The conference, organised by colleagues at the British Museum, saw hundreds of delegates discussing the role of the curator. Lots of these debates tapped into discourse about collections knowledge and public engagement, and at times it seemed as though these were presented as mutually exclusive sets of skills. Different models of the good curator were put forward: personifications of the ideal museum.
The future curator, as far as I can see, needs to be a team player. Museums need subject specialism knowledge, storytelling abilities, and collections care skills, but every curatorial role will need a different balance of these skills, depending on the colleagues that they work with. Much museum work is now project-based and funded. Different museums and projects will set up different teams, requiring distinctive balances of these three areas of expertise. A project with an interpretation officer allocated will not necessarily require a curator to have in-depth knowledge of how to engage an audience, for example. It is the ability to collaborate, share and adapt that will be crucial to the curator of the future.
I often think of two things that two accomplished curators told me about their work.
Cathy Ross told me that curating is the skill of judging what can be left out.
Dora Thornton said it is about the set of questions that you ask of an object.
These approaches reflect the balance of the teams that the curators work in within their organisations – one is arguably led by the question of storytelling, the other approach is perhaps more collections-focussed. Sometimes at the conference yesterday it seemed like knowledge was referred to as a possession, rather than as an activity. I think that both Cathy and Dora’s ideas about the work of the curator are valuable because they articulate a process of enquiry, rather than an expression of expertise. Knowledge needs to be maintained to be meaningful. Museums must keep researching their collections, evaluating their displays, fundraising, managing their staff and maintaining discussions – but curators will not be the only museum workers to do these things.
A good curator is a huge asset to a museum, but I think for too long the curator has been treated as the embodiment of the museum. In my PhD case study I was based in a curatorial department, but the museum was remade through work carried out by curators, designers, learning, technicians, photographers, managers, collections management database specialists, conservators, collections care officers, volunteers, academic consultants and even nonhuman forces.
There is a huge amount of diversity in the sector. Rachel Souhami argued that we should stop talking about the ‘museum sector’ as it misleadingly suggests something homogenous and cohesive. Perhaps it is more meaningful to talk about the curators of the future.