What does a future curator look like?

Trainees are invaluable for museums in the current climate
Sana Khan
There is ongoing debate about what kind of skills are needed for an effective curatorial workforce in the future. Does visitor engagement stem from subject specialist knowledge or the ability to tell a story?

The Curator of the Future conference (#futurecurator) was held at the British Museum this week. It celebrated the conclusion of the Future Curators programme, which had been running at the British Museum for the past four years resulting in 15 Skills for the Future trainees.

But what makes trainees valuable in the current climate of change in the curatorial workforce?

Speaking at the event, Maurice Davies, a consultant with the Museum Consultancy, presented an analogy where the curator is no longer the equivalent of a priest in a cathedral, but a trader in the market. In this scenario, the curator has to embed expertise in audience engagement, and is no longer primarily the source of knowledge.

On the other hand, Tim Ewin, a curator at the Natural History Museum, plugged his campaign for good curatorship and emphasised the role of curator as one that preserves the knowledge and understanding of the collections, without which the museum holds no credibility or authenticity.

There were more museum studies master's students at the event than vocational trainees, which reflects the competition of the job market.

But trainees like myself stand out because our work programmes strike that balance between qualifications and employability.

The Strengthening Our Common Life (SOCL) programme provides a good practice model. It offers something unique by promoting diversity in the workforce as well as stressing the importance of community engagement.

It has allowed me to take a subject that I know nothing about (zoology) and present it to audiences in a more meaningful way, by improving my communication skills in order to be able to tell stories.

I can now bring the quality of this experience to a role in my subject specialism and have a greater understanding of how to enable a connection with people and objects.

Transferable skills help a future curator to become more rounded and bring more to the role, including flexibility and adaptability.

Curators of the future need to know how to collaborate with their staff to provide a better service to visitors and create an experience which connects them to the collections. I do feel that there is often a lack of mindfulness in museums.

For example, why are interpretation and learning separate departments? And front-of-house staff are crucial to understanding visitors too, yet are not involved in the curatorial process.

On the digital side of things, we should understand the difference between reach and engagement. For now, digital can only help to enhance the awareness of our institutions, and future curators will have to be quick at identifying online trends and develop creativity with content.

Developments in technology will never replace a physical visit to the museum with real and authentic objects but is invaluable in giving a spotlight to the action behind the scenes of the museum and objects that never make it outside the storerooms.  

Sana Khan (@skhan92) is a SOCL trainee at the Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

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