Campaign for Good Curatorship
Museums have a vital role to play in a healthy, tolerant and inclusive society. We believe that all museums need good curators and that maximising public benefit comes from a balance between community engagement and expertise in the objects pertaining to that community’s heritage.
Good curators understand their collections and use this knowledge to improve the impact, value and sustainability of all of the outward-facing functions of the museum. We are inspired by the vision of museums as open, participatory places.
The Campaign for Good Curatorship is an initiative to promote the crucial role of curators and curatorship in making museums and their collections useful, relevant and sustainable for the public benefit. Join this Group to show your support, share your views and connect with other Collections Link users to debate the future of curatorship.
Welcome to the Campaign for Good Curatorship! Our aim is to promote a positive message about the crucial role of curators and curatorship in making museums and their collections useful, relevant and sustainable for the benefit of the public.
What is a Good Curator?
A good curator is defined here as one who is:
- A specialist who is knowledgeable about the collections and their context to the communities they serve.
- Able to recognise the value of their collection and ensure it continues to develop to remain relevant
- Able to make their knowledge freely available to support the work of their colleagues and the wider functions of the museum, particularly with regards to ensuring sustainable use of collections and that this knowledge is continued in perpetuity
- Accountable, open and honest and committed to diversity and inclusivity.
What is Good Curatorship?
The Good Curatorship Campaign seeks to make provision for appropriate levels of curatorial staff a priority within the museum sector, and thereby support the following outcomes for museums:
- Ensure the collections are relevant to the communities they serve;
- Produce more effective exhibitions & outreach that enhance the visitor’s understanding (not just divert their attention);
- Provide more efficient collections management which promotes relevance, sustainability and audience value;
- Deliver on the public expectation that the museum will ensure that objects of cultural significance can be enjoyed by all, both now and for generations to come.
What we are calling for?
- Museums and museum professionals to show their support for this campaign by signing up to this manifesto
- The Department for Culture, Media and Sport to recognise the role of good curatorship in delivering excellent museum services
- Arts Council England to promote curatorship as a tool for supporting engagement in the Museums Accreditation Scheme
- The Museums Association to acknowledge the role of curatorship in their vision for Museums 2020 and in future versions of the Code of Ethics for Museums
- We call on the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to support research into the public benefit of curatorship
- We call on organisations providing Museum Studies courses to teach more effectively the importance of curatorial knowledge in all aspects of museum work
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For those in the London area, you might be interested to know that I am giving a collections management seminar at the Natural History Museum on the campaign. It is at 2.30 in the Flett Theatre on Thursday 26th September. Anyone who works in a museum can attend (have your museum identity with you). You will be able to access the theatre via the staff entrance on Exhibition Road; I.e. not the main entrance off Cromwell Road.
Maurice, I agree with Jenny when she requested an elaboration of what you were asking for when you said "outcome-focused account of the value of preservation". It would be of great help to see examples, a definition or explanation of what you are hoping for, as well as seeing what was provisionally produced for the final cut of Museums 2020 and Museums Change Lives but which was left out because, presumably, it was considered to verbose. Can I also ask; why, if there was so much difficulty getting concise curatorial and preservational based aspects into these two documents, was there not more consultation done? If this content was just left out because it was insufficiently concise, it does not appear to be a very satisfactory outcome, whichever way you look at it (or was there more to it than that?).
Jenny, I totally agree with what you have said regarding acquisitions. I feel that this vital part of museum work has been understudied and underappreciated by the sector for too long.
To avoid clogging inboxes there are a few other things to say:
1. The link to the HRP curators’ communication document does not seem to work. I will attempt to get the content up, however if you would like to get a copy sooner then please e-mail me.
2. The campaign logo will hopefully be changing in the next couple of days. I have felt, since the start, that the "fist" logo does not send out the right message. So, Nick and I have come up with a new one. It is a take on The Vitruvian Man which I feel is appropriate as it is a nice combination of art, history and science coming together to improve our understanding of who we are.
All the best,
The HRP document link below is now working! Let me know what you think!
