Being a museum curator is a fascinating job. The incredible specimens we are privileged to work with every day, and the huge variety of things we do, ensures that this job is forever enchanting. I have worked in museums for 10 years, and I am still in my honeymoon period.
But what do curators in museums do? I am often asked this very question. Sometimes people have actually answered it for me by saying ‘Ohhh, so you are a little like Indiana Jones?’. After a little quip about having a whip under my bed, I sadly admit that being a curator in a museum is a lot different (although I still am super flattered to be called Indiana Jones!).
I am Curator of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Although my degree was in Geology, I look after all the geology (rocks, fossils, and minerals), all the zoology (vertebrate and invertebrate animals) and all the botany (plants). This is quite standard for ‘smaller’ local authority museums where there is little funding for a curator for each specialist area, so a natural history curator looks after everything. This isn’t a bad thing; it keeps things extremely interesting, as we are constantly learning new things with the collections.
From the small independent and local authority museums to the large national museums, the essence of a curators job is the same; the core collections work. This ‘core’ work we all do is essential to make sure the specimens are in the best possible care. I will provide examples using natural history collections, but the essence is the same for working with dead things or paintings.
The ‘core’ curatorial work includes:
1. The magic number
Every single individual specimen in the museum collections should have a unique number; an accession number. This number is unique to that specimen. Like a bar code, it links information, notes, forms, and correspondence directly to that specimen.
When a collection comes into the museum it is recorded in the accession register and given a unique number. As each specimen in this new donation is recorded and documented, individual unique numbers are given to each. All the data is recorded along with the number, so it can be cross referenced in a simple, easy system to find a specimen and all its information. Nice and simple. One would like to think.
100 years of numbers, and different numbering styles, makes things a little more interesting. And a little more frustrating; two different specimens may have the same number; numbers may have rubbed off or fallen off; specimens may be numbered 19.01 and this could be recorded in the accession register as 1919.01 or 1901.19. My favourite are those wonderful large-scale documentation projects in the 1990s where specimens have been given a new ‘temporary numbers’. Over 20 years later, those ‘temporary’ numbers are still going strong.
For new collections that come into the museum, we have the privilege of numbering the individual specimens as they should be. This is actually like a wonderful honeymoon; slow, methodical, thorough, covering every detail, beautiful, entirely satisfying, and something you don’t want to end.
There is a lot number checking in a curators job. Remember, the number relates to an individual specimen and all the information with it. So without the number that rock has lost its history, it has lost it’s unique story. A beetle is just a beetle. That pickled worm is just a pickled worm. But find the number for that pickled worm, and dig in the old accession books and history files, and we find out that that pickled worm was the first individual of this species to be discovered in the waters off Plymouth in the 1950s, which was forgotten about and re-discovered only a few years ago.
There are old records and old files holding lots of information about specimens. Luckily today we use databases to store all this information, so we can type in the unique accession number and it brings up all the details about that little specimen. That is the ultimate dream.
2. Computer says ‘no’
Since the 1990s all museums (should) have a computer database. This is where the all important numbers come in. That unique individual number for a specimen is typed into the database and all the information with that specimen is recorded under the number. This is where the bar code analogy comes in: search the number on the database and all the information relating to that specimen will come up.
What is really cool is that we can keep updating information as new information is discovered. Recent research papers, oral history stories, new links, and photographs can all be scanned, transcribed and added to the database. This is really cool because projects we work on today can be linked directly to the specimens. Curators in 50 years time will have such rich records of the collections in just one click.
Even cooler – yes the database does get cooler – is that the information can be linked to website! So we can select records from the database and link it to the museum websites. What a great way of giving access to thousands of museum objects! Pretty snazzy no?
Super cool. But the database is also our weakness. A lot of the time we can put a number in to search for a specimen and the ‘computer says no’.
When computer databases were introduced into museums, there were enormous projects to get as many numbers on the database as possible. This was great but there were big downfalls: the dreaded ‘temporary number’ was given to specimens which still haunt us today; because it was done so quickly, lots of information was left off; lots of specimens were missed. Even today there is an enormous amount to check and get on there. (For example, there are 61,000 natural history records on my museum database. That’s a lot of records. But there are an estimated 150,000 specimens, so a lot of work is needed.)
An enormous, and slightly addictive, part of what curators do is check the specimen number to see if it is on the database, and if it is to check the information is all there. This can be an overwhelming task, but done project by project, collection by collection and it is manageable. And unbelievably satisfying to see a collection with all the information on there! The honeymoon continues to delight.
3. Show a little tender love
With collections in museums over 100 years old, there will be one or two that need a little gently loving care. Some may need fixing, others cleaned, and some just packed a little better than they were: this is called conservation.
Most museums will have a conservation department. The staff there will be working on objects to make sure they are kept in the best standard and fixed if needed. It is interesting that most natural history curators will carry out conservation themselves on a daily basis. One week we can be working with specimens in spirit, another safely storing fragile ice age bones.
But we don’t do things nilly-willy! We are trained by colleagues and go to information packed and inspiring training sessions across the country. Two subject specialist groups provide excellent natural history training workshops; the Natural Science Collections Association and the Geological Curators Group. One of the greatest training comes from the natural history community; colleagues across the UK offer advice, support and mentoring without anything in return, expect to know that knowledge is being shared.
