Subject expertise and public engagement have to coexist

With the debate about the role and status of curators back in the spotlight, and a greater focus on museums’ social impact, many believe it's time to narrow the gap between specialist research and public engagement. Geraldine Kendall Adams reports
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Over the past few years, a passionate and sometimes divisive debate has been taking place about the role and status of curators in UK museums. The recent news that four specialist curators from Leicester’s council-run museum service were being made redundant – replaced by a team focused on engaging audiences with collections, aided by project-based guest curators – has acted as a lightning rod for these long-running arguments, underscoring what many describe as a false dichotomy between curatorial and public engagement work.

The dilemma faced in Leicester, where the council had cuts of £320,000 to its culture budget for 2019-20, is far from unique in today’s climate of austerity. Museums have been forced to narrow their investment priorities and make difficult trade-offs in all areas of their work. Although exact figures aren’t available, anecdotal evidence has indicated for some time that there’s been a hollowing out of specialist curatorial expertise over the past decade, particularly among non-national museums.

A 2017 Art Fund survey, The 21st Century Curator, found that more than 70% of respondents reported that curatorial resources had diminished at their museums, and more than 60% felt that curatorial skills and knowledge were being lost. The Art Fund launched a three-year £600,000 fund in 2018 to address the issue (see below).

These developments have raised concerns about how well curatorial work is understood and valued by funders and policy-makers. But they have also provoked a more existential line of questioning about what a curator is, and how that definition should evolve to fit the modern world – both in terms of the cold reality of the funding environment, and the more aspirational vision of how curatorial skills and in-depth collections expertise could be used in new ways.
Alongside the practical pressure of funding cuts, a more significant “ideological shift” has taken place over the past 20 years, says Tehmina Goskar, who recently founded the Curatorial Research Centre, which provides training in curatorial skills.

“One of the unintended consequences of having the – absolutely correct – emphasis on public engagement is that things have started to polarise,” Goskar says. “You either have the public engagement or the subject specialism. It’s been unhelpful to the whole debate. It shouldn’t be seen as an ‘either/or’.”

Initiatives misconstrued

She feels that policy initiatives such as the Museums Association’s (MA) Museums Change Lives campaign, and the recent review of the Accreditation standard, both of which place an emphasis on the social impact of museums, have been misconstrued in some quarters.

“Some people have misinterpreted that [message],” adds Goskar. “They think it’s not about the objects, it’s about the public benefit, and that talking about collections is old-fashioned. But objects are not just there to make the background look pretty. Our only unique aspect is our collections. Without new research and new knowledge, there’s nothing for people to come back for.

Shift in attitudes

Goskar advocates using a “50% model” to narrow this perceived gap between the creation of knowledge and public engagement. “I see a curator being 50% knowledge generation and 50% communication. You don’t privilege one or the other.”

In England, a further shift in attitudes came when Arts Council England (ACE) took on responsibility for museums in 2011, she says. “It’s taken time for the arts council to get its head around what museums are and what they stand for. There’s a gulf in understanding about the kind of people you need to get the most out of a collection.”

But Goskar is optimistic that the “penny is starting to drop” at policy level. The arts council is formulating its next 10-year strategy and has undertaken several pieces of research to understand how it can better support curators and collections. This includes a joint research initiative, Dynamic Collections, with the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which is due to release its preliminary findings next month.

The future of curatorial work “is an issue that we’re concerned with”, says Kate Bellamy, the director of museums at the arts council. Dynamic Collections is a mapping exercise that will examine what support there is for collections work, which funding programmes are effective and where gaps exist.

The initiative comes hot on the heels of the MA’s Empowering Collections report, which was published in March and also sets out a strategy for the long-term use of collections (see p15 and p17). Some of this work is already being carried out through the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund (EFCF), which is run by the MA and supports projects that demonstrate the significance, distinctiveness and power of collections to people. This fund has ploughed nearly £8m into collections work since it started in 2011.

