8 June 2018



In today's article of Collections Corner, I'm going to explore the responsibility of the people in charge of presenting collections to the public. Let's make a little room in the corner for their role to be explored in contemporary society.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the definition of "curator" because the weather has been great and I've been escaping the heat by touring galleries and museums. Blessed are the museums, which due to condition management practices, are air conditioned. I can’t get the first class of Curatorial Practice, taught by Matthew Brower, out of my head. Prof. Brower raised an interesting question of what it means to be a curator in a society where everyone is donning their curating hats, arranging their stuff in an artsy and intent filled way, and calling themselves curators.

Which is okay, they can do that. Most job titles are made up, and are just a way of communicating your purpose in life to strangers.

But in our program, and in the larger museum field, being a curator is a serious job. One that means you research, interpret, and develop an exhibit. A curator, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection.” It’s a lot of work, and work that tends to be reliant on people not only getting what you are doing, but finding it interesting enough to be worth it. It is a cross your fingers and pray to your deity be it a god or analytical data scenario.

Last Friday, as I was waiting in line, I couldn’t help but think about how coffee shops are curated. The products are selected to fit certain criteria, are researched (we all know or are someone who will pose questions to their local barista), and are presented to attract customers. If I was a braver person, I would take pictures of the coffee shops I go in the mornings. They are purists places that I adore, where coffee/tea/pastry specialists expose us, the uneducated masses, to the wonders of organic, sourced products. However, I usually end up in those places early in the morning, impersonating a zombie amongst a horde of other zombies. I decide to just get my hot beverage, and maybe a croissant.
The collection manager may be a more accurate representation of the coffee shop job than a curator. They are in charge of the collection, cataloging, keeping conditions optimum, dealing with bureaucracy, and much more. How many times in a coffee shop do you hear someone call themselves a collection manager? I haven't yet.

We now have this weird role in society where people are calling themselves curators, but are really a hybridization of the roles and responsibilities of curators and collection managers. I'm not upset about it because it all boils down to a bunch of people who have a passion about one thing, and want people to take them and their collections seriously. However, I don't think the existing terminology really applies to how people are using it because being a curator or a collection manager is steeped ( ;) ) in a rich/diverse history of the cultural heritage sector.

The difference between a coffee shop and a museum is standards. If a coffee shop turned out to be fraudulently misrepresenting their products I would be mad, and I wouldn’t go back. If a museum, gallery, or/and hall of fame failed their ethics test I would be outraged. Perhaps this is a result of over a hundred years of higher expectations, but I don’t think so. A museum's responsibility is to its collection or cultural product. I would hold curators to a higher standard if they worked in a museum, gallery or hall of fame. I worry about the responsibility of a curator or other museum professional diminishing when that responsibility isn’t understood by people outside of the museum world.

Maybe what we need is a new name… how about "supreme overlord of particular tastes" for curators and "supreme overlord of keeping their feet on the ground" for collection managers. Those would be fun business cards.

I'm not sure if I'm being elitist and devoutly bowing to the hierarchical structure of museums, where certain roles mean certain things done by certain people, most likely highly educated, specialists. Please let me know your opinions in the comments section.

1 comment:

  1. I think the broader use of the title “curator” is just as valid as when it’s used by museum professionals. Sure, museum curators are required to have very specialized knowledge to earn their place, but it’s also clear that museums struggle to reconcile a distinctly colonial past. The “rich/diverse history of the cultural heritage sector” that you speak of is not all good. In fact, museum curators have often helped perpetuate harmful narratives despite their years of education. A museum’s responsibility is not just to its collection, it’s to the community that the objects came from. Curators and collection managers are merely custodians of culture. Why worry about one individual losing their authority to represent someone else's story when you could celebrate the diverse voices and perspectives that are being shared outside the museum world? You are upset because people are using the word “curator” to be taken seriously, but why is that a bad thing? We should be upset that only a select few with the proper credentials are taken seriously in our society. You are taking on an elitist perspective that doesn't really acknowledge the shortcomings of museums and museum professionals.