Curating the Curator 2 – Image


What is a curator? I have been reading a lot about curators recently, and coming hot on the heels of Ask A Curator day on Twitter, it feels the right time for another post on that most intriguing of museum artefacts – the curator. My first post in this series was all about Curator Engagement and was inspired by Extreme Curator, that particular episode spawned a whole Lego curator alter ego which you can read about here. No Lego this time I promise, instead I am linking curators with something equally as surprising and a little bit different – gardening – bizarre I know, but I hope by the end it will all make sense.

At the last Museum Showoff I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mark Carnall talking about the Art and Science of Curation. It was a brilliant, short, powerful thought bubble that popped in my face, a comparison of art curators and science curators, how they differ, what they do well, what they don’t and how they could learn from each other. I hadn’t really thought about the difference before to be honest and I found myself suddenly seeing the curator as a breed with different species that way back in time may have had a shared common ancestor. Now the branches of art and science curation have found themselves pulled apart, spread across the evolutionary spectrum (both highly evolved before we get into anything derogatory).

Everyone loves a show off
Everyone loves a show off

Thanks to Mark’s talk I have found myself at the University of Cambridge website, it is their project – “Curating Cambridge – our city, our stories, our stuff” that has spawned this debate on what it means to be a curator. There is a whole series of thought-provoking posts from different curators on different aspects of curation and I recommend you read them for yourself.

I should perhaps say at this point for anyone new to my blog that I am not a curator, just an interested bystander. I see a career I could/should have taken at some point in my dim and distant past. Now it is much more fun to pontificate on the role of curator, to be honest I just love their passion and knowledge. I have been completely sucked in, curators are like honey to me, (golden and sticky, not really). My encounters with them leave me always wanting more, their knowledge is a sweet gift.

Katy Barrett, Curator of Art, pre-1800, Royal Museums Greenwich, talked of nurturing an audience, colleagues and collections. Tim Knox, Director of the FitzWilliam Museum, talked about a varied career path, it is no longer about one role for a lifetime but skills learnt and transferred to different settings. I love the post by Robin Osborne, Director at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, he talked of the curator’s job to maximise the impact of an object, through imparting knowledge and breaking down barriers.

Museum of London curator engaging with volunteers, planting the seeds
Museum of London curator engaging with volunteers

So what is the art of curation? In today’s world anyone can curate, this term has become ubiquitous, particularly with what the internet offers. Danny Birchall, Digital Manager at the Wellcome Collection talked in his post on the Art and Science of Curation website, of something much more than just taste and selection. To me, I see it as an alchemy, some kind of natural inherent ability. Of course there is training and honing of skills, after all anyone can create art but to be an artist, to be a true curator there is something deeper and something indescribable. And the science? What is the formula to become a curator, the necessary elements, the fundamental knowledge, the sound basics and combined elements that make up the curator?

The Art and Science of Curation project seems to me to be bound up a lot in the curator image, not only the internal self-image but the external public facing one too. A lot of this conversation has come from a desire for curators themselves to understand who they are and where they are headed. They are moving away from the staid, dusty in-a-role-for-a-lifetime persona to a younger version of themselves (or perhaps I’m just getting older) with a new armoury of weapons, the internet a bright shining sword to slash through the barriers that Robin Osborne talked of.

For all this talk of change, the curator role is still incredibly difficult job to get: the opportunities are few and far between; the competition for roles; the financial constraints; lack of opportunity to learn on the job; an expectation of having mountains of experience, and a dedication to a life of study that is onerous even for the eternal student. The tech advances in museums make it a time of incredible opportunities, that offer amazing possibilities for engagement for those who can grasp the fast paced changes. It feels like curators are striving to understand themselves, they must tackle their self-image before they can hope to project what that new definition is to everyone else in the world around them.

You don't need to look far to find a librarian stereotype
You don’t need to look far to find a librarian stereotype

As an ex-librarian I understand this problem. There is an all encompassing public stereotype, but no librarian has a typical role anymore just like a curator. The public have this set view of twin-set and pearls, a ‘shhhhh-ing’, glasses wearing, maiden aunt. But technology has massively changed the role, scope and opportunities for librarians. There are massive challenges and threats, librarians have struggled to understand where they are and where they are heading, they need to do this before they can hope to project that image externally.

