Curating the Curator 1 – Engagement

Ask A Curator - what is engagement all about?
Anyone seen a Curator?

I have been wanting to write about curators for an absolute age, I have been collecting anecdotes, chatting to curators, observing behaviours, studying and watching. I feel like some obsessive anthropologist tracking down this rare breed. My interactions with them logged and photographed, their stories preciously recorded, the realisation comes too late that I chose the wrong career path. Now that I have written that down, I realise it is the first time I have said it to myself, I won’t be saddened by that fact. I have discovered how I love to write, so I can write about curators even if I can’t be one.

My delay comes from not knowing where to start, there are a hundred jumping off points, lots of angles to look at. I can’t put all these thoughts into one blog, my blogs are far too long as it is. So I have decided on a solution, an occasional series, I have the first three in mind already. So the first will be on ‘Engagement’, it has been inspired by one curator in particular who has made me think about engagement in a whole new way.

There is another reason for struggling to put my thoughts down, who am I to comment? I am not a curator, what right have I to say what is good and what is bad. Well, I guess I can’t, but I can say what I like, I can say what has inspired me, I can waffle on about my thoughts, if something coherent comes out of it and I don’t offend anyone then maybe it will have been worth it.

So this blog has really been ignited by Paolo Viscardi Extreme Curator at the Horniman Museum, but before I can talk about the perils of undertaking hot yoga in your work clothes, I want to touch on what a curator means to me and how my perception has changed the more time I have spent in museums. Before I started volunteering in museums, I had very little interaction with museum curators although a fair amount of interaction with museums. We might drop into a museum with the kids – no curator, we might take part in a half term or summer activity with the kids – no curator, I might go to an exhibition – no curator.  They are hard to track down this uncommon sight, but I can see where they have been, they leave a trail and an imprint: their exhibitions; interpretation; and object selection. If I were truly to hunt down the curator, this is where I would begin, dust for their personality, as individual as a fingerprint left behind in galleries and glass cases.

Hey! Have you seen any curators?
Hey! Have you seen any curators?

Of course if I really want to see a curator, I can go to an organised talk, but to be honest with three kids, one still too young for school, I struggle to find the time. I am lucky to get to an exhibition, let alone at a time when there is a talk going on. Since I have been volunteering in museums I have had more involvement with curators, I have been taught and inspired, challenged and intrigued. I want to know more, I really want to see how an individual, their passion and knowledge can shape the museum experience.

If you try to define what a curator is, then you quickly become a bit unstuck, it is very easy to slip into stereotypes. Before I worked in museums I would say a curator was someone who looks after stuff and is very knowledgeable about that stuff. I don’t think I would have said it is their role to share the objects and knowledge with others. I won’t spend too long on definitions (that will be another blog!) but the role and image of the traditional curator in my view is changing but I am not sure I see that because I spend time in museums.

Technology has changed working practices, made some things a lot easier – like engagement, and somethings harder – finding the time and learning the skills to use all the different forms of social media out there. Curator blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, I could go on and on. There are some wonderful channels for curators to engage people with their collections.

Musical adventures at the Horniman
A little bit of musical engagement at the Horniman Museum

It was by following one of these social media channels – Twitter, that I found out about ‘Extreme Curator’ at the Horniman Museum. We love the Horniman Museum, I visited as a child and now take my children, it is a permanent fixture in our family life. But we don’t normally visit their entry fee exhibitions, for two reasons; there is normally enough to do in the museum for free, but also my eldest daughter is autistic and the exhibition gallery space is behind two big closed doors. Anything could be behind those doors, she can’t visualise what is in there and it pushes her anxiety levels through the roof. To be honest I don’t want to pay for a family ticket if we never make it into the actual exhibition. If she gets anxious it is upsetting for her and the whole family, going to the museum is supposed to be about fun and spending time together, she also never forgets bad experiences, if we go and it doesn’t work out, those exhibition doors will always be closed to us.

