Natural history specimens from the Horiman Museum stores

Is a decline in specialist curators bad for museums?

Rebecca Atkinson, 02.04.2013
Vote in our poll and have your say
Are specialist curators a dying breed? And, if they are, does it matter?

A recent survey carried out for Museums Journal found that the number of natural history curators has declined by more than 35% in the past decade.

The number of art curators has also fallen by over 23%, while “human history” (archaeology, world cultures and social history) curator decreased by over 5% in the same period.

This loss of expertise has implications for specialist knowledge and collections care, but to what extent does this matter to the wider role of museums and the public they serve?

Vote in our poll and have your say:


Is a decline in specialist curators bad for museums?


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Sally Lewis
MA Member
Coordinator, South Western Federation of Museums &
02.07.2013, 08:26
The SW Federation of Museums & Art Galleries Conference on July 10 at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is addressing these issues. Details here . The theme being 'Curators: Can't Live with them, Can't Live without them'. Follow discussion on #swfed2013
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
25.06.2013, 09:35
In response to Laura, nobody is saying that education or its softer equivalents is unimportant. I have clearly stated (with others) that we are to some extent about conveying messages, but the key point which I am keen to see understood is that museums are unique in that the start point of their work is the collection. Without physical, 3-d, tangible, real stuff, I question whether he institution is a museum. If others don't, fine, but in my view they are wrong.
As for the question of judging previous generations or the present one over the morality of slavery and gains thereby I suggest that this particular discussion thread is not the place.
24.06.2013, 18:50
Back to the question... losing curatorial expertise is bad for museums and a lot of people posting here, both named and anonymous, have agreed! But to say the primary purpose of museums is 'the care of collections' is incorrect. Each museum has its own individual heritage and purpose that determines its priorities. The Horniman's handling collection of 3000 + objects subbordinates its care of them to the needs of its audiences and is a unique and highly valued resource. The V&A's Circulation Department in the nineteenth and twentieth century also loaned contemporary collections around the country, resulting in a fair few damaged and missing objects!! Why? Because the care of this collection came secondary to making it accessible to audiences in the interests of their design education.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
24.06.2013, 20:26
Museums use items from the collections and accept their potential destruction. I recall the story of the painting lent to a school by one of the country's then most successful education services. It returned with a school dinner between the glass and the picture.
But this does not, and neither does the correspondent, mean that all items in the collection can be or would be or should be risked. I don't think risking to destruction a proportion of a collection (especially when second-rate or multiple duplicates) is the same as saying that the entire collection is disposable.
I accept a chink in my case about protecting the collection at all costs, but I don't think it is much of a chink. It is akin to suffering having one's fingernails cut.
If the entire collection is lent out, then what is exhibited, assuming that exhibitions are important?
But please, return to the base question - what is the last aspect of a museum that we would be willing to lose? I put it to readers that it is not the shop, nor the education service, nor the marketing, nor the ... I could go on, but the point should be made. It has to be our collection, otherwise we are not a museum. It may be that elements are sacrificed to preserve the rest, but ultimately the collection defines the museum, no matter what claims are made about the role of the V&A or similar.
Or is the new world one in which all museums get rid of their dust-collecting junk (be it a Roman potsherd or a Bernini sculpture) in favour of a digitised version? I frankly doubt that the most rabid objector to the prime role of collections can argue that this is desirable.
At least, I hope not.....
24.06.2013, 22:11
Also, I would hope you might consider how essential learning and interpretation is in Holocaust Museums. On a par with this, I find the lack of any acknowledgement or information about the role of slavery in financing Tate's collections is just inhumane and inexplicable for a gallery that professes art to be the highest expression of humanity!! So much for collections for collections sake?
24.06.2013, 21:41
Sorry but the base question: 'What is the last aspect of a museum that we would be willing to lose?' is yours isn't it? The V&A was not set up to care for collections and I use it as an example here to show how important it is to understand each as an individual. The V&A was radically altered at the beginning of the twentieth century by an agenda promoting collecting and connoisseurship rather than education. This very focus on collecting, rather than the museum's purpose, caused the V&A to deviate so far from its roots that by the end of the twentieth century no one could make sense of it; what it was for, or its collections. There was no longer any relationship with its primary student, manufacturing and artistan audiences, education or the economy; it had lost its way and by 2001 was threatened with closure!!

