Friday, January 22, 2010


I come (just) from the era when curators were top of the pile in the museum hierarchy. And I remember well when Elizabeth Esteve Coll, as director of the V&A Museum, London in the early 1990s took a broom to that hierarchy and restructured the staff, demoting the all powerful ‘keepers’, as head curators were called at the V&A. She was roundly condemned and ultimately hounded out of office, but she had started an inexorable process.

Bear in mind these were the days when there were no visitor services staff, probably no marketing staff or education staff, and certainly no Heads of IT, but today’s museum/gallery curator does not carry anything like the clout he or she would have done 20 years ago. Whilst there remain highly erudite occupants of curatorial roles in collecting institutions throughout the country, there is a move to generalist curators as against the specialist, with the result that technical in-depth subject knowledge is now more likely to be found at a university than at a museum.

So what is the role of the modern curator? I fell upon a recent article in the English National Trust’s ABC Bulletin entitled "The Curator: No-sayer, custodian, interpreter, impresario or host?" particularly as it involved a conversation with the Chairman of the Trust, Simon Jenkins. Jenkins is a most interesting bloke , a journalist and former editor of The Times and author of the popular 1000 Best Churches and 1000 Best Country Houses. He had been somewhat critical of the Trust before becoming Chairman, including describing their curators as "no-sayers, keepers of screens, blinds and padlocks".

But his comments in this article on the role of curators is positively inspiring. I quote: “The Latin root of curator is intriguing, a mix of care, anxiety, management and love. The curator liberates the sprit of a property and is the person most likely to understand its genius. The curator by virtue of background and education brings to a property an educated eye. In the case of fine houses, it must be hard for those without that eye fully to read their genius loci. Only the curator can release their stories. It takes confidence to grasp a room and so present it as to make it a moving experience for a visitor to walk through. Impresario is the right word, implying the skills of stagecraft.”

To my mind this approach applies equally to curators in museum and galleries as historic house museums. Curators are the conduit to the knowledge about the collections for which they care, and it is their responsibility to open up and reveal the stories that these collections tell. Freed of most of the management responsibilities that curators had twenty years ago, they must now be all about maximising access to their collections whether through exhibitions or on-line, and telling their stories.

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