“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.