That said I agree with your argument about the central importance of collections, just not about it being the primary consideration for all museums at all times.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
25.06.2013, 09:44
In response to Anon at 21.41 (I'm having problems linking to specific responses), it seems we are not so far apart.
'it had lost its way and by 2001 was threatened with closure!!' is something through which I must have slept.
The question at the root of my musings is whether a museum can exist without a collection. All other functions can be done without objects and therefore without museums. We can show people images of sculptures, for example, but they are no substitute for the real thing.
However you slice the cake, objects are fundamental to our uniqueness.
I can excite and stimulate people's interest through talks and lectures or similar, but the reason for doing so is that I want others to cherish what is important to me and like-minded people. But the real buzz comes for many people when they actually touch or see the physical article. I am constantly amazed by how few people have, for example, ever handled a 17th-century book, and how many are excited and almost reverential when given the chance. We cannot allow everything to be handled, of course, but the pint is that the 3-d things go further than simply talking.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
23.06.2013, 23:03
Can a museum exist without a collection? No, I suggest.
Can a museum exist without visitors, or marketing plans, or a shop or a cafe or public toilets (as examples)? Yes, I suggest.
However, in order to maintain a museum some resources are required, and that is where such ancillary elements are important. It is not complicated. We live in the real world, which means that we have to accept such things as a fact of life.
But they are not, and cannot be, the reasons for the existence of a museum; only the tangible collections are that. And if we are to understand the collections we need the people who are what in the old days were called curators.
To argue otherwise is a bit like those who believe that simplistic performance indicators which suggest that visitors are the way to measure our value and success. (No doubt there will be those who consider that the number of visitors is the be-all and end-all, but I hope they can see the weakness in this as a meaningful way to assess a museum).
I am trying, obviously unsuccessfully, to focus attention on the primary reason why any museum exists, but we are so dominated by newspeak ideas that the simple base of our profession has been lost.
The preceding correspondent's comment is understandable, but also profoundly depressing, because it underlines one of the most fundamental weaknesses (and paradoxically, strengths) of the MA. The MA represents (and deliberately tries to do so) pretty-well anyone with an interest in museums - curators, educators, conservators, but also authorities (employers, such as boards of directors, trusts, committees, etc.) and visitors, students, researchers and the like. It means that there is no real forum for a discussion about 'professional' aspects of museums without the potential for offending others. I have known many very passionate and supportive politicians, for example, but their motivation has never been (I think) the same as that of my professional colleagues in museums, and neither should it be. In the past they stood back from professional discussions at MA board level (I can't speak for now) but even so it was impossible for those for whom museums are their vocation/profession to discuss often difficult issues without appearing to be elitist or ivory towered.
I don't have a clue who 'Anonymous' is nor even if s/he is one or more people, but I would welcome a simple and clinical discussion about the threat posed by the loss of curatorial expertise in which we can state potentially difficult or inflammatory concepts with impunity.
Anyone who has any basic knowledge of my own career will know that I have spent most of it trying to excite and stimulate precisely those sectors mentioned, but this is a debate which needs an academic detachment if we are to arrive at anything like an intelligent conclusion about the value and/or necessity of curators.
I return to my fundamental premise, that the last aspect of a museum that we can/should sacrifice is its collection. If that premise is accepted, the role of a curator is axiomatic. If we think that there is another over-riding 'last stand' premise then museums and the profession for which I have been passionate since about the age of eleven has truly lost sight of 'the meaning of life' to coin a phrase.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
24.06.2013, 00:29
It is not complicated. Collections and the intellectual capital that comes from are the core strength to which all other museum functions are parasitical, ie, they draw their reason for existing from that core strength. The last thing, logically, sensibly, that is done is to weaken the core strength on which service delivery relies. Sadly and unwisely in very services it is the core strength that is being cut right now.
23.06.2013, 11:05
OK, so in addition to the 'object is everything' gang vs. everyone else, and the 'named' commentators vs. the 'anonymous', we now have the 'museums' gang vs. the 'outsiders'!! Well done people, I can't see how you can fail to get others on board with your openness and respect for others (not!)
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
22.06.2013, 22:02
Very good, Mr Watkins' comment pointing out what mission statements really signify....... emperor's clothes! I have a mission statement for my conservation work: To boldly treat objects no one has dared treat before.
Mission statements are akin to works of satire as far as I can tell. Just get on with the job.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
22.06.2013, 19:35
Yet another anonymous comment thinks that wisdom lies in mission statements etc.
I would never have been stupid enough to suggest to (for example) politicians that the primary purpose of the museum services was to develop and preserve collections. Like the numerous self-effacing correspondents here, the powers that be would have found it hard to stomach. I am talking here to fellow museums people. If things have reached the point that they don't understand WHY museums exist, then we have truly lost our way as a profession.
I have a nasty feeling that we may have done so.
If the anonymous correspondents work within museums, and think that museums are not about the physical collections, I suggest they reflect on why museums have things which are frankly inconvenient - they take up space, gather dust and most ultimately have little financial value.
My suggestion is that perhaps these people are taking work from those for whom museums actually have a value as repositories of the physical evidence for our human experience.
If the subscriber actually thinks that statements of purpose are actually believed by actual people, perhaps s/he needs a few corners knocked off in the real world.
Mission statements and their like are a relatively new concept which reflects the MBA generation's belief that all things are capable of being managed through some sort of process. One day, I hope, this misconception will be recognised as the destructive force that it is.
21.06.2013, 22:06
Sorry but I have never heard of any museum stating its mission was/is to: "ultimately to preserve the collections"!! Get a grip!!
22.06.2013, 10:00
Do you actually work in the museum sector? I do, and long standing too, and I most definitely have heard words to that effect in policy documents, i.e. one of the missions "is to preserve collections". So I think Mr Watkins has a very good grip on the key issues, indeed. If one does not have collections/heritage assets, and the means to draw out and share the narratives, there is no sound basis for sustained service delivery.
20.06.2013, 16:43
Mr Watkins comments are correct and go straight to heart of the matter, is the decline in specialist curators bad for museums..... a resounding yes. There is a local authority museum service I know well, in receipt of Arts Council funding, that is a classic case, just as Mr Watkins is pointing out, of how not to go about re-organising, re-structuring, and delivering a service. The curatorial base has taken a hammering, and more curator posts are being cut, and an inverted pyramid is being built.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
20.06.2013, 10:21
As my former professor would have said with an appropriate snort, 'stuff and nonsense'.
The V&A states about itself: "Its founding principle was to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers"
This might be done without collections, but the fundamental premise is that there are (increasing) collections and that was inherent from day one. No collection, no museum. 'Simples', to quote another icon of our age.
This reply is typical of the way that so many of us are unable to pare the question to the bone. I have enjoyed long and ultimately unresolved debates with friends about the purpose of a museum, and have always held that it is ultimately to preserve the collections. Others claim that it is to preserve collections to enlighten the people, or similar statements. That is, however, two purposes. Anonymous is arguing the similarly bifurcated case. In his or her case the wooliness comes in with reliance on audiences.
I have never argued that we should set curators against educators. Far from it. I believe that curators are or should be inherently educators. Marketing people are in a slightly different situation – very few museums employ specialists or have the budgets.
The need for our staff to be valued and appreciated is as true today as decades ago, but it is again a red herring. The issue at hand is the survival of museums as storehouses and sources of knowledge. We live in a world where the internet and digitisation are increasingly seen as the answer. The question is not always clear, of course. If we do not have the expertise to identify and understand the ban-dan-bladderstiddle correctly, the educator, marketer, museums designer, whatever, is not going to be able to make anything of it, let alone recognise the appropriate audience and draw that audience in.
I work(ed) in heritage because I care about it. More. I want others to care. I have spent decades trying to enthuse people about their story, but without the evidence, without the stuff, and without the investigative work few of those on whom I have been fortunate to make an impression could have been enthused.
In this world we are seeing museums pushed down the pecking order by more essential (allegedly) services. My case is that in the same cull within museums themselves, we should be retaining the curatorial posts for as long as possible.
If we take the concept outside museums, I saw my role as being primarily that of the general practitioner. The Nationals or specialist museums provided the consultants. What is in danger of happening (is happening) is that the GPs are a largely dead breed, and the consultants are going the same way.
For how long would the NHS function effectively if this were to happen?
19.06.2013, 10:08
It is not true that the primary purpose of museums is to 'protect' physical evidence. The V&A -- the prototype for many of the world's leading museums in the latter half of the twentieth century -- began as an enterprise of design education; its collections were intended to educate both makers and consumers in 'good design'. Why? To help raise Britain's profile internationally at a time when French, German, Scandanavian and US producers were leading the competition. The Design Museum has reinterpreted this mission for a more contemporary audience.

