Reflections: Hosting a @MuseumHour session on Curation

In November 2019, Research and Cultural Collections were privileged to guest-host a session for @museumhour, a UK-based museum movement that began in 2014 and operates a Twitter account with over 13,000 followers. The platform is also open to anyone with an interest in museums.

@MuseumHour uses its platform to facilitate weekly discussions with a range of different themes for debate, some brought forward by the four independent team members or alternatively topics which have been proposed by guest hosts. These discussions are intended to be a place for conversation and communication within the wider heritage sector, and through the use of the hashtag #museumhour, the discussion reaches a wide range of different audiences.

Our proposed topic for discussion on 25th November 2019 was the world of curation – in this, we wanted to explore what the word ‘curator’ meant to people, as well as how past, current and future curators felt about their role and its responsibilities. We also were interested in asking what people thought of recent descriptions of ‘curation’ that applied to actions outside of the museum space. Below is a description of some of our questions asked throughout the session and some of the responses we received.

Merriam-Webster defines a curator as: ‘One who has the care and superintendence of something; especially: one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit’. Would you agree?

We began by initiating discussion of how we define the curator role – using a dictionary definition to kick off our topic, we asked how people felt and how they might change it. This generated some interesting responses and comparisons with other definitions or wording (such as ‘custodian’ or ‘keeper’), with most of the comments and replies indicating that the dictionary definition was inadequate and in need of updating to fully explain the scope of the curator role.

When we then asked for personal responses to what the word ‘curator’ mean to individuals, many responses centred on the importance of collections management, research, interpretation and display. Many also commented on the increasing importance of access within the curator role and it facilitating a ‘bridge’ between people and the objects within museum collections.

For all those past, present and future curators out there – what influenced you to become a curator?

The passion and enthusiasm within the heritage sector was one clear recurring answer to our question about what sparked people’s interest in becoming a curator, with a range of responses giving credit to their initial visits to museums at a young age as where it all began. Interestingly many responses also mentioned the ‘storytelling’ aspect of the curator role in their answer to this question, with an acknowledgement of the importance of stories from past museum displays and exhibitions as part of the inspiration for many in wanting to also carry out these roles within the museum. Answers to this also included the value and importance of the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of being a curator.

If we wanted to write a curator’s handbook, what would you describe as essential?

We had many interesting responses to the above question, including the importance of continued communication and learning. Here, many also noted the overlapping roles and responsibilities within collections management, curation, research, access, and much more.

Finally, having only considered the role and connotations of the word ‘curator’, we wanted to ask for opinions that looked beyond the museum:

How do you ‘curate’ outside of the museum? Do you consider ‘curation’ relevant to your personal life e.g. social media accounts?

From curating Instagram posts, wine, clothes and their belongings, responses demonstrated that we’ve all seen the word ‘curate’ used beyond the heritage sector and applied to things within our daily lives. This was met with a mixed response, with a range of views on whether this was appropriate/relevant/irrelevant or not. While some felt it was a positive use and also not ‘owned’ by the museum sector and thus free for others to use, opposing responses suggested that this demonstrated a lack of understanding for what a curator did.

We felt that this was a really useful discussion, and it prompted us to think more about how we view curation both within and outside of the museum space.

Thank you again to MuseumHour for letting us guest host!