Working directly on specimens is ruddy brilliant! We get really close to the creatures, and there is such a variety. Reattaching heads and limbs to pinned insects is a good one to test that steady hand. Working with spirit specimens is an interesting, and extremely satisfying job because a mouldy dried up ‘thing’ can be rescued and transformed to its complete original form.
Conservation is a wonderfully intimate art bringing us closer to the specimens we are charged to care for, and in doing so we understand them in all their beautiful glory.
4. Putting on a display
Museums trace their origins to the old cabinets of curiosities, where collections of the truly weird and wonderful were collected and displayed en masse. As more museums began to open their main focus was education and inspiration.
This really hasn’t changed much today. Instead of being hard-core fact after hard-core fact, displays are full of interesting, quirky tales and captivating stories behind the collectors and collections. Some rather old skool [sic] curators I know, one in particular, is obsessed that this is ‘dumbing down’ the science*. Far, far from it my friend. In fact, if I may return to the honeymoon analogy, this is pretty darn sexy stuff. Quirky tales get people excited, so excited that they may play around on their computers when they get home to find out more.
We are more likely to remember an interesting tale than a cold hard fact. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a few facts into an interesting tale.
Museum displays and exhibitions are what most people who visit a museum will actually see. For us curators, this is a chance to bring out some awesome collections, with their fantastic stories and get people excited!
5. The stuff of dreams
Research is another exciting part of the job. This can range from checking out the background details to a collection from 100 years ago to radiocarbon dating specimens and writing articles. Each is like detective work to find out more, and each also adds incredible value to the specimen.
Two things hold the curator back; time and specialism.
Time: Any articles I write are done in the evenings outside work. I know this is true for other colleagues who write articles too. There is no time at work to write them. We spend the evenings writing, not because we have to, but, as you will see, because we want to.
Specialism: Natural history is a pretty big subject covering all animals, plants and geology. We have an understanding of how to care for these collections and do some exciting research into the background of them. But to dissect the minute genitalia of a beetle to see if it is a particular species is beyond my expertise! My knowledge mainly lies in ice age bones (and in the last five or so years I have become confident in other areas). This is where the great community of natural history curators comes in; I may know little about beetle genitalia and something about ice age bones, and a curator in another museum may know little about ice age bones but a lot about beetle genitalia. So we share our knowledge. We talk to each other, send each other photos, visit the collections, and learn from each other.
This work, the very core of understanding and managing museum collections, is fundamental to the future of the specimens. This is work that happens every day, behind the scenes with the curators working hard to make sure they are well looked after and safe for future generations.
Unfortunately this essential work has created a stereotypical vision of a museum curator.
A new breed
Within the last ten years, there has been a birth of a new breed of curator. This new breed is different. There is a genuine, noticeable thirst for using the collections we look after in new and exciting ways!
Curators today have energy, boundless energy, talking to the old and the young about the fascinating stories locked away in our store rooms. This new non-genetically modified breed still carries on the core museum work, but does a lot, lot more.
All the core collections work is essential. We need to do it. It preserves the collections for future generations. It adds exciting new stories. But what’s the point if no one sees them or hears about them? If the generations of today are not seeing them, why are we keeping them for future generations?
Curators today are engaging with more people in more ways than ever before. All the work we carry out behind the scenes is needed, but we also have this burning desire to engage with people using our collections. This helps to get our stories out to lots of different people (and sometimes adds new stories), but also helps promote our subjects.
No longer do we give an annual mumbling talk about an obscure part of the collection to an audience of over 120 yrs old; we give engaging, exciting talks about our collections that mean something to the audience. Not just once a year, but we can do this maybe once a month and to all ages.
Many museum curators today are writing blog posts about their collections. This is another way for interesting stories to be told and reach new people. One of my favourites is the Grant Museum of Zoology and their post on the Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month. Its a fun way of getting otherwise not so exciting collections out there!
A big part of the work is getting the collections out to the local public, which can include schools, and events around the city. These types of events are excellent because people who had never heard of the museum before stumble across it, and are truly inspired by what they can see and hear. This is one of my favourite parts of being a curator – talking to people about what we look after and the awesome quirky stories that go with the specimens. If we cant talk to people about what we look after, then the curator has failed.
There are other fun events which can be run. Some museums, like Leeds Museum and the Horniman Museum run pub science events, where the curator leads an evening of science filled discussions. These are lovely ideas, because it is an open environment on neutral ground, so people don’t feel intimated by specialists. I run monthly natural history events in and around the city for families to come along to (here). These events range from rock pooling to star gazing and the families are really engaged with discovering something new!
What a curator does
Working in a museum is just like a never ending honeymoon; it is wonderful! Each day we are doing something different. The ‘core’ collections work will always happen which is needed to safeguard specimens. But our collections cannot talk. For my specimens in particular, the ability to make any sound has long since vanished. The curators are the voice of the collections. Through us, the collections can tell their tales, inspire future generations, bring a tear to the eye, and let people understand with true awe.
Without a voice, the collections remain silent. They remain unknown.
*There is nothing wrong with including scientific names and information in labels. We should be including this, but it is how the labels are written that is important.