In response to Maurice, please could you elaborate on what you would consider "outcome-focused account of the value of preservation"?
My feeling was that the public research done for Museums 2020 clearly illustrated that the public understand our core functions as being preservation and the use of collections for learning, but that the MA has chosen to champion a social agenda.
Having explored the relationship between acquisition and the outward/public functions of a museum recently, I found very little research into the relationship between donors (to collections, rather than benefactors) and museums. This is a relationship which is fundamental to many if not most museums, and one which we all implicitly acknowledge and understand, and the starting point for the public trust which underpins our ethical code. Anecdotally we know many donors tend to be older, and don't want to "throw things away" but we've never systematically looked at the number, social background or ages of donors, nor looked qualititaively at their underlying motivations.
Museums 2020 does touch on museums as a social glue but perhaps this is an area for the sector to explore more? With some solid research, it could provide a means of properly articulating the social value of museums? And from there the importance of good curatorship.
I have just uploaded an interesting document produced by the curators at the Historic Royal Palaces. I was wondering what everyone thought of it and if everyone thought it would be a good idea to produce something similar, but more generic for the campaign?
It can be found at: http://www.collectionslink.org.uk/discover/222-advocacy/2005-hrp-curators-team-communication-plan
Just to let you all know that the HRP curators' communication strategy can now be accessed via the aforementioned link.
All the best,
A couple of quick thoughts. I agree with you that museums need, as you say, to be able to express the reasons why society needs curatorship. When I worked on Museums 2020/Museums Change Lives I hoped to be able to describe the beneficial impacts of collections preservation in particular (on individuals, communities, society and the environment). Interestingly, I couldn't find a succinct straightforward outcome-focused account of the value of preservation, nor of curatorship. I'd be interested in trying to work one up. (We do have an advocacy fact sheet called 'Collections Love Museums' which you can find here http://www.museumsassociation.org/campaigns/love-museums/facts-and-figures. It's a few years old and we're planning to update it, but I think a complete update that talks about the impact of collections, curation and preservation would be v useful. All suggestions for brief, outcome focused content from you and others would be very welcome.)
Secondly, you'll note I repeatedly used the word 'curatorship' because I think that's what needs arguing for (rather than 'curators', which I feel runs the risk of sounding protectionist and defensive.)
I'm off abroad for the rest of the week so apologies if I don't reply speedily to your next comment, but I will when I'm back.
Yes we do need to discuss things in greater length. I feel that dialogue would be helpful so long as it does not become polarised. I am sorry that I have so laughably misquoted and misrepresented you! However, I feel that the titles “stupid curators” and “too many specialists” set up a negative characterisation of curators which has rather supported the perceptions given (perhaps unintentionally) in other blogs, conferences, conversations and documents. I am sorry I have misquoted you though and I retract that statement.
I agree that the MA has done some good with regards to curators. The funding for the collections reviews you mention and the “Monument Fellowships” are great but they are just the tip of the iceberg and have not really got any more curators on the ground (The Esmee Fairbairn has put people on the ground but these are only temporary and so the expertise acquired within the individual is often lost). As such, I hope more can be done to reverse the decline. This could start with less implied criticism of curators from yourself and the MA. By, including curatorial skills and knowledge in advocacy documents, areas of best practice and as part of the accreditation scheme, where it is currently lacking/underrepresented, would also go a long way. More needs to be and could be done, particularly with advocacy of the benefits of curators. I would be happy to discuss this further.
Similarly, this is why I have represented “Collections for the Future” in the manner I did. Both you and Mark Taylor have pointed to this document as supporting curators. However, it doesn’t directly do this. This is perhaps not surprising as I don’t think this document was really created to advocate the work of curators (at least I hope it wasn’t). For example, there is no list of reasons why museums and society need curators. So, whilst I may be a bit over critical of it, I think that the MA actually needs to rethink its use of this document as advocacy for curators.