I have tried hard to formulate a fresh image of curator in my head from the experiences I have had with them. In the past I have talked about the role of engagement as just one aspect. But image is a tricky thing to grasp, then one night I couldn’t sleep, as I sat up with a cup of cocoa I wrote a rough post about curators as gardeners with museums as their gardens. I thought I had actually dreamed it until I noticed my scribbled, cocoa stained notes in the morning, this may have been pie in the sky thinking but was good fun all the same so I will relay my thoughts to you in this post.

Grow Your Own Curator?
Grow Your Own Curator?

There is an alchemy to gardening, for those who don’t garden you may not believe this but it is true, anyone can garden but to be a great gardener there is much more to it. An innate skill, not just about a combination of knowledge and experience, knowing what plants do well where, it is about bringing out the best in a garden (museum) and there is an art to it.

Gardeners can care for a small window box, just as curators can be the only employee in a small museum, but that window box can be perfectly formed, well-loved and thriving. The gardener/curator does it all, the planting, watering, the worrying, but there is beauty in that small, bright, colourful oasis. You may not know it is there, you may have to make sure you look up and seek out that window box, but when you find it you are blessed with a moments joy and pleasure.

Then there is the medium-sized suburban garden, there are more plants, the gardener/curator has knowledge of lots of plants/objects, they occasionally get in outside help/expertise to cut down a big tree, a curator may get in a conservator to work on an object, but they are generally doing it on their own. Long days, hard work, but ultimately worth it. They understand seasonal plants like temporary exhibitions, they know how similar coloured flowers/objects will work together, they also know contrasting colours and size/objects well planted and pruned will bring out the best in each other too.

Great curators can make beautiful things grow
Great curators can make beautiful things grow

Finally, to the large great gardens, to Wisley and Audley End. They have many gardeners, each with their own specialism and experience, just like large museums with specialist curators. They may only know of roses or wisteria, they may be the keeper of the great vine at Hampton Court, caring for a 230 year old living history, but their knowledge, passion and expertise is unsurpassed. There are many gardeners working together, like a great museum, such as the British Museum or the V&A, their skills come together to make a beautiful, living organic wonder, ever-changing and enticing. You can get lost in a great garden, like a great museum and on every visit see something new.

What happens when a garden/museum is neglected? There is no curator or (heresy I know) the curator isn’t very good. The garden/museum becomes neglected, the flowers, the inherent beauty, the stories become inaccessible, the grass grows too tall, the weeds thrive. Everything is cluttered, there is no space for the pants to grow, to shine and ultimately no one wants to come and visit.

As you can see I’ve really got into this analogy, but where it falls down slightly is the engagement, for me it is central and crucial to everything a curator does. If you don’t share that passion and knowledge with every audience, young and old, then what is the point? Then I thought about the really good gardeners, they do share their knowledge and expertise. In small gardens it can simply be to daughters and sons, I inherited a love of gardening from my mum. I have seen my mum lead my little boy round her garden with a watering can, the knowledge and skill beginning to be passed to a new generation. The great big gardens at Kew, the heritage gardens, they have interns and trainees, skills are shared on what soil works best with which plants, how best to keep pests at bay (something both professions share!). The knowledge is passed on so plants/objects are cared for and the gardens/museums maintained.

Great gardeners share their passion, they are eternally seeking more knowledge, they are never content with what they have already learnt, they visit gardens in other countries like good curators who are eternally seeking out new places, best practice and inspiration. Sometimes the knowledge shared by a curator is like a seed or a cutting give by a gardener to a friend. That seed or cutting when taken and transplanted is like an idea, it is a kernel of knowledge, with the right water, sun and attention it can grow and become the basis for a new gardeners’ passion.

What am I trying to say with my late night ramble through a curators garden? If we take it down to brass tacks, curators to me are like an Alan Titchmarsh or perhaps a Charlie Dimmock (!). Image is everything and it is nothing at all. What is a curator? Why nothing more than a gardener.

Image is everything
Image is everything


You can read up on the Art and Science of Curation at the Cambridge Museums website – 


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