Sharon Heal

Whither the curator?

Sharon Heal, 13.07.2012
A debate at the Social History Curators' Group conference
At the Social History Curators’ Group conference yesterday there was a debate around the motion: “Visitors are the new curators”.

Speakers for the motion were Jonathan Wallis from Derby Museums and Art Gallery and Annika Joy from the Science Museum and against were Piotr Beinkowski from the Our Museum Project and Tracy Ann Smith from the Diversity in Heritage Group.

I was confused at first that Beinkowski and Smith were arguing against the motion. Until of course I realised that they weren’t actually against the idea of visitors curating exhibitions – they just didn't think it was happening much yet.

According to Bienkowski museums have not managed to give participants any real authority, despite years of trying in some cases. His view is that this is because of short-term funding for co-production projects and also because of resistance from some in the leadership of museums.

But it’s not just museum directors that don’t want the visitors taking over, curators and others who work in museums often have a problem ceding control to the public.

This sort of “public-phobia” was an undercurrent of the debate at the conference. Although nobody on the top table mentioned getting rid of curators, speaker after speaker from the floor jumped to the defence of the role.

Which is revealing. An on the whole progressive section of the museum profession who are generally switched on to the participation and access agenda are still wary of giving up control of their galleries.

And yet, as a few people pointed out in the discussion, this is often done without restrictions or any reservations if the member of the public concerned happens to be a “celebrity” artist ie Banksy or Grayson Perry.

The reality is that curators make choices not just about what gets displayed but also about who else gets to choose. And restricting the debate to “visitors” rather than the public as a whole further constrains who can have a say in the galleries.

An interesting example of giving up a bit of control happened to be on display near the conference at Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales.

The Exhibitionists is based on a BBC Cymru programme of the same name (still available of iplayer). The basic premise is that members of the public (a florist, a student, a carer, a retired carpenter and a factory worker) are pitted against each other in a reality TV-style show with the prize of creating their own exhibition at the end of it.

The resulting exhibitions confirms that curators and directors have nothing to fear from letting the public in – the two final contestants have created shows that challenge, stimulate and excite. The labels are witty, informative and engaging, the art works are meaningful and the hang is dramatic and attention-grabbing.

Oh, but maybe that is what some curators fear – that if you let the public have a go they might do a better job of it?


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Vanessa Trevelyan
MA Member
Director, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service
22.08.2012, 15:52
I agree with Oliver and feel that we should not anguish about this too much. We have nothing to fear from engaging the public in using the collections to tell diverse and interesting stories. Curators are vital, not just to initiate and facilitate interpretation, but to carry out all the other responsibilities that mean that collections are acquired and preserved. I think that a real problem is that there is too little research into what the public wants to see in our museums. There is plenty of summative evaluation of displays or services that have been provided, and this helpfully informs future developments. But there is less summative research that really drills down into what people are interested in and how they would like those stories to be told. In Norfolk we try to do this before major museum developments and are regularly surprised and impressed by what the public actually wants to see and how they want to experience it. On the other hand, I think it is also our responsibility to share our enthusiasm with others, as we may stimulate an interest that they hadn't anticipated.
Oliver Green
MA Member
15.08.2012, 18:58
I don't know what arguments were deployed in this debate, but there is surely no genuine polarised issue here. Of course museums should be open to the suggestions and involvement of external groups and individuals in curating exhibitions and activities, particularly if they are local museums wanting to represent their communities' concerns and interests. On the other hand it is ducking your responsibility as a curator to just throw open the doors and say OK you do it to anyone who wants to have a go. It's the equivalent of saying if you don't like the way your child's school is run, come and do it yourself. Anyone can do it, you don't need a recognised professional teaching qualification, training or even any particular skills. Surely nobody in the museum sector wants to go down that road? I just don't believe that this 'undercurrent of fear' you identify in museum directors, curators and educators 'losing control' to their public even exists. There is a very real threat to curators' jobs of course, but it's not from a demanding public denied involvement by an elitist group of professionals. It's from local authorities who sadly no longer put much value on public funding for arts, culture and heritage. Museums are under stronger pressure than ever to demonstrate that they are offering an important, relevant and inclusive public service with which anyone can get actively involved, but they should definitely not hand over their responsibilities to anyone. Let's not get distracted and shoot ourselves in the foot here.