New Walk Museum and Art Gallery employed a freelance specialist curator for the redevelopment of its Egyptian Gallery last year

Leicester museums to restructure curatorial team

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 27.02.2019
Service will focus resources on connecting audiences to collections
Leicester’s museums are to move away from subject specialist curation in order to focus on linking their collections more to audiences, under new plans proposed by Leicester City Council.

The council’s department for arts, museums, festivals and events is facing a cut of approximately £320,000 to its funding for 2019-20 and is undergoing a review to find ways to increase its self-sufficiency, generate more income and ensure “the resources available are used in the most effective way”.

The department, which oversees seven museums and historic venues in the city, has already made around half of the necessary savings by deleting five vacant posts. The review seeks to “replace the current structure, which has not been reviewed for some time and is not fit for purpose, with a new structure”, according to a statement from the council.

The restructure will see four curator posts removed and the curatorial team renamed as the “audience development and engagement team”. A new post of exhibitions and displays manager will be created to manage interpretation, make collections accessible and deliver a “high quality exhibitions and display programme”.

A spokeswoman for the council said the new structure would include some new Arts Council England-funded posts, but that these would not be replacing the council-funded curator posts. They will instead focus on specific areas of engagement such as learning, community engagement, and health and wellbeing. The service's existing learning and community engagement posts are being retained.  

The spokeswoman said the service remained fully committed to maintaining Accreditation standards and the stewardship of its collections, with seven posts dedicated to making the collections accessible, caring for them and documenting them. The service's collections manager post will be retained.

“Expertise from museum professionals including at a senior level is an important element of the new staff structure,” said the council’s statement.
 
The statement continued: “The new structure marks a move away from prioritising resource for subject specialist curation. Instead, the service will focus on new ways to support different perspectives, voices and viewpoints in order to increase the service’s relevance to more diverse audiences and particularly to attract those who are traditionally ‘non-museum’ goers. We want to make Leicester’s museums more relevant to the city’s diverse communities.”

The changes have been driven by a desire to focus more on using collections to engage audiences, said Leicester’s head of arts and museums, Jo Jones, who is leading the review.

“We’re looking at the need for the service to modernise and be much more user-focused,” she said.

The restructure had been long overdue, Jones added. “The service hasn’t had such a review for a number of years so while savings had to be made, it wasn’t about that. The council is very supportive of culture.”

Jones said the Museums Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign had been a key driver for the new structure, which aims to increase community participation and involve the city’s residents more in the service’s decision-making.

The council plans to set aside a budget for guest curators, which it said would enable specialist curatorial knowledge to be “delivered in a different way”.
 
“There’s a budget built in for freelance specialist curators who can bring in new perspectives,” said Jones, who added that the service had successfully trialled this approach during the redevelopment of New Walk Museum’s Egyptian Gallery last year.

The council said it would try to redeploy as many people as possible whose roles are displaced by the restructure. Jones said she couldn’t comment on the redundancies while the review is ongoing.

The review is due to conclude by the end of March.

Comments

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Anonymous
04.03.2019, 10:09
I think some posters are confusing knowledge of the subject with knowledge of the collections. I don't think anyone has suggested that only curatorial staff are capable of interpreting the collections, or the subjects they represent. Of course non-curatorial staff have knowledge and expertise, but they cannot possibly know the collections (by which, I mean the acquisition history, contextual information and other documentary paraphernalia which is unique to each object) as intimately as the staff members who's job it is to find and record this information. It isn't conceited or elitist to make this statement, unless it's also conceited to suggest that engagement staff might have a better understanding of what engages people and that learning staff might have a better understanding of learning styles and teaching methods. I would suggest that all three roles need to have an understanding of the subjects that they're paid to talk about, otherwise what are we playing at?!
Anonymous
14.03.2019, 12:36
I disagree with you as you have made a huge assumption about what learning & engagement staff know or do not know about the collections they actually research and talk about. How is it ‘impossible to know’ ?? The point is that certain knowledge and skills can be acquired by alot of people, given the opportunity. You are mystifying the curatorial role & remember there are still enormous issues with this career being dominated by white middleclass professionals and data which proves that there is a huge sense of entitlement to certain types of knowledge and curatorial careers which simultaneously deny the privilege of those who most often secure those positions. Learning and engagement staff do not claim that their expertise is ‘impossible to know’ as the whole ethos of their subject & profession is that skills and knowledge can be indeed be learned.
Anonymous
18.03.2019, 13:17
The whole of the museums world in the UK is dominated by white middle class professionals, not just curatorial jobs, and that is because the pay is pathetic across the board. Until that changes, with the best will in the world, you are still going to get white middle class people doing these jobs. As a learning colleague said to me, 'I can afford to work here because my husband has a proper job.'

