Sometimes using analogies can help us think about our work. Herbert Coutts, who used to run the city’s museums in Edinburgh, once pointed out that if museums were indeed society’s new temples or churches (as many argued they were at the time) then the onus on curators was great, because it made them society’s new priests.
21st-century priests do not, I expect, spend much of their time researching and analysing the scriptures. They are busy planning and delivering church activities, fundraising to repair the roof or build a small extension, sitting in meetings with other community organisations and, probably most importantly of all, helping improve individual lives – giving a little help and hope to the lonely, the destitute, the ill and the bereaved. Modestly changing lives is what society expects from its priests.
If they are lucky, our priests might find a little time, probably during the evening (if they are not called away), to think a little about the next day’s sermon, largely drawing on knowledge they acquired from study many decades ago.
They in a small way help to care for and preserve religious knowledge and values, and they communicate that to their core audience. That’s usually on a Sunday morning, when most of their audience has turned up primarily for reasons that are social, rather than spiritual.
Not so different, perhaps, to the lot of the curator.
But museums are no longer seen as churches or temples. Rather they are seen as the forum or the agora: a central public gathering place, usually including a market, where people come together for a variety of reasons, perhaps attending simply because it is there. Once there, they might participate in shared activities, be exposed to new ideas, or experience goods presented in the market.
If the 21st-century museum is the agora, then perhaps curators are akin to market traders – gathering together things to meet people’s needs and desires, entertaining them, stimulating curiosity and animating a public space.
The market trader uses their skills and expertise to select the goods and present them to the people. Many of the goods are known and expected – safe and familiar. But from time to time there, the market trader challenges with something new in an attempt to expand the audience’s horizons.
Recently I was in the market in Hatfield, a down-at-heel place patronised mainly by a mixture of white working class people and overseas students from the University of Hertfordshire. I was queuing up and, to my slight surprise, heard the elderly white woman in front say ‘Oh, I’ve forgotten the sweet potatoes.’
Evidently at previous encounters at the veg stall, or perhaps with a cookery programme on TV, our elderly lady’s curiosity had been piqued, her tastes had been challenged and now her experiences were enhanced. The stall holder had performed her curatorial duty. She had introduced her audience to something new.
In the proper 21st-century curatorial manner, note that her focus had not been directed towards studying the wide variety of species of sweet potato, towards writing papers about them for other market traders or (heaven forbid) painstakingly recording details of each sweet potatoes in her stock control system (or, heaven forbid even more, travelling to international conferences to compare approaches to digitising records of sweet potatoes). Our market trader knows that the heart of her job is to engage her audience with her objects.
There is probably much else to learn from market traders in terms of low-cost operation, surviving and thriving in the face of globalised competition, changing focus to respond to new audiences (I expect many of the stall’s original sweet-potato purchasers were overseas students) and coping with the whims of local authorities.
I expect by now you get my point. The heart of the museum’s task is simple: to communicate with a wide audience about its collection; and the heart of the curator’s job is to engage people and modestly improve their lives.
This is an extract from a talk given to the conference Does the Museum just Preserve the Museum?