Addressing your final point about expert curation, I feel that I am now in danger of being misrepresented if you are implying that I am naïvely proposing that each museums should resource an expert on every subject represented in the collections. This would indeed be ambitious! The point I am trying to make is that all museums, irrespective of size, benefit from employing someone who knows, in detail, the collection and that this knowledge is key for maximising the potential of a museum service to the benefit of the communities it serves. I guess that is why the MA has funded the collections reviews. However, just storing this information on a database is not sufficient as someone, who can synthesise this knowledge, is needed. Other museum job roles only do this in part. To really get a useful and accessible overview, it is only a curator (or someone who operates in a similar manner) that can provide this invaluable function. Thus, I believe, curators are not a luxury and every museum would benefit from employing one (or more).
I too hope that the discussion will continue. I am sorry if it has got off on the wrong foot and I hope we can put this behind us. It is years of frustration pouring out I am afraid. I hope we can all come together for the greater benefit of the sector.
Good to hear from you. You wouldn't be trying to seduce our users over to the MA site now would you? Of course, it doesn't matter where the conversation happens, so long as it happens. I do wonder whether you're aware of the cumulative impact of your position on Collections on overall perceptions of the MA's stance though? I know that you and Sharon like to be provocative where you can, but provocation is only one tool in the arsenal of moving the sector forward. It is also important to take stock and to celebrate the positive contribution that each part of our community makes, and to take a balanced view on how we move forward.
I note that the new conference at the Leicester School of Museum Studies has just been advertised, and Sharon's talk is 'Curators have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it'. Can you not see how false a dichotomy this is? Or how, by focusing on the journalistic trick of setting things in simplistic opposition to each other, you run the risk of missing entirely the real value of them, which is in their complex interaction? You can change the world by holding it up for understanding and examination, by getting involved in it and not by standing on the sidelines and shouting that it ought to change.
I found it almost impossible to debate you on this at the last MA Conference because I can't accept the polarity - a successful museum is a balanced museum, neither breathlessly open nor exclusively closed. Tony's concerns are serious, and their implications for the long-term credibility of our industry are serious. I wish the MA's overall advocacy for museums was capable of celebrating the full diversity and the full scale of the challenge, and not endlessly reducing it to the simplistic politics of access versus preservation.
Tim, we need to discuss all this at greater length (perhaps we should have a public debate one day?), but we won't get anywhere if you mis-represent what I say and do.
First, surely I never said “all museum problems are the fault of curators”. That's a stupid thing to say and completely untrue.
Second, it's quite untrue the MA has 'actually done very little with regards to' the decline in curatorship. We've enhanced specialist knowledge by, for example, inventing and raiding funding for three rounds of Monument Fellowships, so the expertise of retiring specialists can be sustained by being passed on to their successors. We also raised large amounts of money that has enabled grants for collections reviews, to add to the knowledge of dozens of collections. And we run the Esmee Fairbairn Collections Fund, which has a strong focus on better understanding collections. In fact, in the past decade (and in the past year) we've raised far more money for collections-specialist activity than any other area (including workforce diversification).
Third, you mis-represent Collections for the Future, which has a lot to say about specialist expertise - but it's frankly naïve of you to think you could ever '[resource] expert curation to effectively meet all the requirements on a museum's collection'. In almost every museum that's never been the case and almost certainly never will be, especially at a time of declining funding.
But I'm pleased we're having this discussion and hope we continue. Do come on over to the MA site for the next exchange!
I'm sure that there is a lot of support for museum curators and that people acknowledge the importance of having them care for museum collections, particularly those with a subject specialism. However, I would be very grateful if they opened their mouths and said so publicly. I don't read/hear/see enough of this happening and I think our funders need to hear this from the people who claim to represent us...and sometimes I wonder if they really do (I know they do but it needs to be heard).
Democratisation within the museum sector is great but is has its limits. We can ask the public for their opinion and involve them in a number of processes, it can be useful, fair and inclusive but it isn't always helpful for the collections concerned.
