This past Wednesday was International #AskACurator day on Twitter. I had a lot of fun asking curators at some of my favorite museums questions about their collections, their hobbies and their jobs. (Highlight of the day was definitely getting re-tweeted by the Strong National Museum of Play a.k.a. my favorite children’s museum in all the world.) It also made me think about the term “curator.” Curator is pretty much the first job that comes to mind for anyone outside the museum field. I know when I tell anyone that I’m in Museum Studies, they always come back with “Oh, so you want to be a museum curator!” It’s something that’s perpetuated by things like #AskACurator day, though I think it’s a great event, why couldn’t we also have #AskAnArchivist, #AskAMuseumEducator, or #AskAMuseumDirector days? What is it about curating that makes it the most widely recognized museum position?
I started my investigation with a simple google search for the definition of the word “curator,” and got this:
I don’t think that this basic definition really does it justice. Digging deeper, another basic vocabulary website manages to give it a little more depth: “A curator is someone who manages an art collection or exhibit. The kind of artwork a curator manages does not have to be the visual kind. You can curate a series of readings by selecting which authors read in it and who reads together. A curator is the person who gives the overall shape and feel to an art exhibit.” So essentially, a curator is the person who has the power to give a group of things, their shape. In a museum, this means that the curator is the person who chooses the objects, and puts them together in a visually compelling and stimulating way. In essence, a curator is a storyteller.
Collections managers and registrars organize and record the objects in a collection, development officers raise funds and interact with members, educators teach and bring educational experiences to adults and children, and marketing and digital teams promote the museum, but the curators are essentially the ones who get to decide which stories the museum tells. That is one reason, I think, they are among the most recognized and admired professions in the museum field.
Stories told in museums (usually by curators) can also relate back to the world of digital technology. In “Is a Museum a Database?: Institutional Conditions in Net Utopia” by Mike Pepi, he discusses the importance of narrative in museums as opposed to databases. “The museum both requires and produces narrative, while the logic of the database eschews narrative in favor of ordered, efficient, end-user retrieval.” Museums are vibrant places of scholarship, discussion, and education. The use of stories and narrative to contextualize their collections is something that differentiates them from the cold machine processes of a database. Instead of spitting out answers based on an algorithm, a museum can weave fantastic object-based narratives that keep people coming back again and again.
A great example of this difference is #AskACurator day. When you ask a question directed to a museum curator on twitter, a human crafts a personalized response. On Wednesday, the curators answered questions from their audiences, often including context in the form of photos, links, and anecdotes. While you could, of course, google “What is the weirdest object on view at the Van Gogh Museum,” you only get a bunch of semi-related links that google has collected for you. If you ask this question to a curator at the Van Gogh museum, you get a beautifully woven story of intrigue. Overall, it is a perfect illustration of how technology (twitter) can connect person to person, and audience to story teller.