Thursday, July 22, 2010

Curators and declining acquisitions

“Curators are becoming a declining species” is a frequent refrain amongst museum professionals these days (see my previous blogs on curators and curatorship), the most visible effect of which is diminishing curatorial scholarship within museums.

So it was interesting to come across a series of interviews with six curators in a recent edition of the UK Museums Journal. As if to emphasise the declining nature of their position, all had been selected as they were either about to retire or had already retired. Between them they picked up on some of the essence of what curators used to do (and therefore what is being lost), such as:
  • Intimate knowledge of collections which never gets into publications and indeed often remains in curators’ heads
  • Narratives that weave together often disparate strands of a museum’s collection that explain how it has come to be
  • Anecdotal information on the museum’s history and gossip about staff, trustees and acquisition stories (not quite sure why this has been the preserve of curators but thus it has been).
But out of the interview comes also a clearer understanding of why it is that they are no longer the fundamental cornerstone of a museum’s staff profile. This includes:

  • Widespread introduction of computer-based cataloguing which has resulted in a discipline in collection management that now relies less on what curators used to keep in their heads 
  • Diminution in acquisitions, so that collecting has almost become a forgotten art, when it used to be the very soul of curatorship.
And it is the latter issue of acquisitions which in my view has most affected the role of curators. Whilst the process of exhibition development, once the prerogative of curators, has been increasingly overtaken by museum educators and designers, acquisitions can still only be undertaken by curators. But if acquisitions are not happening through lack of funding, then inevitably the role (and prestige) of curators becomes less fundamental in museums. A recent survey in the UK of 276 museums revealed that only 2% said collecting was their highest priority and 50% said they had no money allocated at all for collecting. That of course does not mean they will not be collecting at all, as so called “passive” acquiring, i.e. acquisition by donation, still ensures collections can be boosted. But it does strike to the core of what curators used to do, namely the active hunt for acquisitions and the funds to spend on them.

It reflects the very different nature of museums in the 21st Century, where they are all about making collections accessible and interpretable compared to the 19th and first half of the 20th Centuries when they were about acquiring collections. And whilst this may not affect the great art and history museums, it is more problematic for contemporary art and social history museums, which by their very nature must keep collecting to be relevant.

None of this sounds too good for curators, so what is their future? My view is that although their role is in decline, they will not die out altogether. The facts are that although the way in which museums are now run may have a primary focus on the delivery of information about the collections and that therefore the public program/education/ design professionals and their colleagues in the IT department may currently top the popularity poles in museums in the way that curators used to, someone still has to be able to provide the back ground knowledge. Now some of this can be contracted out to academics, but depth of knowledge of the museum’s collections beyond the level that the database can provide will still be required. So hang in there curators – some of use still know how valuable you are!

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

1 comment:

  1. Great post. You may find my paper interesting