Monday, 13 April 2015

Campaigning for Good Curatorship

I like curators, especially good ones. So I should be delighted to discover that there's a Campaign for Good Curatorship. The campaign wants to put knowledge of collections back at the heart of museums, and I'm all for that too. And they want 'good' rather than 'great' or 'excellent' curatorship, which is a victory for language and common sense.  But I recoil from its manifesto, which seems to be trying to appropriate all the anti-curatorial guff that's infected the museum sector. 

They say that museums "have a vital role to play in a healthy, tolerant and inclusive society". Fine sentiments, but they don't survive scrutiny. What can curators do to fulfill their 'vital' role in promoting health? Do they mean 'vital' in the sense of central to what curators do, or vital in the sense that museums must lead the charge on behalf of society? Neither claim is credible. And that weasel-word 'inclusion'. No one explicitly argues for an 'exclusive' society, but the meaning of inclusive is hotly contested. The term is either politically contentious or else vacuous. 

They want to reach a 'balance' between community engagement and expertise in objects. Maybe this is just a problem of hasty drafting, but I think treating engagement and expertise as opposite poles that require balancing is a disastrous strategy. Museums will engage communities on the basis of their collections. Curatorship has been undermined because museums have tried to convince politicians that they should be funded because they can play all kinds of instrumental roles like promoting social inclusion and public health. Convincing them of the value of museums in their own terms seemed to much like hard work. But the other approach has backfired, because it has put museums in direct competition with specialists. In a contest over the health budget, health professionals will beat museum professionals. 

The manifesto concludes with some specific demands, but they are as wishy-washy as something from the student union. They want the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to 'recognise' the role of good curatorship, whatever 'recognition' means. Worse still they want the Arts and Humanities Research Council to sponsor research into the public benefit of curatorship. Can nothing happen without a government grant these days? Given that the campaign's whole premise is that there is public benefit to curatorship, this isn't really research - it's marketing. Just because it's marketing a cause I happen to espouse doesn't mean it needs or deserves a government grant.  

This gets to the nub of my beef. The problem isn't that curatorship is 'under-researched' or that the DCMS hasn't 'recognised' its value. The problem is that the case for curatorship hasn't been made robustly. In fact let's put it in simpler terms: the case for knowledge hasn't been made robustly. For a generation museums have been capitulating to an agenda that devalues objects and disdains cultural knowledge in favour of the instrumental pursuit of political objectives.

We don't need government grants or campaign bullet points. We need to make a more forceful case for the value of culture. Lots of people are doing that already. I often disagree with many of them; it doesn't have to be a unitary case, and we don't all need to be friends. There are lots of ways to value and engage with culture. But lily-livered appeasement of the access and social justice agenda is fatal. Good curators don't promote public health or an inclusive society. They understand quality and context. The select and preserve and display and interpret objects, and in doing those things they play a role in defining a society (heck, let's use an old-fashioned term: civilization) that's worth being included in. The historical and artistic legacy preserved in museums is valuable in its own right, and is degraded when it's deployed as a tool in the latest public health initiative. Let no one be in doubt about the vital role of curators, and let's not let this campaign get away with underselling it.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Yes, I'm not sure either what the campaign is all about, but in many places I see an erosion and lack of appreciation for curators. It is happening to a extent in academia where professors are being overshadowed by administrators, but the situation in museums is far worse. As other museum staff has become professionalized they have sought to claim pieces of what the traditional prerogatives of curators were. This is not just administrators, but conservators, educators and registrars. "Art handlers" in some places are only allowed to handle the objects in collections, a opportunity for young curators to learn from the collections is gone and lost on those who will gain nothing from it. Moreover, curatorial positions are lost in favor of expanding other departments. At its core is a lack of respect for knowledge and experience and a struggle for control of the collections that has nothing to do with what they were assembled for, but everything to do with personal power.