How do I measure up against a 1910 recipe for the perfect curator?

In the summer of 2015 Steven Lubar posted a tweet with a screen-grab of a 1910 edition of the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums. This incredibly detailed and demanding set of questions on everything from museum arrangement to fundraising culminated with a requirement for equestrian and nautical skills:

Cue much hilarity among the museum twitterati. (You can find the full version here: Proceedings of the American Association of Museums v.4)

However, the questions stuck in my mind and — finding myself at a point of reinvention — I’ve decided to have a crack at them. I’ve answered some bluntly, adapted a few and side-stepped the odd one. Nevertheless it’s been a fun and surprisingly insightful process. Enjoy!

1: In what schools have you studied?

Newington Green Primary School, The British School in the Netherlands, Drayton Park Primary School, Stoke Newington School, Camden School-for-Girls Sixth Form, Cardiff University, The London College of Communication, The University of Braford, The University of York

2: What degrees have you received?

Batchelor of Science in Archaeology, First Class with Honours
Master of Arts in Mesolithic Studies, Distinction

3: To what scientific organisations do you belong?

Ummm… The Museums Association?

4: State the positions you have held, the duties involved and the length of service.

Shop assistant/manager — Urban Rock, PT/FT 1999–2004: Helped out and eventually managed a busy London climbing shop.

Admin assistant — Maria Montessori Training Institute, FT 2004–2005: Filing, phones, spreadsheets: my intro to the world of office politics.

Site assistant — West Yorkshire Archaeological Services, FT 2009–2010: I dug holes in the cold. It was great. The archaeological coal-face.

Director — Enkyad Heritage Media, FT 2010: We started a company trying to make archaeologically-inspired animations and multimedia. We crashed and burned, it was educational.

Wikimedian-in-Residence — York Museums Trust, PT 2013–2014: I helped YMT open up their collections and knowledge across Wikipedia. Workshops, uploads…

Regional Wikimedia Ambassador — York Museums Trust, PT 2014–2015: This expanded on the last project with a regional focus.

Open Collections Developer — York Museums Trust, PT 2015–2016: To open up a collection, you first have to understand its IPR status. It can be complicated.

E-Communications Assistant — York Museums Trust, PT 2015–2016: Getting YMT’s content out there on the website and through social media.

5: What languages other than English do you know?

Conversational French.

6: In what countries have you travelled?

Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, India, Canada, USA, Mexico, Cuba

7: What have you been interested in collecting?

I have a bunch of masks that I’ve bought or been given (many by my Dad). I’ve deliberately resisted learning very much about them. I like avoiding my habitual nerdiness in one area and leaving them mysterious.

8: What experience have you had in museum work and in what line are you most interested?

The Wikimedia projects and E-Comms role were focused on sharing collections and interpretation through digital channels. But really, I’m an ideas person: I love uncovering the layers of meaning in an object or collection and transforming these into stories that the museum can tell — through text, image, space, light, sound….

I want to be the Don Draper of the museum world (except without misogyny or alcoholism). I see a digital focus to this being an inevitable part of properly planning for 21st century museums.

9: Have you skill in mechanical work, taxidermy, photography or field work?

I can dig a hole, fix a bike, cook a meal, wire a plug? I’m reasonably handy with a camera and a couple of lights as long as the kit isn’t too unfamiliar. I hope to be able to do web development by the end of 2016.

10: In how many of the following have you a working knowledge and what is your speciality — geology, mineralogy, paleontology, archaeology, ethnology, zoology, botany?

I’d like to think I have a Radio 4/NPR level of understanding of most of these. For museums stuff I’d like to add, design, art and social history. Archaeology’s my background but no longer my speciality: I’m happiest trying to distill stories from collections and retell them for larger audiences.

11: Give full list of your scientific publications.

12: What skill do you think you possess as a solicitor for materials and money?

I’ve written successful grant applications. Oh, and lots of unsuccessful ones. When I started Enkyad Heritage Media I chased lots of people for support — not successfully enough for the project to take off but we got a decent amount of support. I’ve won several academic scholarships with projects I co-designed. I’ve also had to broker ideas and projects and get people on board with those.

13: Along what lines should a museum be developed; in other words, what is the purpose of a museum?

Every museum is a space for conversation. Of course this is true in a trivial sense, but what I mean is that the conversation is between the objects in the collection and the visitors (physically and virtually).

