Greetings! This special edition of Curator’s Corner is inspired by an article recently published in The Guardian, interviewing curators at various UK museums about what exactly they do everyday in their jobs.
Our regular readers of the blog and the monthly newspage know me as the Gott Library’s resident curator and archivist, Rachel Scott. Like many curators at small museums, the various curatorial roles at the Gott are broad and deep, including acquisitions, collections management, exhibit design, and many more. Movies portray curators are erudite professor types with glasses and elbow patches on their wool sports coats, sitting at a desk in an office full of mahogany book shelves and Tiffany desk lamps. But what do curators really do?
Real curators spend much of their time in jeans and work shirts, climbing on ladders in stark windowless repositories, and sitting in preservation labs building custom mounts for oddly shaped artifacts, and cleaning. Lots of cleaning.
Let’s examine a curator’s job through the eyes of a new artifact.
Collecting Parameters: When an educational institutions begins collection artifacts and historical documents, the first decision to be made is what exactly will be collected. This is the primary role of curating a collection. As the article above explains, this does not mean choosing nice things. In the case of the Fauquier Heritage and Preservation Foundation at The John Gott Library, we collect artifacts and documents that provide our visitors with a more complete picture of the history of Fauquier county, including its people, places, and businesses. The intrinsic value, the specific connection to our history, is more important than the monetary value.
Acquisition and Accession: After deciding what artifacts will be collected, the next step is an acquisition. When a new artifact comes into the Library as a donation, the curator will oversee the accessioning of the artifact. Acquiring an object is the official hand-off and transferring ownership (usually involving signing a form and receiving a receipt). An object is then accessioned when it is evaluated by the curator, and detailed notes and photographs are entered into the official record.
Collections Management: After an object has been accessioned, it will be fitted for proper housing. Housing refers to the packing materials that will hold the object (which can be much more complicated than it sounds), and its place within the repository (special storage).
Objects are not collected to merely be hidden away in storage. Collections can be used in various ways, primarily research and exhibition. In both cases, the purpose of the objects in the collection is for education. Research collections are specifically for – you guessed it- research. These collections are more hands-on, and are often utilized for traveling collections (when the curator takes objects to schools and other libraries to provide authentic visual aids to lectures and talks), for analysis (such as carbon dating or chemical analysis), and for individual researchers to access within the Library.
Exhibition: Most objects collected will be exhibited. Curating exhibits a primary role of the resident curator, and involves choosing a theme for the exhibit, establishing the educational goals, and then selecting objects and documents that best achieve those goals. Then, the curator would usually create an exhibit proposal, including what is to be included, all text and labels, lighting, housing, and more. Once the proposal is accepted, installation begins.
Engaging our Visitors: Museums and Libraries are educational institutions, first and foremost. While curating collections and designing exhibits, the curator is constantly seeking further engagement with visitors. We ask ourselves: How do we make our collections resonate with visitors? How do we make it personal? How do we make our collections and our mission relevant? This is the curator’s goal.
In larger museums, the curatorial department is made up of many jobs- Head Curator, Collections Curators and their Assistant Curators, Collections Management, Registrar, Exhibition Design, etc. No matter how many staff members are involved, or how many hats a curator wears, the work is never ending. And we love it that way.