Blog: Endangered species?

Stuart Davies, 23.12.2009
Stuart Davies asks: as we work our way through a period of cuts, retrenchment and general change, who or what do we expect to suffer first or most?
Opinion will vary, but maybe the curator will be feeling especially vulnerable. The curator, perhaps, finds it less easy to justify his or her existence than the learning officer or the development and commercial manager.

This is of course not a new situation.

Since the 1970s it may be argued that the curator has been in decline. The recognition that museums need specialists in management, marketing, learning and other disciplines has been largely responsible for this.

These roles have been an essential part in modernising museums in the late 20th century. And while they should have been added to the establishment of museums, limited resources have meant that resources have been diverted away from curatorial posts and into these new areas.

Renaissance funding has done something to reverse this trend in Hub museums but the problem remains elsewhere. It is not just a matter of losing posts; there is a more general crisis around what curatorship actually is in the 21st century.

Renaissance North West recently held their third annual Curating for the Future conference.

The audience were, not surprisingly, principally interested in how to avoid the pain of cuts but there was still some discussion about longer-term issues.

One point raised was the disintegration of curatorship. Not only has the number of curators decreased as resources are diverted, but the traditional curator has diversified into specialisms in documentation, learning, access and so on.

Curatorship once meant no more than knowing the collections, researching their history and significance and transferring that knowledge to others. Knowledge plus communication equals scholarship.

Traditional curatorship (and the scholarship we all hope is associated with it) has much to recommend it. Understanding our collections rather than just counting them, labelling them and wrapping them in acid-free tissue is surely still an essential part of the purpose of a museum.

Focusing on the authenticity of our collections is also as potent as exploiting them for their educational value. Our collections are a major national heritage asset and we need curators to research them to reveal their learning and inspirational potential.

And new technology offers opportunities to develop and expand the curatorial role.

Interactive technology is creating new means of providing large amounts of information to the museum consumer.

The curator has hitherto been constrained by the limited capacity for transferring knowledge within public galleries. Curators have always known far more than the label, catalogue or touch screen could cope with. That is now being transformed and too much information is no longer the problem that we thought it was. Curators should now be major content providers.

There are challenges too. Social media is accelerating the notion that anyone can be a curator and indeed everyone should be encouraged to be a curator. But this too opens up new opportunities for the curator as content creator and as a sophisticated communicator. Are curators an endangered species or are we about to embark upon a new golden era of curatorship?