Each museum has an individual history and 'mission' but they all rely on audiences for their survival. I strongly support curatorial expertise alongside expertise across the many roles within museums; we do not need to pitch curators against educators or marketing people do we? Rather, we need leadership that values staff expertise and grows its museum from this in ways sympathetic to the individual ethos of the museum. Too often staff shuttle between the nationals little or no understanding of the different ethos of those institutions and their distinct purposes for different audiences. Many who work in the V&A believe it to be some sort of 'treasure chest' or Versailles palace; far removed from Joseph Paxton's 'People's Palace'!! Museums need to stop copying each other but rather, reclaim their historical roots and reinterpret them for contemporary audiences.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
17.06.2013, 21:34
I have known Mark for decades, and understand his slightly defensive tone here.
There is, however, an inevitable problem which arises from the modernist view of museums as some sort of public entertainment designed to meet the needs of all.
Is it likely that we would as a profession support an overtly Nazi or other extremist interpretation of the environment or the past? I doubt if there are more than a few of us who would be willing to accept that. Museums are not, and never can be, all things to all (wo)men.
I am disturbed that the fundamental role of museums as the protectors of physical evidence is being overlooked (perhaps even deliberately ignored) by so many members and others in the professional arena. Museums are not about interpreting the evidence, although they may do that; they are not about expressing particular political or social ideas, even if they occasionally do so. Museums exist to collect and preserve the physical evidence of our environment (present and past), and anyone who claims otherwise is essentially perverting their purpose.
I suggest that this is where the profession, and the Association, has taken the wrong course. I would also argue that the dropping of the practical examination as part of our essential qualification was an early and dangerous manifestation of this loss of direction. The temptation to adopt a stance which matches those required by power is a siren song which sounds attractive, but is ultimately destructive. Arguably the most significant moment in my professional career was when I stood up to a new pair of political leaders who wished to ‘rationalise’ the collections. I earned their respect, made a (admittedly only one) good ally, and prevented the rationalisation which was based on there being too much stuff.
I have for decades argued that we as professionals need to decide what is the last role we would allow to be destroyed/abandoned/cast-off. My position is that unless you are able to cling to the importance of the collection beyond everything else, you really should be asking why you are in museums rather than colleges, universities, schools or entertainment.
Unless the collection is supreme, the inexorable decline in curatorship will be unstoppable.
And frankly, if we don't do it, nobody else will do so for public benefit.
And if you are wondering where this all leads, when did you, the reader, last undertake any research on your collection, let alone make the results of that research publicly accessible?
Mark Taylor
MA Member
Director, Museums Association
17.06.2013, 16:26
A number of points arise out of this passionate posting:

Firstly a 91% vote of people who respond to a website poll is definitely not the same as an 'overwhelming majority' of the MA's membership.

There is no truth in the notion that the MA does not value the role of collections and expertise. Some of the evidence is as follows:
Collections for the Future report 2007
Effective Collections - a £1million project funded by Esmee Fairbairn encouraging greater use of collections
Monument Fellowships - fellowships to help museums manage and retain the valuable expertise attached to collections
Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund - managing the distribution of £1m per year of funds to help with imaginative collection projects.

There are many more examples as to why we were berated for a number of years for being too attached to collections to the exclusion of other aspects of museum work. It wasn't true then and the reverse is not true now. The profession is wide and varied and we represent and understand the importance of all roles within it.

Read Museums 2020, it does not 'leave out' collections. It remains a document to suggest that working on social impacts is one of the key part of what a museum should do. Note the words 'one of'.

Museum 2020 is not being re-written. As we always said we would, we will publish the final vision next month.

The public research (commissioned by the MA) said the public would like to retain experts to look after collections. Who is going to argue with that? Not the MA. Collections are what museums are about and we will never forget that.

If the MA is out of touch with its membership, why have we had thirteen months increasing membership and now have the highest level of individual membership in our history?

What the MA does believe is that museums need to change and adapt and have a key role in being for and of all communities. We are happy to use our independence to do some radical thinking. We will do so again. But what we do not do is decry any part of the museum sector, least of all the people, who look after our most precious assets.
MA Member
25.06.2013, 17:04
What would it take to convince you that lots of MA members believe the MA needs to do more to support curators? It is also sad to see that you have chosen to take such a defensive approach. A more helpful or consolatory response could have been that the MA recognizes the concern about the decline of curators. I would love to see the MA take this concern more seriously and look into commissioning a report on the potential risks of the loss of curators. It could also publish guidelines about why and how curators are vital for museums to deliver effective services and that it would look to other ways for curation to be better represented in advocacy and best practice documents. Why? Because these things are urgently needed for the good of museums.

Unfortunately the documents you state as “evidence” of support are hardly ringing endorsements of curators! They barely mention the word! The Collections for the Future report, unfortunately, does not explicitly champion the benefits of curators, nor of maintaining curatorial knowledge (instead in parts it suggests the opposite e.g. P. 26 paragraph 88). Whilst the funding from the collections projects you list is welcomed it has done little to reduce the decline in curators. In fact, it has been part of the problem as there is this mistaken belief that collections projects and digitization are somehow adequate replacements. Useful as they are replacements for curators they are not. If the MA leadership doesn’t realize this then they really are out of touch as they don’t “understand the importance of all roles within” museums. The MA needs to support both collections projects and curators as they differ.