As a museum ethnographer (and there are not many of us left in the UK) the idea of asking members of the public to comment on anthropological collections can be difficult especially when visitors from a nation abroad come from a community who were 'christianised' in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. They have little in the way of making a connection to objects that were made over a hundred years ago for what is perceived to be an un-Christian purpose (I was talking to two ladies from the Congo). This is why it is so important for museums to employ specialists because they are often better connected to 'source' material and community members that will enable us to better understand a way of life that perhaps no longer exists. With this knowledge, specialists can bring out information that has relevance to contemporary issues we want to address in our museums.
Furthermore, specialists have actually done the hard work of doing the research so there is plenty of material for the visitor to benefit from - so long as resources are made available. Get rid of your specialists (and I'm not just talking about ethnographers or those with PhDs) and you affect that important connection visitors get when accessing collections - objects cannot always speak for themselves. Think about the 'voice' in the gallery, where does that come from?
Now let's see...from a recent collections review I needed to find someone who could help me identify and interpret material from a part of NE Africa - so that I can provide access to the material in store. Some of this material I knew was common but others were certainly not. I found two professionals in the UK who were available and in the country who could help me! Since this person's visit I now have crucial information that will allow me to make an intriguing Ethiopian connection with the local synagogue!
When working with the local Hindu community the museum invited residents in to explore items from the collection, in particular, a collection of 19th century mica paintings from Thanjavur (among other items) in southern India. Our guests consisted of both young people and elders. Now some were able to make clear identifications of landscapes and deities represented on the images, which neatly matched with the historical information I had, but with others the residents were debating the matter without any resolution. They were puzzled. The problem was that none of our guests were from Thanjavur and were unfamiliar with the regional art style. So an assumption had been made about local residents - I am not dismissing the significance of power sharing with local residents. They were really pleased to be a part of our work.
I support inclusivity and democracy, I believe that our visitors are our best supporters. However, I want to actually have this same support from those who represent us and especially those who hold the keys to elusive purse strings.
My apologies for the 'rant' but I've been wanting to say something for a while.
I'm sure that there is a lot of support for museum curators and that people acknowledge the importance of having them care for museum collections, particularly those with a subject specialism. However, I would be very grateful if they opened their mouths and said so publicly. I don't read/hear/see enough of this happening and I think our funders need to hear this from the people who claim to represent us...and sometimes I wonder if they really do.
Democratisation within the museum sector is a good thing but is has its limits. We can ask the public for their opinion and involve them in a number of processes, it can be useful, fair and inclusive but it isn't always helpful for the collections concerned.
As a museum ethnographer (and there are not many of us left in the UK) the idea of asking members of the public to comment on anthropological collections can be difficult especially when visitors from a nation abroad come from a community who were 'christianised' in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. They have little in the way of making a connection to objects that were made over a hundred years ago for what is perceived to be an un-Christian purpose. This is why it is so important for museums to employ specialists because they are often better connected to 'source' communities than the general public.
Furthermore they have actually done the hard work of doing the research so there is plenty of material for the visitor to benefit from. Get rid of your specialists (and I'm not just talking about ethnographers) and you affect that important connection the visitor get when accessing collections - objects cannot always speak for themselves.
Now let's see...from a recent collections review I needed to find someone who could help me identify and interpret material from a part of NE Africa - so that I can provide access to the material in store. Some of this material I knew was common but others were certainly not. I found two professionals in the UK who was available and in the country who could help me! Since this person's visit I now have crucial information that will allow me to make a connection with the local synagogue!
I have actually done this same thing when working with the local Hindu community and invited residents in to help me identify some of the deities represented on a collection of 19th century mica paintings from Thanjavur (among other items). My guests consisted of both young people and elders. Now some were able to make clear identifications, which neatly matched with the historical information I had, but with others the residents were debating the matter without any resolution. They were puzzled. The problem was that none of our guests were from Thanjavur and were unfamiliar with the regional art style. So an assumption had been made about local residents.
I support inclusivity and democracy, I believe that our visitors are our best supporters - I have actually heard them say so. However, I want to actually hear this same thing from those above, especially those who hold the keys to elusive purse strings.