To read Stuart's previous blogs, please click here


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29.09.2010, 19:50
Clive writing in the MA Have Your Say blog about security said he was taught that a museum's primary role is to preserve its collections. I sympathise with Clive's point of view. If only that were the case. I read Clive's statement and thought it actually rather quaint, which is more a reflection on the state of the UK's museums, especially the regional/local authority services, and how I have become normalised to it, rather than a comment on Clive's point of view. I work in museum conservation, and my experience over the years, and all the more so now, is that when museums are in survival mode, it is curatorial capacity and conservation that are cut. Income generation, statutory education and visitor numbers are what matter most according to way things are structured now. I need look no further than the museum service I work for where curatorial posts were deleted, to be replaced by managers. And as for Renaissance in the Regions, the contribution of 20/01/2010 is spot on. There will not be, I suspect, a lasting legacy from Renaissance. Maybe there are too many museums, I don't know. Maybe there are too many managers. This much is certain, the name of the real game is intellectual capital, and it is curators who generate it, and create the value that preservation systems are meant to protect. They do this with passion and a sense of public service. Without them all the access and education officers in the world would have nothing to work with, and the managers, whose role is essentially parastical, would have no raison d'etre. It is this realisation that needs to sink in, but in the interim lasting damage is taking place. The cart has been in front of the horse for too long. Speaking for myself I feel like butter spread over too much bread, especially now, as some of things the curators did have ended up to a degree with long serving conservators, who have built up specialised knowledge working closely with curators. We carry out non-typical work because we do not want to let down colleagues. There is disconnect between curatorial ambitions and the capacity to deliver and the result is frustration for the expert staff for who managed to cling on.
28.08.2010, 02:58
I agree with Malcolm J, the role of the curator is essential, but must expand. However, Malcolm fails to recognise the role of the curator is essential because it must embody the role of the museum and the museum is an academy. Hence the role of the curator is not only to protect, know and understand, but also to disseminate. In the 21st century the latter is an incredibly skills diverse and time consuming operation. It must be embodied within the museum displays and exhibitions, but it must also address access. This cannot be achieved by managers however efficient, but the management roles in museums must always be there to service the curators and conservators; ie those that know, protect, understand and passionately desire others to understand the value of the museum to their own lives. Management have become primary and here lies the fault. All are necessary for the successful fulfillment of the academy, but management remain there to service the dissemination of knowledge that only the academics can have. Why have we became a culture that refuses to acknowledge the value of expertise? It is only through this that true democratic culture can be achieved. Not everyone can be an expert, nor would they desire to be so. But through the knowledge of their collections, and as Malcolm J so rightly points out, their understanding of society, culture and dare I say it, yes tourism, only curators have the knowledge and expertise to know what they have, the importance of what they have and the understanding of how to reach diverse audiences. Managers are there to facilitate that activity and make it happen, but most definitely not to set the programs. Please do not allow this country, having achieved so much, to once again fall prey to a culture of philistines. Curators and managers are both essential, but you cannot have managers without something to manage. therefore curators are key and curators are primary if we still believe in museums as educational institutions for inspiration, enlightenment and learning. And let's face it we have precious little of that left in this country.
18.03.2010, 09:20
Stuart is right and wrong.

"The recognition that museums need specialists in management, marketing, learning". I would suggest that it is not a recognition of need but a failure to recognise that our need is less for the experts than for their expertise. We have moved away from the core purpose of museums (the protection and understanding of our collections) and now the effects are being felt.

Stuart has to an extent identified this with 'Understanding our collections rather than just counting them, labelling them and wrapping them in acid-free tissue is surely still an essential part of the purpose of a museum'.

Sadly, the statement 'Curatorship once meant no more than knowing the collections, researching their history and significance and transferring that knowledge to others" is misleading. It implies that this is not our raison d'être. But if the development of the collection is added, then that is precisely our purpose. The old-style Diploma and even the original Leicester course prepared the student to 'drive a museum', with all that this implies, and it led to the development of the recognition of our need for access to other expertise such as those described. Sadly, that knowledge led to us throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The new career training is more about the whys and whats than the hows, and the number of staff who have hands-on understanding and care for our collections has suffered dramatically as a result.

In a world of cuts I suggest that the very last cuts should be in curators, but the corollary is that curators need to be multi-tasking people with wide-ranging skills and the desire to infect others with their passion. 'Managers' (and I don't mean those whose titles have changed to manager to satisfy the MBA breed, but precisely that breed), marketing and education staff, are all people who should support the role of the museum, whereas the curator encapsulates that role.
RinR good for curatorship? Don't make me laugh. It has served a few museums well in terms of major projects, but in providing a pool of competence that is available beyond the walls it has singularly failed, and in many instances the curatorial staff are now far fewer than ten years ago. Anonymous (MA Member, MP Subscriber) 20.01.2010, 20:19 has made the case well.
Sadly, at least part of our problem (I speak as a former MA Board member) is that the MA is neither fish nor fowl. Because it welcomes all comers as members, including our employers, it can not easily defend the essential core values of the profession.
I used to reckon that I was in the role of the GP and that this meant that I could deal with most aspects of my professional curatorial role, but that I needed to refer to consultants (ie the nationals and larger museums) for more unusual matters. Today, I don't believe that many of the larger museums have the staffing levels and skills to provide this back-up, let alone the will and ability.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
05.02.2010, 17:23
Bring back the old Museum's Diploma !
That was training based around the work-place - a chance for experienced curators to pass on their knowledge and skills. That, coupled with the addition of the Leicester University courses gave the academic rigour that was necessary to produce good curators. Good curators are not elitist - far from it!
29.01.2010, 11:08
The MA has never argued that you can work in museums without training. Far from it; we've consistently called for more and better training. But we concluded that training should ideally be led by museums themselves rather than left to universities. In the absence of adequate museum-led entry-level training, universities do a good job, but there are many problems with the current system, not least the fact many people can't afford the cost of training. For curatorial skills in particular, trainees need direct access to collections. In any case, it's doubtful whether there's ever been a time when curators learned their skills in a university, when it's all about real collections and real people.