The claim of MA support for curators can be further criticized as such sentiments are explicitly lacking from other advocacy documents since 2007. It is interesting to see that “working on social impacts” is now “one of the key parts of what museums do” in Museums 2020 (which I have read thank you). But even if this is so I think the problem with 2020 however remains. That is it does not say what the other key parts about museums are, let alone promote them. As this document claims to shape museums for the future it is therefore not well balanced. As such, it is an excellent case in point!

I am glad to see you say “the MA will not argue against” public opinion on collections and experts however that is totally adequate. The point is that the MA should be arguing strongly for curators as well as social impact but isn’t. So please MA, do more.

Maybe museums were too “collections f
MA Member
25.06.2013, 17:08
Continued from above....

Maybe museums were too “collections focused” in the past but that should not be an excuse for not supporting (the significantly reduced number of) curators in advocacy documents now. Museums need balance, so please can the MA deliver something balanced. I.e. not like the initial version of 2020 (Which I have read) nor the overly collections focused mantra of yesterday (which apparently wasn’t true either). A more balanced approach (I believe) will not damage museums and may even bring the sector together.

People are worried and this dismissive reply will not reassure anyone that the MA is taking this issue seriously. In fact it leads it even more open to label of being out of touch. What a great shame for this association, museums and society.
MA Member
14.06.2013, 16:23
MA: Out of Touch?

So there is an overwhelming majority of MA members who think the decline in specialist curators is bad (91% at the time of writing). I happen to agree that it is bad. What I want to know is what is the MA going to do about it?

Sadly the MA management appears to be a contributing factor for the decline. One only has to look at the latest vision document "Museums 2020" (and many other MA documents) to see what the MA backed authors think makes museums "great". This seems not to include expertise or curators or any of the vital work they do!

I understand “Museums 2020” is being rewritten but how were such important aspects left out in the first place? And before you say it, yes there were some very good aspects to “Museums 2020” and I know that museums do more than collections. What I am saying is that museums should do BOTH (as should “Museums 2020” and any other document). Museums need a diverse range of employees to be effective and that includes curators. To find out why curators are important then please look at the “Campaign for Good Curatorship” at:

Meanwhile other research shows that the public would like our museums to continue to employ experts to understand and look after important cultural, scientific and historic collections ( ). Then we see the president of the MA, who is also director of the National Museum of Wales, suggesting that he will be cutting a disproportionate number of curators (natural history believe it or not). Presumably he thinks that the public don’t know what they want and that 91% of the membership of the organisation he is president of do not know what they are talking about.

So, on these counts alone (there are more) the MA management appears out of touch with both the public and 91% of MA members. So presumably the MA management agrees with the 9% of MA members who think that a continuing decline in expert curators is a good thing! Surely that is not right…is it?

So, if the MA truly wants to represent “the sector” as it claims to on their website, why are 91% of its members being ignored? What are the MA “management” playing at? We need a change in direction. A more balanced and inclusive approach is needed.

As such, please can the MA:
1. Produce a position statement on curators? As some very mixed and highly worrying (not to mention damaging) sentiments have b
MA Member
14.06.2013, 16:27
As such, please can the MA:
1. Produce a position statement on curators? As some very mixed and highly worrying (not to mention damaging) sentiments have been released recently. Should museums employ curatorial experts?
2. Produce some useful resources that promote curators and support them in getting the resources they need to deliver better museums for society?
3. Support the notion that museums are more effective with curators/experts and include them and their benefits in all future vision and advocacy documents?
4. Lobby for changes to the Accreditation process to ensure that proper provision for curators is explicitly included as curatorial knowledge is a fundamental part of maintaining truly responsible museums?

Come on MA management, how are you going to remain relevant to your members and the public if you do not support curators more proactively? I don’t want to stop museums doing outreach or community engagement etc. (or ‘retrench’ as someone put it). I just want museums to continue to fulfil their many and varied roles including understanding, protecting, developing and sharing knowledge of objects of cultural historical and scientific significance to all of society by continuing to develop excellent curators.
14.06.2013, 07:51
Expertise across the museum is what makes a great museum experience and none should be overlooked! I, and my colleagues who formerly worked in community learning at a national museum, have a high level of expertise in collections and some curators I knew there were brilliant at outreach. My point is these skills are complimentary and, when understood as such, make for an excellent museum experience!!

