Abusing Curators

Punctuation has never been a curatorial strength.

UPDATE: We are pleased to see that Ms. Northup’s original post has been put back up.

We curators are having a bitch of a time lately. First, artists no longer want us to showcase their work. Then audiences don’t want us between them and the content. And now we are victims of identity theft.

At the same time as some in our profession want us to reconsider our very being, suddenly non-museum people want to be curators. This first came to our attention in an AAM article which extolled the virtues of curating in pop culture and how it can only benefit the profession. Now we’re seeing it on social media sites and retail ads, including Target commercials.

This has has become so endemic that one curator, Lauren Northup from the Hermitage Museum, posted about the general abuse of the word “curator” that’s rampant in today’s society. Her remarks were so well received that she pulled her post. We at Peabody’s Lament do not understand what was so inflammatory about it. All it said was that just because you have a Pinterest (or whatever social media is hip at the moment) account and you collect, caption, and share information that doesn’t make you a curator. Although, that is in large part what some curators do (the other ones can’t be bothered to leave their storage areas and talk to people), it’s not enough.

So what is a curator?

The Merriam-Webster definition is, “one who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.” Not the best definition, but it covers the basics. Of course, it wasn’t always so. From the fourteenth century until the sixteenth century a curator was the keeper of children and lunatics. You have to wonder if by 1700 those curators weren’t pissed that these upstarts were using the word curator incorrectly. However, dictionary definitions do not a profession make.

If the meaning hadn’t changed this would be the collection you’d be curating now.

So what makes someone a curator?

The field itself has no answer since neither AAM nor AASLH have a generally accepted description of what a curator is. Perhaps the broadest definition of curator is: the museum staff person charged with collecting, preserving, and interpreting material culture or art or whatever. Of course, at larger museums they have registrars and collections managers along side curators, to do the tedious collections work and the education department is responsible for actually interpreting the collection for the public. So we’re not sure what curators at these places are, other than middle management department heads. Nevertheless that’s the big places, the exceptions to the rule. Most of us are jacks and janes-of-all-trades doing whatever our job description says we must.

Although some would say you can also tell a curator by his fashion sense.

So again, what defines a curator?

Some curators feel we need to take our job as seriously as a doctor takes his or hers. As has been said many times, just like putting neosporin and a band-aid on someone doesn’t make you a doctor, talking about art and artifacts does not make you a curator.

Do doctors hate when other professions try to steal their thunder?

The doctor-curator similarities are obvious: curators are often called upon to save things that are in danger, we provide the right care so our charges have a long and happy life, and we even borrow the medical profession’s  favorite quote, “do no harm” when we talk about caring for these collections. Indeed, we are just like doctors! Of course, they go through eight years of schooling leading to a license to practice a profession that society recognizes as beneficial.

Still, just like doctors we go to school too. Our education usually includes one or two years of class work leading to a degree in history, art, American studies, art history, public history, anthropology, or museum studies. Like a medical doctor has a medical degree, you would think that a curator would have a curatorial degree, but they don’t because there is no such thing as a curatorial degree.

So there is this and a few others, but if you check out their website (click the image) you’ll these are really degrees in art exhibition and not the full range of curatorial responsibilities.

Besides, you don’t even need a degree to be a curator. There are working museum curators who are all-but-thesis or never even went to grad school.

Perhaps the worst part of all of this is that greedy corporations have stolen the word curator for their own monetary benefit. These capitalist curators are selling something (see Target ad above and and another here). Not like museum curators, who have nothing to sell. It’s well known that curators don’t care about money, allowing them to rise above such petty concerns as financial sustainability or visitation.

The curatorial world view.

While it’s worth spending time worrying about our job titles as much as our job, in some ways all of this arguing over who gets to be called a curator seems misguided. For the first time ever it’s cool to be a curator. We should be happy about that and stop whining like a bunch of self-absorbed geeks bickering over who gets to be the dungeon master.

I’m a real curator and you posers can just get outta here!

So really, what MAKES someone a curator?

As we’ve seen being a curator is not dependent upon a narrow but universal definition, education, or intent. Instead, like other important, unregulated professions such as writer, editor, prostitute, artist, reality tv star, farmer, philosopher, baker, pornstar, blogger, and socialite,  you are a curator if that’s what other people call you (or you self-employ).

Nevertheless, while we don’t understand why Ms. Northup removed her post, we are glad that she and so many others have taken up the mantle of defense of our professional pretensions. Even if nobody else values us, at least we value ourselves.

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About T.H. Gray

T.H. Gray is the self-appointed court jester and Dr. Demento for the history museum field. A lifelong museum professional and reenactor, he is a graduate of the prestigious Peale-Barnum Public History Museum Studies Program. Until 2011, when the AHS hired him away, he was on staff at the Benjamin Dover Memorial Museum & Swimming Pool ("Our History is All Wet!"). He remembers when museums were still about history, science, and art. BTW, all of these posts say they are by T.H. Gray because he can't turn off the byline. Credit, when due, is given. View all posts by T.H. Gray

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