Museums probably need to strengthen specialist skills of all types and, with funding from Creative and Cultural Skills, the MA hopes to begin preliminary exploration of how the situation might be improved.

For more on what we've said in the past about entry-level training, see:
MA Member
26.01.2010, 13:57
i have to agree with the post below. The demise of the trained curator is a tragedy and I'm afraid that the MA is partly to blame through stigmatising of museum studies courses. By suggesting that these courses are elitist and unnecessary for a career in the sector, they have diminished the role of the curator. You are basically saying that curators need no specialist training. How then does one expect to adequately care for the collections in their charge? Training placements are few and far between and usually reserved for minority groups. Even then, these do not provide the same level of background understanding that one can gain from dedicated study of the profession.

Curators are completely necessary in museums. Someone has to take responsibility for caring for the objects themselves and the knowledge about them. They are the link between preservation and access of collections. If they are an endangered species, it is because we, as a sector, have let them become this way. Perhaps we have even encouraged it. We need to move away from thinking that specialists are a bad thing.
MA Member, MP Subscriber
20.01.2010, 20:19
I am currently employed in a hub-funded museum & I've been a curator for 30+ years. During this time I've witnessed a systematic reduction in posts for curators. Since the beginning of Renaissance funding, this decline has accelerated, so I dispute Stuart Davies comment that "Renaissance funding has done something to reverse this trend (reduction in curators) in Hub museums".

At first I welcomed hub funding but now regret its arrival. This may be just the experience of my own institution but I have seen Renaissance funding highjacked by management. Extra resources have been placed into marketing, outreach etc but nothing into curation. In my work as a trained curator I was, and still am, perfectly capable of carrying out these other tasks, in fact I see them as an inherent part of my role. So again I dispute Staurt Davies comment that "Curatorship once meant no more than knowing the collections, researching their history and significance and transferring that knowledge to others." This was never the case in any museum but the Nationals.

Within my institution these new hub jobs were not advertised, either externally or internally, and relatively inexperienced staff were promoted in to these roles, tempted (& who can blame them) by the offers of salaries well above those that would be offered to a curator. The irony is that these same individuals, in these new roles, find they also have to take on the curator-role because so many professional curator jobs have been deleted from the staff structure to "save money". The results are second rate exhibitions and substandard supporting materials So, I have to disagree completely with the statement that “anyone can be a curator”.

I also witness a duality within hub-funded institutions - those jobs which are hub-funded which come with a budget & those jobs which are core-funded where no spending is permitted due to "council cut-backs."

Museum collections come alive when trained, competent and enthusiastic curators support them, however curator roles have always attracted salaries well below the level that the people who occupy these posts deserve.
The MA desperately needs to restore trained curatorship back into the heart of the museum profession - unfortunately I think it may already be too late.
20.01.2010, 12:37
In reply to the anonymous MA member posting about the MA's involvement with small town community museums: the MA may not give hard-pressed smaller museums as much attention as they deserve but they are certainly on our radar. I am replying here for the sake of continuity, but I think the blog you are responding to is the previous months’ and this is by the MA President who has always had a great reputation for working for smaller museums. I took part in press and radio work about concerns about smaller museums only last week - This week I am meeting AIM to discuss similar issues.