A big problem lies in dumbing down and I don't mean measures to make museums more popular, which is a commonly held but quite wrong belief! Dumbing down is what happens when the Head of Learning believes qualified and experienced staff are unnecessary; says early years learning is 'common sense' and that 'we need doers' who can just 'get on with it'. It is dumb indeed to randomly delegate, for example, a prison project to ones PA or mental health work to administrative staff with little or no knowledge or experience of the complexities involved. Instead of valuing staff for their expertise, they are valued for their conformity where no one understands what they are doing, for whom or even why they are doing it!
MA Member
12.04.2013, 14:01
Depressing to read the statement in the latest MJ from the new director of the Museum of London that after a period as a volunteer at a museum in Liverpool she decided that she 'absolutely did not want to go down the curatorial side of museums'. She was 'interested in doing something that connected her more directly to people' instead.

All the best curators I have known have been absolutely committed to what Ament calls 'turning people on to a cause, to an issue, and communicating complex ideas'. My simpleminded vision of an ideal museum is: one specialised collection, one specialist curator, one member of the public, and the productive interplay between the three. Not feasible or economically viable, but everything else is an add-on (and probably an exercise in job creation). (Is anyone in a Human Resources Department ever made redundant?)

And I'm pretty sure most museum curators have more day-to-day direct contact with members of the public than anyone with a title like 'head of visitor engagement'.

I've always heaved a sigh of regret when a bright young curator has opted out of 'curatorship' into 'management' (or even into a job with the Museums Association) - but I have had to admit that it's the only way to advance in the profession.

11.04.2013, 13:30
What is the purpose of Museums? Is it not to open history up to the public? Specialist curators are necessary to care and research collections yet they have little understanding in communicating the collection to their audience. Museums need to see a movement towards focusing on public consumption to survive and find the correct balance between research and inspiring their audience.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
11.04.2013, 18:16
I cannot agree with the statement by Anonymous that specialist curators "have little understanding in communicating the collection to their audience". The heavyweight, and highly knowledgeable curators I had the privilege of working with at Temple Newsam House are absolute masters at communicating the narratives, ideas and concepts that they have panned out from the collections to a wide variety of audiences, specialists to everyday visitors.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
11.04.2013, 16:49
I hesitate to beat an old drum, but the purpose of museums is to preserve physical evidence of our environment, not to interpret it or 'open up history'. Those are important, and have driven my own career and life (I want others to be as excited as I am), but they are seconadary to the core purpose which is the preservation of 'specimens'. It is the facile refusal to accept this, with glib claims that museums are 'for people' which has contributed to their decline and the loss of knowledge and expertise. SPecimens are the heart of the museum, and they make any museum unique. Story-telling, dressing-up, exhibiting, etc. are all capable of being done without the collection - and frequently are.
If people don't put their collections at the heart of their beliefs, they are int he wrong profession.
Don't misunderstand this. Display, exhibition, interpretation, publication, etc. all have value, but in one sense they are simply ways of justifying our core reason - protecting 'things'.
I imagine that many readers will be able to understand this. I like to suggest that professionals need to think what would be the very last role that they would think they could abandon - if not 'protecting collections' then I think they are wrong.
In the previosu comment the writer has the brass neck to suggest that specialists ' have little understanding in communicating the collection to their audience'. I suggest that Anonymous is clearly unaware of many of our most academically gifted specialist curators, whose infectious enthusiasm conveys the magic of their collections to new audiences all the time.
10.04.2013, 21:08
This is a very relevant discussion. I have witnessed the decline of specialist curators in the museum service I work for. There are more managers than before, that is certain. The effect has definitely caused a major reduction in the sort of service delivery that has been carried out in the past., with a lot of pressure and emphasis on income generation, and performance indicators. Opinions will vary as to whether that is a good thing or not. I do not think it is a good thing, but maybe I have been around too long. With Arts Council England funding some new posts of "community curators" have been created. It has not been made clear to surviving collections/curatorial staff what these new posts are meant to do, but as far as can be discerned so far there is no requirement for them to be specialists.
Michael Constable
MA Member
Honorary Curator, Waterways Trust
10.04.2013, 14:32
No one is allowed enough time to be a specialist any more. The public want 'experts' but the bean counters say you can't afford them. It is probably too late now for many of the Industrial Museums to survive as there are no experienced 'Specialists' coming on from out of Industry.
Rebecca Atkinson
MA Member
Online Publications Editor, Museums Association
10.04.2013, 11:45
You may already be aware of a campaign and petition in support of specialist curators -
Mary (Marette) Hickford
MA Member
Volunteer, IWM Friends, Imperial War Museum
05.04.2013, 11:19
I like to have curators who know about the historical eras which the museums collections are from, who can communicate the issues of the era and can make objects come alive and resonate with current audience groups. I also like curators to be able to know enough about the others areas of museums which have to make a profit for the museum to stay open in order for curators to work with such professionals. Therefore, exhibitions and other educational services will be more successful and have an intellectual impact on people.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
04.04.2013, 21:08
I agree that spelling is important, but the error here is one tow hich (sic) I am prone myself. The problem is mishit keys and perhaps a lack of proof-reading. Hardly a major crime, and certainly not 'spelling'.
MA Member
04.04.2013, 16:35
I am a big believer in specialist curators. I'm of a mind that it is important to bring in people who are 'business-minded' or similar to ensure the future of museums as an operational entity, but without specialists, what's the point?

