Do Museums Need Curators?

At the beginning of October, just before the Postal Plaza Gallery celebrated its soft opening, Museum Registrar Carla Shelton and I went to the Mountain-Plains Museums Association’s annual conference. Its theme was “Building the Museum Community: Inside, Outside, All Around Town.” We were there to present some of our work at the OSUMA: as part of a panel Carla organized on programming within and beyond the walls of the museum, I presented our 2012-13 Visiting Artist program, which featured Yatika Fields working with students from the Art and Music programs at OSU.

We were one of several dozen panels, and I was excited about attending some of the others. One of the most engaging was provocatively entitled, “The Curator is Dead! Long Live the Curator!” Inspired in part by a blog post on the Museums Association website, the session description began with a very straightforward premise. “Several prestigious museums have recently eliminated the position of Curator. Is this a good thing?”

The question (and the panel) was specifically about collections curators—but one of the first topics we covered was the way in which the term “curator” has expanded its scope rather dramatically in the past decade or so. As one of my colleagues recently observed, “people are using [‘curator’] in some ridiculous contexts these days.” Check it out: the first Google result I get for “curated” is an interior design company, and the next few hits include “curated commerce,” “curated consumption,” and “curated food.” Even in the museum, the term “curator” has become more broadly used: Education Curators, Curators of Public Programming, and Curators of Audience Experiences are joining traditional curators on museum staffs. One of the questions the panel asked was, why are these latter positions expanding while traditional collections curatorial positions are being eliminated?

Traditionally, museum curators have been stewards of the collection, responsible for its care at every level.  Curators ensure archival storage conditions, research each object’s history and provenance, and disseminate that research in the form of exhibitions and publications. “Curator” comes from the Latin, “curare”—literally, to cure or take care of. Museum curators, etymologically speaking, hold the health of their collections in their hands. These days, they collaborate with registrars, conservators, and other museum professionals to achieve that goal.

Collection curators need to be content experts, with rich and deep knowledge both of the specific objects in their care and the broader context of those objects. Ideally, they have knowledge about materials and construction techniques, but also familiarity with history, foreign languages, and the current state of scholarship in the fields relevant to their collection and to museum practices. They are often, moreover, expected to be knowledgeable in museum-related law and ethics and the market, as well as administration and management. Perhaps most importantly, they need to be effective researchers, trained to find authoritative answers to new questions. Curators acquire all of this knowledge in order to care for their collections—and they provide that care in order to ensure that the collection will always be available for the public to learn from and to enjoy.

One of the main themes of the panel discussion was the need for collections curators to be more visible and more public—to make more of an effort to share their work with the general public. I am not surprised that many members of the general public do not know what curators do, day-to-day. But I was surprised to hear so many of my colleagues say that their administrators—their directors—had no idea what they did with or for their museum’s collections. It’s no surprise that museum directors are eliminating curatorial positions if they have no understanding or perception of what those curators do. And although we may wish otherwise, the panelists made a compelling argument that it is the responsibility of curators to advocate for themselves—to raise their own profile and make a case for their relevance.

Quoting a comment from the Museums Association blog linked above, one of the panelists made the point that “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. Curators are key and curators are primary if we still believe in museums as educational institutions for inspiration, enlightenment, and learning” (Diana, August 28, 2010). The panelist built on this statement to suggest that the structure of today’s museums frequently shuts down honest intellectual debate about the purpose both of curators and of museums themselves. It is a thought-provoking observation, especially from my perspective at a university, where we pride ourselves on being a place designed for honest intellectual debate.

I’ve never thought of what I do at the OSUMA and on this blog as self-advocacy, but I have hoped to make the museum and our research more transparent and more accessible to a wide variety of audiences. Whether it is sharing student research on collection objects, facilitating student-curated exhibitions, or collaborating with faculty on their own course-related projects, I have worked hard to make the OSUMA a place in which my expertise facilitates others’ engagement.

As a teacher, inviting people to join me in understanding our collection comes naturally to me, as does participatory learning. Because they have the opportunity to participate, I have found that students are often the most vocal advocates for the museum—and faculty from across campus who have done class projects in collaboration with the museum are likewise strong supporters of ours. The personal satisfaction I get from teaching makes me a natural believer in the public responsibility of the curator. Why bother acquiring so much expertise if I never share it?