The MA is a small independent organisation doing its best for all its members who come from museums of all shapes and sizes across the UK. I don’t accept that all of our programmes, products and information are geared to larger museums. We try very hard to achieve a balance and provide support and help. For example, next month we begin our …Love Museums campaign offering museums the skills and information to improve their campaigning and advocacy on the ground. All of this will be free to members.

We are a membership body, we are accessible, we do respond. Let me know exactly what you want from the MA that you are not getting now. You will get an answer.
MA Member
18.01.2010, 11:43
At last, someone with some moral authority in the sector is speaking up for the value of expertise. Thank you, Mr. Davies, for moving this debate on. I remain optimistic (because there is not much mileage in pessimism) but not very hopeful that the imbalance will be redressed between curatorial expertise and the "development managers". This is, in part, because we all know that there are more cuts coming, all the politicians have said so. I need look no further than the service I work for, a large local authority museum service in England, where a recent re-structure saw a deliberate reduction in curatorial capacity and authority, where new development posts, with no curatorial expertise, have been put in charge, and one of their main priorities is income generation. There is actually nothing wrong with having these types of posts in support roles, in fact it is a good thing, and this has been demonstrated where I work. The trouble is that these sorts of roles ought to be supporting, not leading. This is because these sorts of development manager roles are parasitical, and I mean that in a literal sense, not an unpleasant one. Much of what goes on in museums is invisible, because, as in the threatre, it is what goes on behind the scenes that guarantees the quality of what the public experiences. Development managers, learning officers, PR and marketing draw on the strength of the museum itself without adding to the intellectual capital, at least not in the long run. A recent book by Dr. Amanda Goodall, "Socrates in the Boardroom" is an interesting read. She argues, convincingly, that many large knowledge based organisations like universities and the NHS are going badly wrong because the people in charge are not experts in what it is the organisation is focussed on, whether it is health, or scientific research. Well obviously.........but, this is in fact what has been going on. Curatorial expertise is the wind in the sails in the heritage sector, and we will be stuck in the doldrums with its continued emasculation, and who will be the poorer ultimately? Visitors.
MA Member
15.01.2010, 13:08
It seems that people want some amazing world where every museum has the capabilities and capacities of nationals, but the budgets of the local. If nothing else, the past 10 years (and more) have shown that museums have had to change and adapt to meet the needs of the customer, our visitors.

What we still fail to achieve, and what MLA and Renaissance did not repair or join up, is the museum community working together - sharing those specialisms and interest areas amongst geographical areas. I would imagine most people working in 'professional' museum roles have grown a specialism at undergraduate level, and developed broad museum skills at post graduate level, surely these networks are the thing that need sorting? In our area there are Learning and Access Networks, where skills, expertise and best practice are brought and shared - this does not seem to happen with subject specialists (whether this is their job role or not). In fact one has only to look at the GEM website and eList (as well as other such as the Museums Computer Group) to see where this is happening in the 'newer' museum realms. Why not in the curatorial?

One of the things that seems to disadvantage the curator is that no-one understands the term any more. Many museums are moving from curator to museum manager, from subject specialist, to freelancer, and the ones not noticing this drift? The nationals, who continue to inward face, keeping those specialisms a tightly guarded commodity.

Where will we be a few years time? Worse off, although not for losing curators, but for the ever increasing gap of expertise polarisation of the local from the national, and as funding changes, the rich from the poor.
MA Member
14.01.2010, 10:14
If indeed the curator is finding it less easy to justify his/her existence this is not because their role has become obsolete but rather because of simple neglect through misunderstanding. While I think that having specialists in certain areas (eg: marketing, education) has allowed for positive developments in these areas, there is no reason why this should have occurred at the expense of curatorship. No reason at all. As you point out, the more recent greater availability of information should mean curators are in demand more than ever.