This is one of the things that infuriates me about the National Trust. At a property I worked at, volunteers are now actively discouraged form learning 'facts' and instead are pushed towards 'stories' - hang the accuracy. The curator writes rotas, monitors the conservation equipment, and is generally seen around the house as little as possible. As with many 'curators', the role has mutated into one of a backstage administrator, which has left a dearth of specialist guidance for the public-facing members of staff. The National Trust is not the only guilty party here, but they are the major culprits that spring to mind.

Being entertaining and engaging is important, but so is being accurate and informative, and being research active most of all. Those things are the heart and soul of why people go to museums, but they are just not possible without specialist curators.
04.04.2013, 15:56
It is particularly ironic to be loosing so many Natural Science curators when there is overwhelming evidence for Climate Change. Museums have the long term data that could provide valuable information if you know where to look.
Nicola Newton
MA Member
Director, Blue Tokay Ltd
04.04.2013, 12:15
in a time when curators are being made redundant - particularly in natural sciences, it is perhaps better that a general curator is looking after the collections than no one at all, but if the museum wants their collections to be used and relevant then a specialist must be employed to get the most out of the collections. The collections must not only be cared for but promoted, researched and added to to be useful and this must be done by a specialist.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
04.04.2013, 16:17
This is part of the problem, surely? The concept of a 'general' curator is dangerous in all but the smallest museums. I always aimed to be a good GP rather than a Consultant, using the NHS as an analogy. But even so a knowledge of and fascination for a specific discipline is necessary. More significantly, the physical items need to be at the root of the curator's interest.
The employment of people outside the establishment should not be done willy-nilly. In extremis it may be unavoidable, but it is not the best. A curator should have a stake in his/her collection, and that is best achieved by deeply personal and long-term connection.
I especially worry today about the prevalence of computer records as the primary source of information, which may seem sufficient for a specialist brought in to say mount an exhibition, but is only as good as the competence of the various minds and hands that have recorded specific items. Don’t misunderstand – computer recording has hugely improved a lot of things, but it has a downside. Get the details wrong, and the external visiting specialist may not find important stuff. As an example, and outside my archaeology background, I know the products of a particular and very large games-maker better than any other person. It means that I often see examples of the company's products incorrectly identified or ascribed, which means in turn that other 'visiting' specialists or researchers may never see those specific items. Talk to a curator intimate with the collection and s/he will probably be able to find them on the basis of key features, though.
In my day the museums studies course included practical skills like design and display and conservation. They did not make me a professional designer or conservator, but they did enable me to work better on my own exhibitions and talk intelligently with conservators. I am not sure those skills are still being taught.
No. I don't think the headlong rush to employ shop managers, cafe managers, interpreters and the like is good for either museums or their public. We need people who are specialised in their disciplines and who can also interpret them in new and exciting ways. As one of those who undertook live role-play interpretation years before many people had even heard of it, I know that it is possible to innovate and make our passions exciting to people for whom it might not otherwise be.
Bring back collection-focussed staff and lose more of those whose only interest is systems or shops or whatever. If we don’t the collections which define the museums will ultimately be reduced to a few ‘exciting’ or ‘display-worthy’ items for which ages-old research is probably the status quo.
MA Member
03.04.2013, 21:30
I passionately believe that museums need to employ experts on their collections and society's heritage (be that cultrual, historical or scientific) as, this knowledge empowers museums to better deliver the services and offer that the public expects.

