The rise of the skills-based curator
“The future of curation will see a rise in roles that rely more on transferrable skills and expertise – and less on subject specialism.”
The above was a provocation I shared at last year’s The Future of Museums: Curation conference, run by the Museums Association on Zoom. If my provocation is right, then traditional subject-specialist curator post will become increasingly rare as time goes on.
By traditional, I mean a curator who gets a job that matches a subject specialism obtained through previous work or education, or a curator who develops specialism by being in a role for a number of years.
There are a whole host of caveats to this statement. In many museums, especially smaller ones, a curator is already a generalist role that covers many requirements and tasks, and is rarely able to have subject specialism.
Subject-specialist and skills-specialist curators both have a role in museums, and there are overlaps between them.
But from my experiences as a curator who entered the sector in 2015, the general scarcity of jobs, the incredible amount of competition for roles and the rise in short-term contracts all mean it is rare for someone to enter a stable career-track or land a job that perfectly meets their desires and then stay in it for their career.
Many museum workers move between roles regularly and develop a host of skills that they bring to curatorial work. These transferrable skills are what allow them to continue to get curatorial roles and experience.
Increasingly we are seeing a greater appreciation and demand for skills and experience from outside the museum sector and a removal of restrictions on who can apply for roles, such as unecessary degree or post-graduate qualifications (shout out to groups such as Fair Museum Jobs for their work in this area).
There was a personal reason for this prompt. I was told during my first year working in museums that if I didn’t pick a specialist subject I would never get far as a curator. I heard similar advice again, which was incredibly demotivating as I couldn’t see a way to get subject specialism without pursuing costly education, which I feared might limit the jobs I could apply for afterwards.
I’ve since discovered that I’ve been able to use my skills in curatorial and collections work to do a multitude of roles. I’ve been a curator of television, a curator of space travel, a curator of store decants and even a curator of bees.
I don’t believe I need a subject specialism to go far as a curator and I wanted the chance to share this view with other people to counter the opposing advice that others may be handing out.
But I am just one person, and my experience is limited, so in this energiser session I wanted to give other people the chance to speak on this subject. I began by outlining my prompt, as I have done here, before asking attendees what skills they thought were important.
We used a Google Jamboard to log the responses, which is still available online.
The variety of skills suggested was amazing, and really emphasised that there are many ways to being a curator.
We also ran a poll asking whether attendees thought it was more important for a curator to have specialist knowledge or transferrable skills. On the day, 75% of voters picked transferrable skills.
I hope in the future to be able to continue this topic and help emerging museum professionals know that there are many valid routes to curatorial careers.
I really appreciate this article on transferable skills and the move away from specialist curators. This feels aligned and synergistic with our world today. My research is on the transferable skills of artists in the performing arts, in particular dancers and choreographers, which resonates with your article. Thank you! Sara Wookey
Many curators develop Subject specialisms on the job, so there’s no requirement for a degree in any topic.
Another point is that as most museum jobs are not focused on single subjects this makes transferrable skills essential to have a realistic chance of a job so I can see where the 75% comes from. But most applicants will either also have or develop specialisms over time, which are hugely beneficial to the sector.
Finally I should add that any decline in specialist curator roles is not because they are not of value, but more a reflection of the decline in budgets and necessity.
I’m both collections and engagement in my part time role as Collections and Engagement Curator of Natural Sciences and Archaeology at Hastings. My natural sciences specialism is important to the museum and is applied widely in collections care and engagement, as are my skills in engagement and collections care that are applied across the museum. Specialist curators do not have to be just gatekeepers to collections. They can do more!
So, as an alternative view, yet perhaps optimistically, I see an increase in specialist knowledge being sought after by museum leaders in this way, combining collections and engagement.