Developing curatorial expertise must not fall by the wayside, warn delegates

Gareth Harris, 05.11.2015
Debate over how knowledge and resources can be shared more effectively
Curatorial posts may be in decline in the age of austerity — and retaining subject specialist knowledge is also proving difficult when an increasing number of curatorial jobs are offered on a short-term basis — but development of collections knowledge must be a priority for the sector, warned speakers at the Museums Association conference session Future Perfect: Sharing and developing curatorial expertise.

The chair, Jilly Burns, the head of national and international partnerships at National Museums Scotland, kicked off the session by saying that we “all have a responsibility to think about the long-term future of the knowledge we gain”.

She pointed to the success of the recent partnership project focusing on Pacific collections in Scottish museums. The scheme, supported by the Museums Association-managed Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, ran from April 2013 to December last year. The resource is being used by a number of university programmes and has “given us a new set of information and Scottish stories that we can share”.

But the most innovative proposals came from Megan Dennis, curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk. She suggested that curators “make mistakes honestly”, seek out experts working and living locally, and use “knowledge across everything the museum offers”. Dennis says that “we even changed our café menu in response to the collections”.

Her comment about “plonking objects in the middle of all our meetings, including finance”, prompted the liveliest exchanges. “We may be discussing cuts but it’s all about the collection,” she added.

Sarah Daly, project manager at the Welsh Museums Federation, discussed linking natural science collections, another project backed by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. The scheme has brought together natural science specialists from Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales and curators, educators and volunteers from 18 partner museums.

“Knowing what is in our museums, makes decisions around disposal much easier,” she said.