In partnership with the Collections Trust a group has been set up to campaign and promote the many benefits of curatorial excellence within the heritage sector. To find out more and better deliver the message that great museums need good curators please visit the Campaign for Good Curatorship at:

And sign up to the petition at:

Many thanks,

Tim Ewin.
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
03.04.2013, 18:29
Museums are entirely about collections. The collections differentiate them from other institutions. Sadly, the decline in specialists has been going on for some years - and I frankly think that the loss of the practical exams in the Diploma is a significant factor. The old curators were people with a knowledge and generally a passion for their subject collections.
Today's museum professionals are all-too-often totally divorced from those collections, which means that knowledge does not change or develop, collections atrophy and museums become divorced from their raison d'être. Their training has focussed on systems and processes as befits the MBA generation which believes that the abiluty to manage is transferrable and non-specific. Until museums return to their roots and staff are intimately aware of their collections and researching them, we are doomed to suffer death by a thousand cuts, because in this brave new world, frankly any fool is believed to be able to run a museum and 'care for' (another word for curate) the collection.
Having devoted my life to museum work I despair, because I don't think there are many people left out there who can study collections and interpret them intelligently.
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
03.04.2013, 22:29
Spot on. Not only has the plot been lost by many in positions of influence, a lot of them are not aware that the plot has been lost. The performance indicator culture has a lot to answer for. Focus on core strengths, in the case of museums these are the collections and the narratives and experiences that can be drawn out of them. Achieving the state where these can be drawn requires knowledge that is both deep and wide, and there are no shortcuts. How can this be quantified in a meaningful way? It is the old leadership versus management dichotomy. A return to the core strength of curatorial leadership is necessary. Nelson did not "manage" his way to victory at the Battle of the Nile, nor at Trafalgar. He led, and he led by example and from the front.
Mark George
MA Member
Heritage Consultant, MSG Heritage
03.04.2013, 16:17
The “de-skilling” of museums and heritage sites points to the higher management’s desire to drive income generation over all else. It seems that the best experience one needs now to become a heritage manager is in retail and catering. Knowing the best way to increase secondary spend on sandwiches seems to have taken precedence over identifying a piece of Severn Valley Ware, and explaining its significance. Not wishing to denigrate these disciplines, and whilst there is an understandable need to maximise income, I wonder how long it will be before the general public get fed up asking questions to get in depth information about collections, or objects they have found/possess, and getting no meaningful response? There are only so many times the “Person-in-Charge” can admit ignorance and meekly point at the guidebook saying “It’s all in there”. It’s actually all in the heads of the experts that have dedicated their careers to gaining that knowledge and who have been removed. It is an insult by the powers that be to deem an interpretation panel, or audio tour, a valid substitute to hard earned knowledge. I’m sure the pendulum will swing the other way when seekers of knowledge realise there is precious little to be found in museums and heritage sites any more – only a good cup of tea, and a piece of cake, which you can enjoy whilst reading the guidebook trying to make sense of what it is you’ve been looking at…
Ian Fraser
Conservator, Temple Newsam House
03.04.2013, 12:11
Intellectual capital is generated by curatorial expertise. This is a core function and strength that sets museums apart from other learning and cultural organisations. All other museum functions, including conservation, are parasitical to this core strength. Without continual renewal of intellectual capital the visitor offer will become stale, and will stagnate, can see it happening all over the sector.
Tim Schadla-Hall
MA Member
Reader in Public Archaeology, University College London
03.04.2013, 11:29
One of thje main problems , it seems to me, is that whilst the special;ists do exist in all fields and should have jobs, they frequently fail to take account of or develop additional skills tahtwill be critical afor the future- so taht there is far too much emphasis on broad skills for jobs - such as marketing , outreach etc
which specialists should be presenting as a second string - rather than something that someone else has!
03.04.2013, 15:28
Additional skills? Such as SPELLING?
MA Member
04.04.2013, 16:36
Malcolm J Watkins
MA Member
Director, Heritage Matters
04.04.2013, 21:10
Sorry, my reply went elsewhere. See above.
MA Member
02.04.2013, 21:29
Our Keeper of Decorative Art took voluntary redundancy a year ago after about 25 years. We have a huge designated decorative art collection spread across five sites. The post seems to have been frozen to allow for more cross-collection/project work but of course there is no substitute for specialist knowledge and this has been a huge loss to our service and has placed impossible and unrealistic expectations on remaining staff.
Linda Ross
MA Member
Curator, Scottish Maritime Museum
02.04.2013, 17:36
There seems to be a strong focus on getting new people into the sector, those who perhaps wouldn't usually consider a career in museums. This is to be applauded, but what about encouraging those with the specialist knowledge into the sector? This shouldn't be ignored. Museums are changing in line with society, it's the right thing to do, ensuring that museums keep up with modern progress. In a world where we are encouraged to apply modern technology to our interpretation and engagement we still need to make sure that one of the fundamentals of museum work - knowledge - remains THE priority.