The Conversation

What is the role of the curator in museums today?
Jemma Conway
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Jemma Conway is the community heritage curator at Barnsley Museums










Katy Barrett is the curator of pre-1800 art at the National Maritime Museum, London









Dear Katy:


I’m working with the Social History Curators Group and helping to organise their conference in June.

From the submissions we received, it’s interesting to see the huge variety of projects that curators are responsible for: online content, social media, community engagement, audience development, exhibitions, collections management, learning, outreach and so on.

Contemporary museums are facing many challenges and inevitably the institutions and their staff need to respond and adapt. Do you think curators are losing their specialisms by having to adapt to current demands?

Best wishes,
Jemma

Dear Jemma:

I think it would be fairer to say we’re gaining different or wider specialisms. Curators these days need to be increasingly agile.

Few of us go straight into a curatorial job, and we’re also moving around more frequently. Equally, museums are thinking more about succession planning and knowledge capture.

We have more and more different ways to preserve curatorial knowledge digitally. So, maybe it’s becoming more about the skill set than being an expert curator? The challenge is keeping the objects at the centre of that.

Best wishes,
Katy

Dear Katy:

For me, it’s about the value given to the objects by people. Personal stories, and visitors’ responses to them, are where the real opportunities lie for museums to inspire others.

In Barnsley, the community is heavily involved in the whole ethos of the museum; in many displays, it’s personal testimonies that give the objects their value. I think curators have to make connections with people, both now and from the past, to help visitors see their lives reflected in those of others.

As in Museums Change Lives, it’s about supporting the emotional wellbeing and sense of community of our visitors too.

Best wishes,
Jemma

Dear Jemma:


Agreed. Curators need to be experts in people as well as objects. That goes for national museums as much as for local ones, and for fine art or scientific instrument collections as much as for social history.

The most rewarding, but also most challenging, part is finding that personal touch, that moment of wonder, which can open up a niche object to your audience. There’s nothing quite like face-to-face enthusiasm, but dwindling resources make it hard to dedicate the time.

We have to stop relying on volunteers. Perhaps here, again, digital is one of the solutions?

Best wishes,
Katy

Dear Katy:

There are many exciting digital projects out there that really engage audiences. I particularly liked I Tweet Dead People from York Museums Trust, and Temple Tales from Temple Newsam, Leeds, which used Twitter to widen access to the collections.

The challenge for curators in contemporary museums is to grasp how audiences might want to interact with the museum. We need to think outside the box, and especially outside the museum. We need to be inspired by those who are finding new ways to make a difference – and those could come from anywhere.

Best wishes,
Jemma
 
Dear Jemma:

A lot of it comes down to that age-old concern over institutional voice and authority. Digital projects, especially social media, allow multiple voices to be heard from within the museum.

They also let in different viewpoints and other areas of expertise more easily. That’s a great opportunity for curators to be more visible, but it also makes us more vulnerable. All part of the profile that the contemporary curator needs, I think – both armour and advert!

Best wishes,
Katy


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