14: Name 10 of the leading natural history museums in the world and state the essential character of each.

I’m going to twist this and name of the 10 museums that inspire me most:

  • Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Arktikum, Rovaniemi, Finland
  • Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield, UK
  • Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy
  • National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, UK
  • Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Natural History Museum, London, UK
  • British Museum, London, UK
  • Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA
  • Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA

15: Give titles of the scientific publications issued by three leading museums in America and by three foreign museums.

Nope. How about six great museum blogs?

16: What has been the trend of museum development in America during the past decade?

I’m not going to limit this to America, but I will stick to ‘the West’/developed countries.

The last decade in museums has, to my mind, been shaped by two things:

  • The global financial crisis of 2008 and the fallout for cultural spending by governments and citizens.
  • The rise of the web: more people are better connected. People now expect all institutions to be connected and produce high quality digital output.

However, the world of museums has responded to these shaping forces in a huge diversity of ways. Some, through a combination of risk aversion and traditional methodologies have continued as normal. Some of these have closed — despite great love from their core audiences.
Some organisations (many of these seem to have escaped the worst financial cuts) appear to be thriving partly by transforming their relationship with their audiences. The most successful examples are capitalising on the web as a major channel for this process.

17: Distinguish between (a) the educational and (b) the scientific work of a museum.

In essence this work is divided by two factors: A museum’s confidence in it’s knowledge about it’s collections, and a person’s willingness to pursue questions about those collections.

So, work that is seen as educational depends on a museum being confident in what it knows (an artist’s name, a fossil’s species — the hows and whys of these) and communicating this information accessibly as part of the museum experience.

Scientific work is at the other end of the spectrum: it addresses what is not known (by anyone) about the collections and relies on people making (potentially) huge efforts to make new discoveries.

For me, a modern museum should also be prepared for what happens between these extremes and for facilitating the curiosity and communication that allows as many people as possible to transition between the two. The best museums are researching the questions asked by children on school trips and getting scientists out from behind the microscope to share their passion.

18: Describe the conditions under which a museum should be a conservator of materials and those under which it should be an aggressive agent in educational work.

All conditions. A museum has two resources to sustain: collections and audiences. The strategies for sustaining collections (conservation, documentation and so on) are actually much simpler than the strategies for sustaining audiences. The beautifully frustrating challenge of every museum is to be sensitive to the subtleties of both sets of demands.

19: Has it any other function?

Yes. Whether it wants to or not, every museum is forced to play a social role in the communities it serves. It should make this role explicit and use it to pursue positive changes. Particularly when these communities face challenges.

20: Define the scope of (a) a university natural history museum; (b) a municipal natural history museum; (c) a state natural history museum; (d) a national natural history museum.

I don’t think museums in any of these brackets should definitively limit themselves. However, the collecting legacy, size and funding of these types of institution is likely to vary hugely. You would expect a University museum to put extra emphasis on research and working with enrolled students but that need not be sufficient reason to limit work in other areas.

21: State briefly your views as to the relations which a municipal or state museum should maintain with schools, colleges and special students.

These relationships should be as rich, collaborative and flexible as resources allow. Aim for a situation where students at all levels regard ‘a trip to the museum’ as the most exciting part of their education! Give them opportunities to develop themselves, develop content for their peers and explore the collections.

22: Explain in detail the age, intelligence and occupation of the people to whom a museum should appeal and how it can benefit them.

Whoa… Now we really see the gulf between 1910 and today. Museums should be for everyone. However, that doesn’t give us license to be insensitive to variation in society: approaches should be diverse and tuned in to the obstacles and barriers that some groups might experience. This is an opportunity for self-examination as museums are unlikely to have put any of these obstacles in deliberately.

23: To what extent should the growth of a museum depend upon donations and to what extent on vigorous effort to reach certain ideals?

This is just confusing? Donations of collection items? Cash? Materials?
All museums should have a clear mission. What makes them a museum is that this mission must be grounded in two things: The collections they keep and the communities they serve.

24: What do you consider the principal requirements for a satisfactory museum building? (Consider at least five points.)
  1. Secure
  2. Light
  3. Accessible
  4. Flexible
  5. Sympathetic

25: Explain the principles of proper labelling, giving an example of a suitable label for Amphelis cedorum Cedar Waxwing; for an army field writing desk used by General Grant during the civil war; for a fossil plant; for a mineral.

