What is a curator?


What is a curator?

Every so often I’ll meet someone who asks me what I do; this draws the response “I’m a natural history curator”*. Sometimes I will then be faced with the dreaded follow-up question “what does that mean?”

I hate it when this happens, because the curatorial role involves lots of different things and it can be hard to summarise them in any kind of concise and intelligible way. Different museums expect different things from curators, which will usually depend on the rest of the staffing structure. So when I answer I can only really answer for myself and what I think MY curatorial role entails.

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The most obvious responsibility is “curating collections”, which is not actually an explanation in any meaningful way. To curate more or less means to “take care of”, but these days the museum sector has become professionalised and there are other specialists who take on much of the duty of care; conservators, collections managers, documentalists and so on.

What I bring to the care side of things overlaps with these roles, but my spin is to bring subject specialist knowledge to the mix.

This allows me to help other departments by providing them with useful information. For example, non-specialist staff will largely have to go by what’s written on an object label, whereas I am expected to check that information and challenge old taxonomy and misidentifications. I may also provide additional or new information about objects by researching their history or identifying parts of their composition.

A nice illustration of this can be seen in these two objects – one from the Horniman Museum & Gardens‘ Anthropology collection (top) and one from the Natural History collection (bottom):

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The Natural History specimen had originally been mislabelled by the original supplier as the skull of an Andean Condor from Bolivia, which I had spotted and corrected to Lappet-faced Vulture (a species from Africa) after a bit of research. The Anthropology specimen was originally identified as being an  ‘eagle skull’ charm from Nigeria and it was simple to provide a more detailed species identification after having done the work on the Natural History specimen.

This sort of fact-checking and enrichment of data is essential for museums if we are to provide an accurate, reliable and authoritative resource for our audiences.

The same need for fact-checking also applies to quality television programmes, so it is perhaps unsurprising that museum curators will often be involved in documentaries, either as a presenter (like George McGavin or Richard Fortey), an expert that gets wheeled in to provide context (I think all curators have done this!), or as a shadowy figure behind the scenes baby-sitting an object or advising on content (I was scientific advisor for Ben Garrod’s excellent Secrets of Bones for example and I have fond memories of fiercely guarding an Indian Elephant leg at the filming of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture “Why Elephant’s Can’t Dance“).

elephantleg1

An Elephant leg that I had to babysit for 14 hours (with no comfort break) for the filming of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

I’m all for getting collections used like this, since I think that the real value of collections lies in their use. This may be scientific, educational or artistic use – it doesn’t matter which, as long as the use doesn’t significantly compromise the objects and contributes to a wider understanding or appreciation of the world. In some cases you can manage both – a project I’ve been involved in with fine art photographer Sean Dooley is a good example of this.

Another large part of what I do is science communication. Museums were one of the earliest methods by which the general population could access decent quality information about the wider world and, despite the rise of the telly, museums still serve as an important interface between the academic world and the public.

This means that I get to research topics (in varying amounts of detail) that are relevant to our collections and audiences and produce exhibitions, give talks and write articles communicating that research. Sometimes this will be somewhat on the dry side (like a methodological paper about measuring skulls), while other times it will be a bit more fun, like my stint as #ExtremeCurator:

For me science communication and museum advocacy goes beyond the museum walls and 9-5 working hours, so I also organise free monthly science-related events in a London pub, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, I do evening talks all around the UK, I tweet and of course I am a #MuseumBlogger here at Zygoma.

This last activity has been both hard work and incredibly enjoyable. The hard work comes from the discipline required to organise and write a weekly blogpost, while the enjoyment has come from the fantastic community that has developed around the Friday Mystery Object posts (which have now been running for about five years). I’ve found that my knowledge has increased a huge amount and I’ve been able to encourage and help support other people in their interest.

My favourite example of this is Jake, who has been reading my blog since he was seven! Now he’s twelve and has already published an incredible book on bones that I was lucky enough to be able to help with. It’s the unexpected things like this that make blogging so worthwhile and which make my job the best job in the world!

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*my job title is actually “Deputy Keeper of Natural History”, but that’s a term even less familiar than “curator”.

59 thoughts on “What is a curator?

  1. Why not just tell them you cure natural history? Explain that history is unstable when fresh. It needs curing to settle as fact. Without this crucial step, so much weird crap gets established and believed, it ends up as religion.

    Then, when they stare at you and take a sip of their cocktail, quickly glance at your watch and blurt, “Have I missed tonight’s lotto numbers? Gotta dash!”

    • Glad you enjoyed the post. As with most jobs it’s as much about the people you work with as it is the job itself. The Horniman has great collections and brilliant staff, which makes it a fantastic place to work!

  2. Well, finally a professioinal explains the real meaning of “curate” –not what general public does for their personal blog. 🙂

    I suppose you’ve heard about Drumheller, Alberta where they have a fantastic world class research facility, conservation and museum on palentology –aka dinosaurs. I had no idea but then maybe you’ve been to Alberta’s /Canada’s Badlands already.

