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You are here: Browse by Practice New Perspectives OpenCulture 2012 Provocation: 'In Defence of the Curator' by Dr. Tim Ewin

OpenCulture 2012 Provocation: 'In Defence of the Curator' by Dr. Tim Ewin

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The last 20 years has seen a marked decline in collections specialists employed in museums. Within the sector, just defending curators can be met by a torrent of criticisms and ridicule. Indeed, curators have often been their own worst enemies and received justified criticism for segregating themselves. However, there are numerous reasons for this decline although a reduction in heritage funding is not the only reason.

Rightly or wrongly other reasons centre around:

• Other areas of heritage work being promoted as higher priorities
• Perception that collections knowledge is an unaffordable “luxury”.
• The characterisation of all curators as being unable to deliver within the modern museum and an assumption that they cannot be trained to make their knowledge available to benefit museums.
• Less objects being used for outreach and display and those that are, are interpreted in a less academic style.
• Object knowledge can be retained by external stakeholders particularly volunteers and/or stakeholders accessing and interpreting collections via online databases (crowdsourcing).
• No provision for collections knowledge in models of best practice for collections management and care, particularly in accreditation and designation.
• Absence of training in museum studies courses about how object knowledge can be used.
• Advent of computer databases enabling collection access without the need for specialist knowledge.
• heritage organisations broadening their interpretational perspectives has led to a belief that an expert perspective is just another point of view.

With all this going against the retention of knowledge within organisations, it is perhaps understandable that curators have been reduced. “So what”, has been most other heritage professionals reactions. Museums are now more visited than previously, we have lots of surveys demonstrating visitor satisfaction, websites are highly utilised and bright shiny new displays and rolling temporary exhibitions get these people visiting again. I have no doubt that all the above has been a much needed improvement but has getting rid of curators really enabled all this? My fear is that by distancing museums from detailed subject and collections knowledge we are losing one of the fundamentals of why the public funds heritage organisations and really why museums exist; to preserve and educate communities about their heritage in as much detail as possible.

The steady decline in knowledge based posts has occurred without any consideration for what the loss of this knowledge actually means and I am unaware of anyone even trying to quantify what curatorial cover British collections require. There are also damaging consequences for organisations and their communities to the loss of this knowledge. These are:

• a much lower quality experience for the visitor as important stories and interesting objects are missed, poorly displayed or poorly interpreted as true value goes unrecognised.
• inefficient collections management as there is little thorough understanding of a collections importance making an objective programme of prioritisation impossible (other than just document everything).
• inability to effectively develop an organisations collections, so leading to important opportunities to acquire important parts of a communities heritage being missed, leading to organisations becoming irrelevant.
• inappropriate use of collections for their long-term survival.
• objects becoming less accessible intellectually as they only appear on a database or are inadequately interpreted thereby increasing the gap between collections and the public.
• Irreplaceable loss of knowledge about the heritage of the community the organisation is supposed to be serving.

So how can organisations benefit from having a deep knowledge of their collections? Well, curatorship gives museums their unique value, it is the basis of the public understanding of what we do and without it, none of the rest of the museum’s functions can be as effectively delivered. Thus:

• Displays and outreach can be made more engaging and relevant, thereby increasing audience engagement and visitor numbers.
• Collections management can be carried out more effectively as priorities for care and development can be made making the organisation more relevant to its community.
• Utilise collections responsibly ensuring maximum access to communities heritage without compromising the objects future stability.
• enables better accessibility to collections and empowers the public to find authoritative answers to questions about their heritage. Thereby meeting public expectations and demands.
• Enables organisations to meet their obligation to safeguard the heritage of the community they serve.
• Can provide a knowledgeable ambassador for the organisation.

Museums are ineffective, in the long-term, without employing staff with both detailed knowledge of the collections and practices to manage and utilise the collections. Effective integration of these two skills groups reaps huge benefits and thus, a more balanced approach between collections knowledge and museological demands than is currently being promoted, needs to be found to ensure the long term success and sustainability of all museums. Heritage organisations may not want to call these people curators and not everyone in a museum should be an academic but many more of those who work with collections should be encouraged to learn about the rich stories in collections they are responsible for as a major part of their role. All staff should be taught the benefits of collections knowledge to their roles. This can only be of benefit to heritage organisations and, more importantly, to the communities they serve.

So, how should we go about changing the current status? Firstly there needs to be a shift away from the boo-hiss negative stereotypes for collections knowledge specialists and instead replace this with a recognition of the huge importance and benefits collections knowledge can bring to all areas of museum work. To do this there needs to be an effective sector-wide organisation which promotes collections knowledge as a priority and champion collections knowledge as an important part of any heritage organisations work. There needs to be an effective training programme about how collections knowledge can be best utilised by organisations to make their work more effective. Both for those with collections knowledge to make this information more readily useable by colleagues and how other areas of museum work can benefit from collections knowledge. The need to provide adequate collections knowledge within museums must also be incorporated within standards of best practice for museums, particularly those regarding accreditation and designation. As without this, museums are failing in their responsibilities towards safeguarding our heritage. Finally museum targets need to be changed to better reflect the need to preserve a community’s heritage through knowledge retention rather than just visitors though a door.

I am not advocating turning the clock back and employing experts without regard for how their knowledge can be used in heritage organisations. I advocate the integration of deeper collections knowledge into all areas of museum work. Deep collections knowledge is not a luxury or an irrelevance in modern museums; it is as important and relevant as ever.

Tim will be further exploring these themes in a lively Q&A session on the 27th June at OpenCulture 2012. OpenCulture 2012 takes place on the 26th and 27th June at the Kia Oval, London. For more information please visit, call 020 7942 6080 or e-mail

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