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