  3. Thanks for sharing your insight and experiences as a curator. It’s interesting to see that public outreach via social media has become an essential skill for modern-day curators. All I can say is that I’m grateful that it is as it gives the general public a better insight into this fascinating career. 🙂

    • To my mind curation is partly about making objects work for their keep – I think they can do that through social media really well. Museums have amazing things and people love seeing images of, and learning about, amazing things through social media – it’s so obvious to combine them!

  4. Pingback: What is a curator? | Librarian to be. . .

  5. I really enjoyed this article! Glad it was featured.

    I only had a loose understanding of what a curator did, but this was very enlightening.

    A couple of weeks ago I saw an article on an exhibit that was opening in Eastern Canada. It was about GIANT INSECT sculptures! So I found a picture of the exhibit and wrote a satirical article on the subject, with a SLIGHTLY different angle. The entire thing is from a CURATO’S point of view, so I thought you might like to see it.

    Here it is:

    http://theoffensiveplaybook.wordpress.com/2014/03/05/giant-bugs-exhibit-absolutely-perfect-for-scaring-the-living-shit-out-of-children-says-museum-curator/

    I hope my lack of knowledge (at the time!) was good enough.

    All the best,

    James

      • Ha ha! Thank you! And thank you for following my blog too! 🙂 I’ve followed yours too.

        I don’t know what I want to do for a living, but I know this: I want to be the guy in charge, I want to have creative license, and I want it to be enjoyable. That’s why I enjoy blogging and do it daily — I can have all of that on my own terms.

        …I don’t think they let you START as head curator, do they? Heh heh.

        (And yeah, when I saw that photo on the REAL article, I was like, “Kids are probably going to cower in fear when they see those!” Glad you PROVED my suspicions were right! )

        All the best,

        J

  6. Such an interesting job role which is both educational and inspirational ! All the best, mr curator!

    Cheers, from a deadpan boring MSOffice-reliant administrator who hates handling phone enquiries from lazy people.

  7. I found the timing of your blog interesting to me. I was just in San Francisco and a friend announced he was going to be a curator for a large museum. I thought this sounds like an easy job. Then he told me his responsibilities and one was that of being a fundraiser. Being a curator sounds to be like a lot of fun and responsibility too! Thanks for sharing your blog with me.

    • I studied biology/geology joint honours, then did a postgraduate research degree in animal physiology. Much of my work involved using museum collections and I spent 4 years teaching undergraduates using the Leeds University biology museum (now sadly closed), where I also volunteered. I then got an entry level 6-month maternity cover job at the National Museum of Ireland where I was able to get some great experience. They managed to keep me around for a few years in the end, which provided an incredible grounding in the museum world.

      If you want some more general ideas, I suggest taking a look at a post by Giles Miller from the NHM about how to become a curator: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/micropalaeo/2013/02/15/how-do-you-become-a-curator

  8. I found this both interesting and interesting. I wonder how much out there is wrongly labeled? Do you find any conflict with some who insist on an item being taken correct when it is obviously wrong?

    • There are quite a lot of misidentifications out there, particularly in collections that lack a subject specialist. Generally I don’t find there to be a problem with items being corrected if there is a demonstrable error – at least with natural science collections. That said, there can be issues with academic arguments about assignment of names, which go beyond individual specimens. In those cases it’s better to flag a potential issue in notes and wait a few years until some sort of consensus has been agreed…

  9. OK,

    First, congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

    Second, great read.

    Third, I have a question I have always wanted answered. You might be able to point me in the right direction.

    What percentage of our fossils on display are real, and what percentage are cast replacements?

    Thanks

    Wayne
    Luvsiesous.com

    • Thanks Wayne,

      Hard to be entirely sure about percentages of fossils on display that are casts vs real as it will vary considerably between institution and the type of material being shown.

      For smaller specimens of inverts etc. you will tend to have the real thing and many permanent displays of large material (like dinosaurs) that have been installed in the last few years have tended to use real material – partly because there is more decent real material available than ever before. It also helps if you’re in the right place – so parts of the USA and Canada, China and South America have incredible fossil localities and the collections tend to reflect that. In the UK and Europe we don’t tend to get as much of the big showy stuff being well preserved, so we have fewer real specimens on display.

      Touring/temporary exhibitions are more likely to made up of casts and older exhibition spaces also tend to include a lot of cast material as it’s less important, easier to move and assemble and it costs less to insure and hire.

      I personally think that casts serve a useful function (after all, there are limited numbers of real specimens of some fossil species, but those species might be pivotal in our understanding and explanation of evolution – like Archaeopteryx), but they will never have the gravitas of a real specimen.

  10. Pingback: 11 Questions to a museum blogger | Biology Curator

  11. Pingback: Friday mystery object #223 answer | Zygoma

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