As for the notion that anyone can be a curator I fear this is confused and confusing. For many recent graduates, spending years being thrown from short term contract to short term contract and embarking on a whole range of CPD courses to put themselves in a position to qualify as a suitable candidate for a curatorial post and then to hear the sector turn around and say “but actually anyone can do it” feels like a kick in the teeth. The rhetoric is unhelpful. I am a great advocate for people getting involved in their museums and working with objects; as at our museum, many locals can offer valuable information and insight, but it is the curator that put this all together, gives direction and synthesis, analyses, researches, and helps to contextualise the wealth of information within the confines of best curatorial and conservation practice. The MA and other bodies need to make their mind up – either the curatorial role is a professional one which people take up after relevant training or it is something anyone can do if they have an interest.
MA Member
14.01.2010, 10:02
Has anyone at the Museums Association ever stopped to ponder where the MA fits in all this... could it even be that the MA may even be part of the problem? I have read MJ for about 20 years and cannot remember the MA taking the slighest interest in volunteer-run and small town community museums - the MA has an obsession with large (Renaissance) local authority museums, large independents, Nationals and, sometimes, the university sector, as well the dull pen-pushing world of MLA and DCMS. The majority of us, those small, community-run, hard-pressed museums in market towns across the UK, that make up the bulk of the sector, are simply not on your radar (until cuts threaten, and then there's a bit of guilty handringing). Important collections lie in these forgotton museums and it is also where community engagement can happen but it is also where the most need is. Local collections are suffering from neglect by us, the professionals, as much as local authority inertia or lack of funding. I work with such museums in the west country - many do not bother to join the MA: the Journal is full of news of no relevance to them, the courses you run are way too expensive and the audience clearly the paid, professional type. It is time the MA started to take note of this important part of the sector that is trying to care for the dispersed heritage of local communities before it disappears in a quagmire of professional apathy. At least there's AIM...
MA Member
13.01.2010, 19:06
The strange thing is that curating as an activity has been verbally hijacked from the museum sector by the art world, where it seems to mean little more than selecting content for a temporary exhibition. This is only one aspect of the much wider role of traditional museum curatorship that Stuart is talking about. Becoming a good curator requires well developed knowledge of your museum's subject and collections, excellent interpretation and communication skills and an ability to work with all those other professionals and specialists in the sector: educators, conservators, designers, marketing and IT. In a small museum the curator may have to take on some if not all of these roles as well, in addition to people and project management, business planning, customer care and fundraising. This is a high level of responsibility and the notion that the availability of social media means everyone should be encouraged to have a go at being a curator is pretty laughable. Museum management through Twitter? I don't think so. The museum world does need to make better use of web2 and of course it's important to engage audiences but let's not over-egg it. The outward looking curator's role today is about sharing and spreading knowledge, not just digitising collections and asking web users for their comments. That's easy, mechanical stuff which surely doesn't meet many of our users' expectations of a properly run, knowledge based museum. A collection without a curator is not a museum, and Stuart's call for curators to become more sophisticated content creators and communicators is spot-on. Without skilled curators museums will wither and die. Sadly, in the current cold financial climate there could be some casualties.
MA Member
13.01.2010, 11:16
TS Eliot asked 'Where is the wisdom we lost in knowledge?' We may collectively have access to more information about objects than ever before, thanks to digitisation, but without properly trained curators to bring all of that information together and present it in context we will only ever have a superficial understanding of our collections. There is a place for management and marketing, but not at the expense of curatorship, which should be at the heart of any museum worth its salt.
MA Member
11.01.2010, 14:53
Interestingly, some of your sentiments here are echoed by Nick Mansfield at the People's History Museum and Steph Mastoris at the National Waterfront Museum in the feature on social history museums in this month's Museums Journal.
MA Member
05.01.2010, 18:15
An interesting blog - curators must embrace these new challenges to ensure their survival