Friday, 17 April 2015

Curator of the Future Conference

MoDA's Collections Assistant Jacqueline Winston-Silk @_jsws discusses a thought-provoking conference at the British Museum. 

This week I went to The Curator of the Future Conference at the British Museum.  I was joined by around 100 other delegates; a mix of early career professionals, postgraduate students and Heads of Departments - we discussed and debated the nature of the curatorial role today, asking where it’s come from, where it’s going and where it needs to go.

The conference was opened by John Williams, Deputy Director of the British Museum who gave an overview of the museum’s National Programme activity.  The British Museum has 2,700 objects on loan to other museums in the UK, reminding us of the importance of partnerships in curatorial practice – a theme that re-emerged throughout the day.

Here’s a handy executive summary of what I learnt! If you want to read more, I've shared a handful of the speakers' discussions below:

·         Digital is an ongoing interactive process
·         39% of Generation Z  (those born after 1996) think museums are irrelevant
·         American actress Hedy Lamarr was granted US Patent no. 2292387 in the 1930s for an early system of Wi-Fi
·         All 700 UK cultural institutions combined receive only 0.08% of all UK web traffic – the equivalent of B&Q!

Curatorial survival kit

Maurice Davies of the Museum Consultancy discussed the myriad skills (collections management, conservation, engagement etc.) which are now enveloped under the umbrella title of ‘the curator’. He described how the role has evolved from a previous connotation of the curator as ‘priest’ of a cathedral of objects with privileged access, to the curator as a ‘market trader’ in the agora; a person who sells and negotiates in an open forum. Perhaps Maurice’s biggest message was his belief that a curator’s ability to communicate is today more important than their subject-specialist knowledge. This really got me thinking, as without subject-specialist knowledge; what do you communicate? However, as a regular exhibition-goer I can understand that being able to successfully communicate an idea or a narrative is paramount, and even more so, being able to communicate that information across a variety of media - and pitched to a specific audience(s). What do you think, is communication key? 

Bill Seaman of Colchester & Ipswich Museum Service shared the concerns of many people in the room. Due to budget cuts, the current operating model we have is unsustainable - leaving museums with a ragged service and lack of diversity in their workforce.  To combat this, Bill invited a new professionalism model based on partnerships and new technologies. Bill promoted peer to peer learning and advocated social media – with its innate ability to know instantly what our audiences think and like. Bill suggested that technology frees us from merely imparting facts and offers a democratisation of information – allowing new perspectives on collections to be eked out. As a museum studies graduate with 4 years of professional experience, I can very much see Bill's point and have been equally frustration at the lack of diversity in museum recruitment, let's not get started on the unpaid internship issue..

Getting your game on

The conference programme was full to the brim, and so a few events were squeezed in during the lunch break. I managed to attend a workshop led by @tl_gould and @martadabrowka of National Galleries of Scotland, on developing audience engagement for digital collections. I took away some valuable insight into the profile of potential younger audiences. Generation Z (those born after 1996) are surrounded and comfortable with technology, they like information presented visually and believe learning should be a two-way dynamic – wanting to discover, as opposed to being told. Generation Z are creative and entrepreneurial, however they have shorter attention spans and believe interactivity should come as standard. This is interesting stuff, and I think it should be in the forefront of our minds when sharing collections digitally. Perhaps even more so because 39% of the Generation Z audience think museums are irrelevant in today’s digital age - quite a worrying stat! 

Brave New Words

Chris Michaels of the British Museum explored curatorial practice, using objects (some from the collection) to illustrate the shifting opportunities and responsibilities within a curator’s transforming role. I thought this was the highlight of the conference, not least for originality in presentation style. There were too many to mention here, but my favourites were:
  • The Gebelein Man (3,400 BC) tells the fundamental story of humankind, of living and dying. Communicating this ubiquitous narrative is a central aspect of a curator’s role
  • Flood Tablet (650 BC). Discovering knowledge anew. Discovering something new about the past and making that knowledge available for the present is fundamental to a curator’s role.
  • Admission Ticket (c. 1759). 17th and 18th century enlightenment values of sharing knowledge for free and with free public access, underpin the museum. With external pressures to privatise museums, part of a curator’s role should be to facilitate, protect and defend access.
  • iPhone. Digital platforms make it possible to communicate fundamental knowledge to a wider global audience. With the development of personal mobile devices the boundaries have collapsed between what can be seen within and outside the museum. Content can now live on external media not just in the doors of the museum.  
  • Lester Wisbrod Selfie Collection. Individuals are now curating the present at all times, and telling the world they’re doing so. This shift represents a re-triangulation between people, objects and the new media space. As a result, curators need to ask what curating in the present means.

Anra Kennedy of Culture24  gave some helpful advice on what museum content needs to be in order to be engaging on a digital platform. She advised high resolution, high quality images. For catalogue records to be labelled and tagged with correct and up-to-date information. For content to be usable, re-usable and share-able, and that objects be contextualised and interpreted. As we continually add records online and improve our collections documentation at MoDA, this is a good benchmark to work towards. 

The Next Generation

Rachel Souhami discussed the The Future of Museums conference held in 2014 and reflected on the outcomes, including the subsequent manifesto. The manifesto was a call to arms by the conference delegates (all of whom within the first 6 years of their careers) to imagine the museum landscape in twenty years’ time; and we were encouraged to be idealistic about what we'd like to see. To support these young professionals, Rachel urged us to stop using the murky phrase “the museum sector” as it gives a false sense of homogeneity, denying diversity and differing agendas. I have to admit, I often fall into the trap of using the phrase and have had to edit myself in this blog post as a result... so Rachel... I'm trying! In a bid to support future curators in their careers Rachel urged us to ensure cogent, collective leadership. To engage with emerging museum professionals themselves and to remind those emerging museum professionals to be proactive. I took part in The Future of Museums conference and was a contributing author to the manifesto, and so it was really interesting to hear Rachel draw some conclusions and recommendations from the event.

I found the conference to be really useful in corralling and synthesizing current debate and ideas about the role of the curator, at a time when museums face budget restrictions and become ever more digital. The digital aspect of sharing collections is certainly something that the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture is striving to engage and innovate within, and so I left a happy delegate with a head full of helpful resources. Watch this space. 

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