have been available to the museum otherwise.

She gave an insight into overcoming the problem museum professionals face when they have no direct experience of issues but still want to explore them because they are important to their audience.

Her work had resulted in widening the museum's audience, improving the balance of the museum's collection, and had built relationships with schools and families.

The morning session was rounded up with some discussion of leadership skills for curators, utilising volunteers' transferable skills to best effect, whether the loss of knowledge of science collections is felt more acutely than arts collections, and the concept of the curator as a bridge to specialist knowledge and the community.

After lunch the eighty second AGM of the SW Fed took place and the re-elected chair Vicky Dawson gave a short report outlining the changes over the past year, in particular the joint work the SW Fed has been doing as part of the South West Museum Development Partnership with the support of Arts Council England.

Our final speaker was Martyn Brown, Monument Fellow with Somerset Heritage Services.

Martyn described his experience in the 1970s at the Somerset Rural Life Museum and how he had felt somewhat ill-equipped; having been educated in what he thought was the philosophy of curating, rather than practical skills. He is now helping the current team by sharing his knowledge built up over the subsequent years, not only of the collection but of how the museum as an institution evolved.

He reminded us of the fact that specialist knowledge often involves people associated with a collection as well as knowledge of objects themselves.

The afternoon was rounded off by a panel discussion chaired by Barbara Wood, curator at the National Trust (NT) and NT representative on the SW Fed Board.

This focused in particular on the changing role of the curator, the difficulties recruiting volunteers in the South West, and finding ways of sharing subject specialist knowledge.

All in all there was a positive atmosphere to the day, and a feeling that although there are problems facing the sector with regard to the loss of specialist/collections knowledge these can be overcome by working together with the dedication exemplified by the museum workforce.

Sally Lewis is coordinator for the SW Fed. This piece was originally published on the SW Fed website.

MA members in the south west are invited to a free Members Meeting on 25 September at M Shed, Bristol.