Written by Matthew Parkes, Assistant Keeper, National Museum Ireland
I am a geological curator and proud of it. As a curator, I work in a museum and I look after ‘stuff’! My job happens to be geological collections because that is what I trained for and what I understand and know intimately from years of working with them. My curator colleagues look after other things, each with their own expertise in different collections. There, in plain language that anyone should be able to understand, is a definition of what the term curator means.
I get very annoyed with the misappropriation of the term ‘curator’ and even worse, the abuse it suffers. The streets and the clubs and the festivals and cultural spaces are clearly filled with wannabee curators. I can only assume that they adopt a ‘curator’ cloak for the authenticity it presents. I believe the public generally hold museum curators as a neutral, trustworthy source they can rely on.
Selecting a few tunes to be played together is being a DJ, not ‘curating’ a concert. Getting a few bands together again for an outdoor music gig is not ‘curating’ a festival, however legendary they may be. The range of artistic, cultural or literary events and even culinary things that are now ‘curated’ is so horrendous that I have to blot them out of my mind.
Broadening this discussion a little (well strictly speaking, I guess it’s more of a monologue), how did we end up with such a plethora of job titles for curators? Of course, there is more to it – my own official title is Assistant Keeper Grade 1. Traditionally the Keeper was in charge of a department and assistant keepers had their specialisations to look after. Perhaps it seemed anachronistic when new titles started popping up and perhaps Collections Manager or Collections Assistant seemed exciting?! The specific roles that developed had then to have their own title to attract people- Conservator, Documentation Officer, Collections Interpreter, or such like. Add ‘Assistant’ to the end of any of these titles and you can pay less and still get well-qualified people such is the attraction of working in a museum. Do we really need such a proliferation of names for essentially the one role of a curator?
In my mind, a geological curator should be capable of turning their hands to a wide range of activities related to the collections they care for. Some basic preparation of fossils; straightforward cleaning, consolidation, and conservation of specimens; a full range of documentation skills; public engagement and educational activities; publishing authoritative research; investigating collection histories and media activities should all be potential activities a geological curator could be involved in. Often this will depend on the size of the museum and the range of staff employed to cover all these areas. The problem as I see it, is the larger the museum and the more focused each curator becomes, the more silos develop and exclusion from a fuller, more rewarding role becomes accepted. Even if 90% of the time is highly focused on curating specific collections, each curator should be given 10% to flap their wings and do some public engagement activities, or research, or media work, or whatever will keep them fulfilled within the whole team.
I do not follow the idea made in some larger museums of having researchers who have nothing to do with collections and Collections Managers who are not allowed to research the very collections they care for. Maybe for very senior, very expert people with a curating career under their belts it may be a luxury to allow them to complete research projects, but surely the collections-spade work can still be done through training-in a younger generation under direction? But as a general approach to running a geological or natural science museum it must surely be counter-productive.
If you ever want to assess the likelihood of political or other events, you can be sure the bookies will have an opinion, translated into a number. If you want to get a measure of how significant anyone outside of museums views all these different job titles, an interesting measure is looking at the different employments in categorised lists for things like insurance. I am merely classed as a ‘museum attendant’ as far as my insurance company is concerned and that is the only category for anyone working in a museum!
So, to try and descend from my soapbox (well it is my last opportunity as Chair of GCG) I want to promote the Geological Curators’ Group as the group that brings all our varied roles and diverse job titles together in an umbrella of geological curators. Without prejudice, GCG welcomes anyone working or interested in geological collections and tries to build the profession through providing a network, as well as training and support. If you are reading this but are not a member, then please seriously consider joining. The more of us there are, the better we can champion the collections and the curators who understand them best, against the myriad of threats. Make no mistake, geological collections are seriously under threat everywhere.
And finally, coming up on the 10th and 11th December is our annual conference and AGM titled ‘How can we make our precious collections available to researchers?’. We are looking for a broad dialogue in order for curators to better understand researchers’ needs and for researchers to recognise the immeasurable value of collections available to them in our museums. We also want researchers to appreciate their responsibilities to secure important material they collect and how easy that can be if they engage with curators. So be a part of this meeting if you can. Offer a talk or a poster on a case study from your own experience. And it can be about a bad experience as well as a good one! Hope to see you there!