For me, a museum label needs to do a number of things:

  1. Hit a baseline for basic information — in such a way that interested visitors might find out more about that object. Type, provenance and so on.
  2. Have a hook. Something that makes you look at the object again or makes you keen to find out more throughout the exhibition or beyond.
  3. Tie that object into the broader exhibit — the object might illustrate part of the narrative, or the narrative may explain the object. Often a bit of both.
  4. Be as ‘simple as possible but no simpler’ (Einstein I think?). Visitors who have never encountered this type of object should not feel intimidated or patronised by the label. Parents should feel happy reading them to their children.
  5. Be unnecessary. This is the most counter intuitive principle but I believe a visitor should be able to get a great deal out of an exhibition without having read more than a few labels or introductory texts.

How’s this for starters?

  • A pair of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedorum). These elegant birds are found in woodland throughout North America. You may have seen a flock of them chattering to each other noisily. They are not endangered. This stuffed pair (male on the left, female on the right) were collected by Dr J.R. Brown in 1932 and stuffed for the museum.
    If more information were needed, I like the Q&A format on this site:
  • What’s the most important message you’ve ever written? Some very important messages were written at this desk! It was used by Ulysses S. Grant when he was a Union General in the American Civil war. Battle orders, tactical information and letters to friends. Even some messages passing on the news of fellow soldiers’ deaths. The collapsible legs and ink pot made this desk very convenient. The desk was found in the 1880s in a farmhouse Chattanooga and must have been heavily used in that campaign — it was repaired twice!
  • What a funny-looking lump of rock! Well, ?00 million years ago this rock was a plant! What happened in between? Look along the wall to find out…
    This plant was a horsetail fern (Calamitaceae) found in a quarry near Brownville.
  • Do you have a smartphone? Then you also own some of this mineral! This is tungsten — an unusual metal that is very important for modern gadgets!
    This sample came from a mine in Bluetown. Tungsten has the atomic symbol ‘W’ because of it’s other name — Wolfram.

26: Discuss the items to be considered in case construction.
  1. Security
  2. Climate control
  3. Visibility of the objects
  4. Access
  5. Flexibility
  6. Lighting

27: Discuss the items to be considered in the color scheme of rooms and furnishings.

Colour, like any other design element should be considered as part of the entire strategy for an exhibition whether permanent or temporary.

28: In what order would you arrange the main groups (such as minerals, rocks, reptiles etc.) starting with those which would be seen first upon entering a museum?

Y’know, I’ve never thought of minerals, rocks and reptiles as ‘the main groups’ of a museum at all. If I were to display large amounts of the permanent collections of natural history, groups could tell the story of collectors, eras from the earth’s history or processes such as extinction or tectonics.

29: Would you arrange a collection of fossils stratigraphically or zoologically?

I guess the above kind of answers this, but why not make them all mobile so the visitor can arrange them and make their own connections.

30: Where would you store a study series collection?

As accessibly as facilities allow. Ideally it should be well photographed and catalogued online and people should know what they’re getting before they arrive.

31: Should a museum receive a gift subject to restrictions imposed by the donor?

Maybe. How big’s the gift!? This is a ridiculously complex issue that depends on the particular governance and aims of a museum.

32: What is the best method of cataloging a museum?

Dare I suggest Linked Open Data? But until we solve that, the best catalogue should be digital, flexible, accessible and interoperable.

33: Should a museum issue publications of its own, and if so what should be their character?

Blogs, magazines, journals, newsletters… The choice is now endless, and the choice and character of any publication should reflect the museum.

34: Should a museum maintain a library, and if so what should be its extent and character?

Well, I don’t think any new museum should go around splashing out on a library… If a museum has one already, then it’s a resource to be maximised for researchers, staff and visitors like any other collection.

35 -50: Prepare a thesis of not less than 3000 words summarizing your views as to the proper organization of a natural history museum as regards (a) personnel (b) care of collections (c) exhibits, emphasizing especially the department which is covered by your speciality.

Hmmm… I had fun getting through most of these questions, and keep coming back to this one after leaving the draft… Maybe that’s a sign that I’m not as ready to answer this as I thought — lots of half-formed ideas that need work!

In brief I’d say (a) people are the most important thing (b) this is our home turf and the thing that the discipline is best at and has the clearest protocols on (c) this is the fun part — where museums get to live in the now.

Well, that was fun but intimidating. What do you think? Could we boil these questions into a version for the 21st century?