What does a 21st-century curator need? - Museums Association

What does a 21st-century curator need?

The better we understand the need, the more we can help. 
Stephen Deuchar
Just what roles does a museum curator need to play? Scholar, storyteller, entrepreneur, fundraiser, facilitator – the job spec is getting ever bigger. But as many curators continue to evolve from being keepers of objects with specialist knowledge towards a broader hybrid, we must be mindful of what may be lost in the process and more attentive to the developmental needs of the professionals concerned.

There have been significant shifts in the environment for curatorship in recent years. Many local authority-funded museums have seen dramatic cuts and job losses, and there are few curators whose lives haven’t changed in some way as a result. Meanwhile, major funding initiatives such as Renaissance in the Regions and the Designation Development Fund have put millions into collections-related areas; there are now more than 40 subject specialist networks; the Heritage Lottery Fund has continued to invest creatively in the sector; and the Art Fund, the Museums Association and several trusts and foundations have worked specifically to support the development of collections and collections-related skills. Curatorship may be under pressure, but it cannot be said to be neglected.

As part of our latest research project, the Art Fund has spoken to hundreds of people in curatorial roles. It is clear that curators are more deeply engaged with their audiences than ever, and more open to sharing and interpreting their collections beyond the individual institutions that own them. Innovation is becoming more of a daily requirement than a rarity, with most respondents saying they felt able to take risks.

At the same time, the sector has professionalised. Procedures and best practice previously passed on by word of mouth are now more routinely documented and disseminated, and knowledge sharing – at a variety of levels – is the expected norm. Crucially, digital and social media have transformed the relationship between museums, and between curators and visitors, with a new dynamic that enables quick and easy interchange, and wider access to resources of all kinds.

Some of this may help to offset the consequences of the clear decline in the number of curatorial and subject-specialist roles in UK museums, with more than 70% of respondents reporting reductions in curatorial resources over the past decade, alongside a strong perception that vital skills and subject knowledge were being lost. As experts retire or are made redundant, will institutions manage without their knowledge, or take steps to replace it in new ways?

There is much that can be done, and relatively little resistance to change: more than 80% of respondents indicate that new skills and ways of working will be important in meeting this climate. The intellectual resources of the subject specialist networks (even in their relative infancy) and UK universities are vast, and more investment could make them better accessible to museums of any size, anywhere. And those museums funded by central government need to accept a widening national responsibility to help other institutions on demand (in quite a different model from the old, mildly patronising “regional programmes”), be it through sharing collections, information or expertise. Finally, we need collectively to develop and applaud the leadership skills of our curators and advocate for the importance of their work.

So, along with other funders, we’re listening and we’re acting. We’re ready to support more and new training programmes, the expansion of existing communication networks, the forging of closer links with universities, the readier loan of objects and exhibitions, and a national pooling of curatorial expertise. The better we understand the need, the more we can help.

Stephen Deuchar will be among the speakers taking part in the Funders in Conversation session at the Museums Association Conference & Exhibition in Manchester, 16-18 November. The Art Fund will also be presenting its research into the challenges and opportunities facing 21st-century curators at the conference.

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