I take issue with your comment about 'mystifying the curatorial role'. Where I work, most curators have PhDs in their subjects and have spent years working just on their collections, whereas most learning/engagement staff are not subject specialists and are made to give talks/lead activities on the most disparate subjects from one day to the next. Given the variety of their jobs, they simply cannot gain the same depth of knowledge. In the same way, curators do not have the breadth of knowledge of learning/engagement staff. This is not to say one type of job/person is better than the other - both are absolutely crucial, in my opinion. That is why they are, and should be, separate jobs. The minute you combine them in an effort to save cash, as they did in Leicester, you do a disservice to both, as well as to your public.
Anonymous
02.03.2019, 20:37
Learning and engagement staff know the collections too otherwise they wouldnt be able to deliver the hundreds & hundreds of guided tours, talks, activities, etc, day after day, to members of the public. they are also very capable and educated. it is snobbish, conceited & elitist to suggest only curators know about collections. plus collections care & management is a separate subject in this instance.
Anonymous
18.03.2019, 13:00
It is true that learning and engagement staff need to know the collections too, but it is nonsense to say that they can know collections as thoroughly as curators, particularly when they have to jump from pillar to post all the time - in our museum the same learning staff will be doing archaeology one day, then social history the next, then art the following one. You simply cannot compare the knowledge of 'generalists' to that of people who have spent several years studying their subjects and working closely with their collections day in day out. If this is snobbish, conceited and elitist, then so be it. It is also true. The reason Leicester have got rid of curators is that they think they can get (marginally) cheaper staff to do a similar job. Well, they are deluded.
Anonymous
02.03.2019, 20:30
Learning and engagement teams need to have, and do have, a thorough knowledge of the collections & exhibitions they work with otherwise how on earth do they manage to deliver talks, tours, activities, etc to the public if it’s only curators who know their collections? To ne that sums up the elitist view of the curator; that only curators are educated & know their subject better than learning and audience engagement staff, which is simply untrue.
Anonymous
28.02.2019, 17:08
Audience development specialists are absolutely essential to creating a thriving museum service - but they aren't the same thing as curators. How does anyone seriously propose to engage audiences more deeply with collections when you are scarifying collections knowledge? The move towards free-lance curators is a part of a wider trend which is destabilizing for the industry and makes meaningful engagement with collections difficult.

It is deeply concerning that somehow curators are being blamed for a lack of interest in the museum from the area's more diverse communities. Invest more, foster community relationships, support your staff. How long are we going to maintain this lazy stereotype of eccentric ivory tower curators? Successful museums come from clear leadership not the scapegoating of particular specialists.
28.02.2019, 16:24
Subject specialism and expertise are not mutually exclusive from creative engagement and involving communities in decision-making. They need each other. The polarisation caused by the perception of the territorial curator and their personal likes dominating museum work vs community engagement and programmes being the only champions of diversity and inclusion has caused a damaging lack of understanding. Most people who hold knowledge want to share it and in the days when “regionals” had far fewer staff than now it was generally the curator that did the research, the talks, the school visits, the quizzes. I’m saddened that Museums Change Lives has been cited as the inspiration for this decision-making.
02.03.2019, 08:05
I couldn’t agree more. After 15 years as a specialist curator, I do not recognise the mythical, self-serving curator who seems to occupy the centre of this debate. This internalised, largely unhelpful wrangling of expert vs public allows much bigger issues to be ignored. I feel very sad for colleagues at Leicester.
Anonymous
07.03.2019, 11:49
I agree too. The various roles within museums are complementary to each other. Of course learning officers often have considerable subject knowledge, just as curators often have teaching experience, but there is a depth of knowledge of our own areas in which we specialise, which means that we are not all just interchangeable willy-nilly. Believing that we are all basically doing the same job is sheer self-serving convenience and deliberate ignorance on behalf of whoever is making the cuts.