My sense of responsibility as an educator—both in my professorial and curatorial roles—also lends itself naturally to the emerging model for curators that the panelists advocated. One of them shared a chart that articulated this emerging model in terms of opposites:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Does expertise still have a place in this model? I believe it does—in fact, I believe that in a collaborative, experience-focused environment, curatorial expertise is more important than ever. This chart maps a vital change in approach: as curators, we must use our expertise to guide visitor engagements with the collection. In order to do so most effectively, we need to collaborate with our colleagues, including education curators, teachers, community members, students, and general visitors. Combining our diverse areas of expertise (and even a five-year-old is an expert on their own favorite ways of experiencing art), we can create a richer understanding of the collection and how it relates to our own experience, to history, to itself.

As one of the panelists asked the room, “Without content experts, how do you maintain your credibility as an institution? Whence public responsibility?” Without a collection curator, there is no one in the institution who can make connections to local audiences, or who can draw contextual connections between, for example, visiting exhibitions and the permanent collection.

Elizabeth Merritt, Founding Director of the Center for the Future of Museums, an initiative of the American Alliance of Museums, blogged about her experience studying a dress in storage at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The curator, Dr. Nancy Davis, took the time to listen to Merritt’s questions, research interests, and approach. Based on that conversation, she pulled additional items for Merritt to look at while she was there and she spent time with Merritt, sharing her expertise. Merritt writes, “I recognize that no matter my enthusiasm for a subject, museum staff have more experience and knowledge of the history and context of their collections than I ever could. I valued Dr. Davis’ expertise.”

Few institutions in the United States have as much social credibility as museums—our visitors trust us. That trust comes from curatorial knowledge, but only when that knowledge is accessible to the public. I used to say that a collection that wasn’t accessible might as well not exist. After I participated in this panel discussion, I realized that I believe the same is true of curators. Most importantly, I believe that curators’ expertise is what gives a collection shape and meaning. (“How do you really damage an object?” asked one of the panelists. He answered himself: “Lose its provenance and history.”) Curatorial knowledge of the collection and its context allows them to collaborate effectively with visitors to create meaningful experiences. A collection without a curator is, by definition, inaccessible.

The MPMA session was organized by David Kennedy, Curator of Collections, Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center, Enid, OK.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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4 Responses to Do Museums Need Curators?

  1. Julia Kirt says:

    Great post Louise– really sums up positive changes in museum culture. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Crystal says:

    Thank you so much for this enlightening post. Recently, in my art history seminar we have been g presenting exhibition proposals for objects we have been looking at all semester. One of my fellow graduate students made a point that perhaps we are giving these objects too much meaning or that we shouldn’t give these objects a story. She essentially was saying that we need to keep the anthropological aspect of the objects out of a show when we are curating shows. Naturally this sparked a wonderful debate amongst a class with PhD students, graduate students, as well as undergraduates. This discussion really got me thinking, “what is the role of a curator” not only for just an exhibition for a museum. This post really summed up for me what I felt a curator does in a very articulate manner. Curators are not merely telling a story with with the objects but inviting the visitors to experience and learn what the cultural background is/was for particular objects. As someone who dreams to be a future curator it is very sad to hear that museums are cutting the curators role. It is incredibly important to have someone on staff who is dedicated to the collection in all aspects as you mentioned because then the museum goer can get the fullest experience out of the exhibits. Save the curators!

  3. osucurator says:

    Thanks, Julia and Crystal, for your comments! Crystal, we’ve been having a similar debate about the opening exhibition at the Postal Plaza Gallery, “Sharing a Journey.” In the catalogue we work hard to provide a lot of different contexts for the objects in our collection—and it definitely reflects my, Mary Kathryn, and Krystle’s expertise! But in the exhibition itself we’ve organized the objects in groupings that encourage visitors to make their own thematic or interpretive connections at a variety of levels. We are also using QR codes to link to blog posts about individual objects, so that there are literally dozens of voices accessible to visitors in the gallery. My hope is that visitors will see themselves as participants in that conversation, and that they will also engage critically with the different voices we present, asking about the qualitative differences between the contributions of the curator, a student, or a fellow visitor. In general, I think that museums make a mistake when they try to close off or shut down conversation, no matter what the perceived quality or authority of a particular voice, and I think that with the variety of media available to us (catalogue, exhibition labels, blog, social media, gallery tours, etc.) we can offer many voices and levels of interpretation without the gallery presence of those interpretive text overwhelming the objects themselves.

  4. Jennifer Borland says:

    Fabulous post – I couldn’t agree more! AND it reinforces my excitement to see Sharing a Journey and to own the catalogue!! I can look at the database and see the object listings, but a much more rich and nuanced way to understand the collection, its context, and the relationships between its objects is to have access to exactly the expertise you are talking about.

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