Monday, March 22, 2010

Curators, curators

I always enjoy a good obituary, and there was a great one published on March 11th in the Times on Lionel Lambourne, former Keeper of Paintings at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Lionel was clearly one of the old style of curators that used to make museums such attractively quirky places to work, and sadly no longer exist. To give you a taste of this, Lionel was apparently equally at home discussing the work of Arts and Crafts deisgners (his specialist area), as the history of the circus or the depiction of the giraffe in art. He lectured under the maxim "a good lecture or exhibition ought to contain something to offend everyone". The achievement of which he was most proud was the creation of the V&A staff pantomine. Get the picture?? As the obituary concludes "few great scholars and curators can have left such a legacy of laughter". Vale Lionel Lambourne and all that you stood for. Do dig out his full obituary - it is well worth the read.

And it got me thinking about the role of the modern curator, about which I have blogged before . Gone are the days when the curator was the top of the heirarchical museum pile, with most directors being drawn from their midst. Most curators are now generalists, often changing to positions in other parts of the sector. So I noticed with some amusement a recent article in HK-Magazine entitled the ‘Curse of the Curators’ on how poor musuem attendance in Hong Kong is being put down to the very strict way that curatorial paths progress in Hong Kong, stifling innovation.

I enquired of Andrew Simpson, who directs the Musem Studies Program at Macquarie University how many of his graduates are finding employment in the sector. He replied that at least 60% of post grad students are finding sector work within a year of completion, but the numbers are not so good for graduates. Andrew believes this is partly due to the rapid rise of museum studies programs in Australia over the least decade (second only to biotech degree programs apparently) and also interestingly to some resistance to professionalisation in some parts of the sector. I must explore this resistance more, as apparently there are some papers on it.

In the US there was an article in a recent post-gazette entitled "A fuzzy picture: US jobs projections for curators leave museums scratching their heads". In summary, data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest curators are among the professions projected to show much faster than average employment growth. But museum directors cannot see how this growth is going to be funded as their budgets are being almost universally cut. Curators have even been laid off by the Met and the Getty. In addition there is a view that, courtesy of the net, much of the work of curators can now be undertaken from their desk rather than traveling the world researching and organising exhibitions, so if anything, fewer curators are needed. The discrepancy partly seems to come from the fact that the data was gathered pre GFC and was predicated on museums remaining financially healthy and visitor attendance good.

Are museums the lesser for the diminution of the role of curator? Certainly their internal knowledge base is less, but the reality is that it is all a numbers game these days, and if directors do not need specialist curators to keep the visitors coming through the doors, then the curators will get sidelined.

1 comment:

  1. The comment about 'some resistance to professionalisation ' is interesting. This can be seen in the job ads for curators for some institutions where the academic requirements are only a degree in history, art history, etc. While these are important, the skills learnt on a good museums studies course would equip a curator with a wider set of skills to become an accomplished curator much more quickly.