On Monday 13th April, I attended the annual British Museum National Programmes Conference. This year’s topic, “The Curator of the Future” prompted some lively debates. Here are my thoughts and notes from the first part of the day.
I have attended several of the British Museum’s previous National Programmes Conferences, and have always been impressed at the quality and range of speakers. This year’s conference did not disappoint and Katy Swift from their UK Partnership’s team did an excellent job in bringing the day together.
- The Role of the British Museum in Supporting Curators
The conference began with a presentation by Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum. The BM views itself as a “museum of the world for the world”, and takes its responsibility in supporting other museums very seriously. They do so both by acting as a “lending library” for objects but through knowledge sharing, running subject specialist networks, traineeships, work-shadowing schemes and developing touring exhibitions. They are responsible for the Portable Antiquity Scheme, which has just recorded its millionth find from metal detectorists.
However, their ability to supplement local exhibitions and displays is important. Over 2700 objects from their collection were out on loan to other museums last year. Through these displays, more people saw items from the British Museum in locations outside of London than in their site in Bloomsbury. Mr Williams asks of “Tell us what you want and where you want it”.
- The Curatorial Survival Kit
Four presentations were made by a range of speakers about what skills curators need now and will need in the future.
Maurice Davies of The Museum Consultancy compared museums to marketplaces and curators to the traders who work there. He feels a curator’s role is to present the expected and also engage customers with the new and unexpected. The key is communication skills – they need to be able to share their knowledge of their collection with the audience. Maurice feels that specialised roles within museums such as documentation, conservation and learning are positive because they have raised the standard of delivery, but is concerned that the role of “curator” is now made up of the left-over bits. He also raised concern that in some institutions, exhibitions designed by committee without a strong lead and vision from a curator have resulted in dull displays with clear theme or story.
Timothy A. M. Ewin, Senior Curator at the Natural History Museum , presented passionately on the Campaign for Good Curatorship. He cited Museum Association research from 2013 which found that over the past ten years the number of Natural History specialists working in the sector has declined by over 35%, Art curators by 23% and Human History (archaeology, social history and world cultures) by 5%. The Campaign believes “that great museums need good curators and that delivering public benefit is about balancing community engagement and expertise in the objects which represent that community’s heritage”. The inference being that many UK museums are emphasising engagement so much, that collections knowledge is suffering and said engagement is shallower for it.
(I thoroughly recommend visiting the Campaign’s website and reading their manifesto. Mr Ewin mentioned that they are recruiting committee members if you are interested in getting involved).
Bill Seaman, Museums, Arts and Culture Manager for Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS) spoke about the need for change in the sector due to austerity and cuts in funding. There isn’t one solution to this problem, as differences in collections, local needs, politics and funding levels all have a role in finding a solution that works for you. For example, in their recent restructure, CIMS have merged the different specialist curator roles with learning and engagement posts to create general “Collections and Learning Curator” posts.
Bill also raised the issue of new graduates from the many Museum Studies courses being run in the UK. Are students being training in the right skills to fit the job market as it stands now? If so, how can museums and educational institutions work together to remedy this?
Vicky Dawson, Chair of the South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries talked about their museum development offer (the equivalent of SHARE in our region). In particular, she talked about training for mid-level curators who’ve found that the skills they need for their current roles, as well as to move up, have changed. While agreeing with previous speakers that communication skills are important, Vicky stressed that “collections are central to a museum but they don’t look after themselves”. After all, what’s the point of being a museum if you don’t have well-cared for, well-interpreted collections?
The speakers Q&A session which followed became quite heated, both in the role and in comments made on Twitter by the attendees. There is much debate as to the correct balance of collections care/research and audience engagement. Can one person really have all of these skills or do we need specialists? How do we encourage diversity in a sector which already has too many people for too few jobs? Many museums have ceased to have entry-level positions, relying on volunteers, interns and trainees – does this make it harder for people to get onto the employment ladder?
While many of these debates have been raging for a long time, particularly around diversifying the workforce, it seems that no single answer has been found. I find the passion with which people argued encouraging, because it shows how much we all care about the future of our sector.
I will be posting a follow-up blog on the rest of the Conference soon.
~Amy Cotterill, Museum Development Officer