Lots of touching , no biting
Lots of touching, no biting

‘Extremes’ is the Horniman’s new family friendly exhibition, it offers you a chance to understand how animals and plants survive in extreme conditions. To promote this, Paolo Viscardi, the Deputy Keeper of Natural History, became the Extreme Curator, undertaking challenges in cold, hot, dry and low oxygen environments, all captured in short films and put up on YouTube.

I remember watching the first one filmed at the Icebar in London, thinking Paolo had really missed a trick as I am sure a few vodkas would have warmed him up a bit. When my daughter came in and wanted to see what I was watching, we watched it together, and I explained what was going on and why. From then on she was hooked and wanted to see every one.

Here is engagement working, and it is a beautiful thing. They are short, bite-size informative chunks, they are not dumbing down but not too complicated either. But above all we can access them when and where and as many times as we like and quite simply they are a bit of fun. They are promoting the exhibition in a way that Twitter, a museum website, poster or flyer can never do.

Now if I can just find a perfect match...
Now if I can just find a perfect match…

It was watching the last experiment (trial) in the dark (the experiment was in the dark, I wasn’t sitting in the dark) that I had a little idea of my own. We had all just been to see the Lego Movie and I had just watched this Lego video on YouTube that was, to be honest, so bad it was good, that the idea grew into a little experiment of my own. Perhaps at this point I should say our house in the last year or so has become a haven for Lego. We are all completely obsessed with Lego, it is underfoot, balanced on every surface, at the bottom of the sock draw and down the back of the sofa. I always seem to have a least one Lego figure in my pocket at all times and a Lego invention of some sort or other in my handbag, being so surrounded with the stuff it was probably inevitable my idea took Lego shape.

I decided to create my own Extreme Lego Curator in homage to Extreme Curator, initially I was just going to make one little scene. Cold, a few ice block from the freezer, a Lego man pillaged from my son’s mucky paws, a scavenged pair of legs, a suitable head, easy, how difficult could that be.

Extreme Curator Cold. Copyright Horniman Museum
Extreme Curator Cold. Copyright Horniman Museum
ExtremeLegoCurator - Ice
Extreme Lego Curator – Cold

I know what you are thinking, what an uncanny resemblance! But unfortunately once I had made one all it took was a little encouragement from the Horniman Museum on Twitter and I lost an entire afternoon mucking about with Lego, progressing to Vine videos and fiddling with miniature blindfolds.

Extreme Curator in the environmental chamber at London South Bank University
Extreme Curator – Dry                              Copyright Horniman Museum
Extreme Lego Curator - Dry He is in the oven, Kids! Please don't try this at home!!!!
Extreme Lego Curator – Dry. He is in the oven, Kids! Please don’t try this at home!!!!
Extreme Curator - dark Copyright Horniman Museum
Extreme Curator – Dark                            Copyright Horniman Museum

Finally perhaps my favourite vine video….

It's a tough job but someone's got to do it Extreme Curator - hot (yoga)
It’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it Extreme Curator – Hot (yoga)                                  Copyright Horniman Museum

I think you can tell by the end that I got completely carried away, so much so that I was wrestling with my son to leave the Lego alone as he kept coming up and stealing my little Lego yoga figures. What surprised me by the whole afternoon spent playing with Lego and putting it up on Twitter is how addictive it was, engaging with people, using a medium they perhaps didn’t expect, sharing some fun, being creative. My daughter came home from school and got really excited about the little clips, she instantly wanted to make her own little videos with her sister. When you connect with someone, excite them and surprise them you can see the engagement working right in front of you.

Are we ready to step outside our comfort zone?
Are we ready to step outside our comfort zone?

There is a lot of fun and laughter with Extreme Curator and Extreme Lego Curator but for us there was an unexpected outcome, it helped my daughter prepare for the Extremes exhibition. She began to have an understanding of what it was about and what she might see, and she became very keen to go. I remember sitting in the cafe before we went round, she looked at the poster and read it ” Step out of your comfort zone”. She didn’t understand what that meant, autistic children take things very literally, we explained what your comfort zone would be. Even when the concept was understood she just didn’t ‘get it’. “But why would I want to step out of my comfort zone?”.  Her anxiety was building but we talked about the Extreme Curator videos, about cold, and dark, hot and dry and it helped her understand what the exhibition was about and what she might experience.