And as for the idea that curators are all elitist snobs who live in ivory towers - I am fed up to the back teeth with this outdated, unhelpful and ignorant stereotype. It makes me so furious.This might have been truer fifty or even thirty years ago, but in those days many if not most professions were run by white upper class men who only appointed other white upper class men, and they could concentrate on doing the interesting things about their jobs because they had lots of lesser mortals, often female, to do the mundane admin stuff for them.

Now, this curator stereotype is utter rubbish. Are there really curators these days who are not interested in their audience? Who do not care about producing displays which appeal to as many people as possible? There are some areas which are beyond peoples' areas of expertise, but that is probably because the person whose job it was to know about those collections has just been made redundant. Curators are stretched thinner and thinner in terms of what they have the time to deal with and learn about. It is not our fault if we are not super-human.

Pretending that getting rid of curators is good for audiences and that every job is the same and one size fits all etc etc is nonsense. The new people they appoint at Leicester will have twice the workload and twice the stress, and the visitors to the museum will be shortchanged.
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Anonymous
28.02.2019, 14:28
I think that this decision, especially during the last decade of austerity is a breath of fresh air.

For far too long small regional museum services have been hampered by the curator led specialism approach that, prevents development, ignores parts of the collections that are not in their 'area of expertise', and worse still ignores the needs and desires of their audiences, the public who visit the museums.

Museum collections are there for the public not the curators and to have collections that are not accessible to the public is much worse than having them fully accessible to just a few specialist curators.

I think the other people that have commented are forgetting the difference between curatorial teams & collections teams at regional museums and that audience engagement and the exhibitions programme are what make a museum relevant to today's audiences.
Anonymous
01.03.2019, 22:50
'audience engagement and the exhibitions programme are what make a museum relevant to today's audiences.' This can only be successful if you have a thorough knowledge of your collection. When you lose your curatorial staff you lose that knowledge and you gain a huge documentation backlog!
Anonymous
01.03.2019, 13:33
Yeah, this is an incredibly outdated and shortsighted view of what Curators do, particularly in regionals. And my experience has indicated that losing Curatorial expertise has the opposite effect of what you claim - without someone with knowledge of the full breadth of a collection, only a tiny portion known to the Education and Exhibition Teams is reused over and over again. All teams need to work together to provide access which is beneficial to the public, losing one of those cogs can only be a bad thing.
Anonymous
01.03.2019, 09:05
I think the poster has a very blinkered view of what a curator does and appears to confuse collections documentation, the purpose of reference collections and the importance of protecting artefacts from over use with ‘tinkering around with collections.’

The idea that audience development and engagement is restricted to the exhibition programme is old fashioned and wrong. In the regional museum where I work, the curator is responsible for connecting the public to the collection. This is naturally achieved through exhibition and display, but actually, the best connections (those that generate the greatest levels of engagement and interest in the collections) are made through networks, special interest community groups, voluntary work and public talks. All of which are led by the curator and wouldn’t be possible without the curator having a great deal of specialist knowledge ABOUT THE COLLECTION. Perhaps there are museums out there that still employ curators who only focus on the parts of the collections they’re interested in, but good luck reaching your accreditation targets if this is the case!
Anonymous
28.02.2019, 12:27
An act of cultural vandalism, performed by people who have failed to understand the basic value of a curator. It isn't just the knowledge about the subject, but the experience of the collection. When a 'guest curator' comes in, how long are they going to get to learn the collection? Or is it assumed that they'll instantly know all of the names and significance of the collectors represented, be able to connect objects together through handwriting and label styles glimpsed 5 years previously and intimately understand the history of the collections and how they came together. I've been looking after a collection for over 20 years and am still finding new things about it on a regular basis. And making that information accessible. Just as I thought we were coming out of the 'anti-expertise' phase of the last decade, something like this happens. Sigh.
Anonymous
01.03.2019, 12:47
Agree. Freelance curators are a tremendous resource (I am one!) however ONLY when deployed strategically and when working alongside collection curators who can provide an informed brief and supervise/evaluate their work. The idea that you can hire in even the best scholar in the business for 6 months as a one off project to do the same job as an embedded curator, might sound great in theory but over the medium to long term, the public will be worse off.
28.02.2019, 11:53
I am at a loss to understand how removing people who know collections can result in collections being used to engage the public?