The MA’s Empowering Collections report urges funders to look further at the role of subject specialist networks (SSNs) in supporting collections expertise in museums – which Bellamy says the arts council is considering, along with models of support for more generalist collections.

Sharing expertise

Research is also being undertaken by the National Museum Directors’ Council to examine how national museums might better share their collections expertise.
“I’m really interested in new, different models [of curation] – how museums are working in partnership, whether by geography or specialism,” says Bellamy. “I’d like to hear examples, and if there’s anything ACE can do to offer support.

“We are aware that we need to start thinking about new ways of doing things. We’re not going to suddenly have a cash injection, so how can we make sure collections are put to good use? We need new approaches.”

Bellamy is keen to see the outcomes from the freelance curator model that Leicester has moved to, which the museum service says will result in “fresh perspectives” and a democratisation of the collection. “They’ve thought it through and are taking a considered approach,” adds Bellamy.

Others have expressed reservations about a move to freelance curation, however. Museum consultant Kathleen Lawther, who advises institutions on developing their collections, says: “In some cases, the use of freelance or specialist curators could be a viable option, but only if there’s someone on staff who knows enough about that collection and its management. There still has to be a particular knowledge of the collection, how it’s come together and how it can be linked up in context.”

She emphasises that “there is a lot of baseline documentation work that needs to be done” for collections to be used in more public-facing ways. “Most museums, in my experience are dealing with massive backlogs and they don’t want to admit what they don’t know,” says Lawther. “But if we don’t talk about these challenges, that work will remain hidden and unappreciated.”

It’s also vital to recognise that knowledge travels both ways, she adds. “If you don’t have that core curatorial work, then you can’t do engagement. But if you don’t take information from engagement work and put it back into the collection, you’re losing important knowledge.”

Rise of co-curation

This touches on another rapidly developing area of curatorial work: co-curation. It is widely recognised that the old model of the curator as gatekeeper of knowledge and interpretation is not fit for purpose and that diverse perspectives on collections are necessary and valuable. The move to this model has raised questions on how the work can be embedded long term, part of which involves making sure co-curators are properly trained and remunerated.

One scheme being piloted by the Curatorial Research Centre is Citizen Curators, an EFCF-funded work-based training programme aimed at community volunteers, which intends to provide an alternative pathway to becoming a curator.

But such initiatives still need a specialist on hand, according to Goskar. “The citizen curators have found it really hard to gain access to some collections themselves,” she says. “We have to make sure that it’s as easy as possible for other people to get to our collections.

“I feel passionate about the value that a modern, fresh view of curating can bring to any organisation. It’s a joy of discovery and a joy of curiosity that we should be celebrating and promoting.”

Supporting curators in regional museums and galleries

"We’d been in discussions with the Headley Trust for several years about our mutual concerns over the severe challenges facing regional museums.
This led us to explore what we could do collaboratively to preserve and share the vital curatorial skills and knowledge at risk in the face of funding cuts. The findings of our survey, The 21st Century Curator, were clear: there has been a fall in the number of curatorial and specialist roles nationally over the past 15 years, and there is a related, and in places debilitating, anxiety across the profession.

There was a strong sense among many curators that their plight was being ignored, and that the negative impacts of the reduction in curatorial investment now may not be wholly understood until it was too late.

Curators in non-national museums were often worst affected as they have more diverse collections to manage, and a wide range of responsibilities beyond collections care. So they lacked the time and resources for in-depth collections research, resulting in much of their collections not being used or showcased effectively for the public.

We were confident there was a need for an initiative providing regional curators and their museums with support – financial and non-financial – to access external specialist expertise, use it to develop new knowledge and skills to share within their institutions and with the wider sector, and to unlock extraordinary stories relating to their collection for the public."

● Applications for the next round of the Headley Fellowships with Art Fund open in July.

Rachael Browning is the head of programme development at the Art Fund

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