Extreme Museum Visitors - Cold
Extreme Museum Visitors – Cold

So we went and we had a great time, we even, after a lot of persuasion, managed to get her to go through the dark section, not once but twice and believe me that is a massive achievement. Our visit was a success and I believe we do have to thank the Extreme Curator a bit for that and Extreme Lego Curator too of course.

My little girl going to extremes
My little girl going to extremes

What this blog has been all about is a plea for curators to keep engaging, I know many curators engage audiences with their collections all the time but sometimes I feel the family audience gets a little overlooked. Learning departments are brilliant, but sometimes there seems a bit of a disconnect between the learning department and the curatorial staff, we often go and get creative but we rarely see a curator at half term and summer events. I want curators to take engagement to the next level, like Extreme Curator and Extreme Lego Curator. Have fun with it whilst never losing the sense of why you do it in the first place, sharing a love, passion and knowledge of collections. It is not all about technology, it can help, but all the technology in the world can’t make up for pure passion and willingness to engage.

When I do track down the mysterious curator I am always blown away by their knowledge and passion, and I want my kids to see it and share in that too. I don’t want them to tell me their life goal is to appear on X-Factor, I want them to see what loving your job is all about and why we should never stop learning. I never want to sound patronising with this blog, if you are doing it already, wonderful, if there is more you could do to engage families directly, have a think. When I see my daughter inspired and learning it is so powerful, she overcomes so much to access museums and if it takes something like Extreme Curator to help her then as far as I am concerned there needs to be an Extreme Curator in every museum.

There is another unexpected outcome to all this.  If you ask my daughter what she thinks curators do, she thinks they hang about in ice bars and walk blind-folded round galleries pretending to be bats, she has learnt a bit about echo location and why we sweat. She can see the personality and the face behind a curator and she has even more of a connection to the Horniman Museum. She even went as far as to comment that the Extreme Curator was cheating by walking round blindfolded in a room he knew rather than a strange environment. Curators, if you have ever had a conversation about being worried over stereotypes, here is the perfect audience for changing that perception. If you show them a curator who is fun and engaging they will carry that with them and be inspired.

I wanted to make Extreme Lego Curator to pay homage to the brilliant engagement work of Paolo Viscardi and the whole team at the Horniman Museum, to show how much we enjoyed Extreme Curator. With this blog I wanted to say why this type of engagement is so important and why the special audience I have in mind must never be over-looked.

Having fun at the museum a day to remember
Having fun at the museum a day to remember


You can find out more about the Horniman Museum here – 

You can find out more about Extreme Curator here –

You can find out more about the Extremes exhibition here –

You can follow Paolo Viscardi on Twitter – @PaoloViscardi and blog http://paolov.wordpress.comoViscardi 



  1. Tinc this is an absolutely wonderful post! It kept surprising me all the way through. The hot Lego is a hoot. You are very clever. And the idea of creating a Lego curator to help autistic and other children orient themselves to an exhibition is brilliant. I don’t know the Horniman but am going to have a look at the link now – the exhibition you mention sounds brilliant with its sensory focus. I can imagine Dylan liking it. I also really enjoyed your opening reflections on career path, writing, blogging etc – so much of it struck chords with me. Thank you! Liz

    • Thank you for your lovely comments. It is funny how you don’t realise how you feel sometimes till you start typing. The Horniman is a wonderful museum, I have just joined their Access Advisory Group to help make the museum more autism friendly, I would really value your opinion/feedback. If you can go when the Hands on Base is open there are some amazing museum objects to handle, and don’t forget to say hello to the Walrus. They have wonderful gardens too, it is a real gem.

  2. Brilliant post. Loved the way you went from the museum, to engaging at home and then back to the museum with your kids. Quite inspiring. Made me appreciate the Extremes exhibition more. Katharine

  3. […] As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity of working on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for the morning news to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! He has been subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title “Extreme Curator” and his own Lego action figure. […]

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