Friday, November 20, 2009

Curators in the 21 Century

It was called "The Romance and the Reality: Curating at Small Museums" and the title drew me right away. The session description in the NEMA conference booklet helped, too:
The romantic view of a curator is often one of a scholar researching and studying his or her collection, organizing exhibitions, publishing catalogs, and presenting all of it to the public in the museum setting—oftentimes, nothing could be further from the truth. Join three Nantucket curators, from three different museums, as they lead a roundtable discussion of the reality of the curator’s role in the 21st century. This discussion will be particularly useful to new curators but all are welcome.
When I first decided to go to grad school and earn my master's in museum studies, I was not sure at all what area on which I wanted to focus. Until I began work at Strawbery Banke in May of 2007, I had never actually been paid to work in a museum, as such. I had worked in my undergraduate college's archives and interned at a national historic park, but I didn't have a strong sense of the different types of jobs available in a museum or what path I wanted to follow.

In the winter of 2008, I began an internship with SBM's curatorial department, which led to a part-time position as a curatorial assistant for close to a year. This was a wonderful experience for me, as the folks in that department are both eminently knowledgeable and extremely approachable. I then went on to intern for about nine months in the curatorial department at the USS Constitution Museum. Again, this was a great opportunity to work with very smart people at a very cool museum.

Now, I work one afternoon a week as the Curator at New Castle Historical Society, manage the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear houses (which involves some light curatorial work), and, in my unrelated role as Program Coordinator, observe the curatorial activities at Haverhill Historical Society.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I'd like to think that in the last few years, I've gotten a pretty good sense of how curators operate in New England museums. And what that NEMA panel discussion and my own experience have proved is that no two curatorial positions are exactly alike. This is a role that shifts and moves depending on the museum. However, one of the themes of the panel was the definition of the role. It will change as we move more into a world of online exhibits and sensory interactivity and new technology. The important thing, all of the panelists seemed to agree, is that curators take an active part in defining their new roles.

We must embrace the ease of access inherent with online exhibits, while fiercely protecting the idea that there is no substitute for seeing the actual object. We must continue to produce fine scholarship on the artifacts of our past, while acknowledging the breakthroughs of the present and the future. Above all, one panelist pointed out, we must (to some degree at least) break out of our mold as the omniscient experts and learn to learn from visitors and others something about what we hold in our collections.

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