Study day: Are Curators Academics?

A study day held at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on Thursday 21 March 2013

The study day was organised by the National Gallery, the Ashmolean Museum and the Museums and Exhibitions Committee, Association of Art Historians. Supported by the Pilgrim Trust, it formed part of the Subject Specialist Network: European Paintings pre-1900

The seminar explored the contentious question ‘Are Curators Academics?’ – an issue of relevance as universities, museums and galleries increasingly look at ways of working collaboratively on a range of projects. The day was divided into two, with the morning session featuring a series of case studies, and the afternoon devoted to a roundtable discussion.

Programme: Morning

Mary Hersov (National Gallery) introduced three speakers.

Firstly, Catherine Whistler, Senior Curator for European Art at the Ashmolean Museum, described her recent exhibition ‘The English Prize: The Capture of the "Westmorland", an Episode of the Grand Tour’. Considering the question of the day, she felt that the answer had to be ‘yes’ – but whether curators were ‘academics’ through PhD study, or through more practical routes, was another issue. Both often have to range across a wide subject scope, and curators must be confident that their knowledge is equally valid.

We next heard from Jim Harris, an Andrew W Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator based at the Ashmolean Museum. Asserting that of course curators are academics, he instead posed the question ‘what sort of academics are curators?’ He argued that research is a fundamental part of a curator’s job, and linked the job title ‘curator’ back to its roots, the ‘cure’ or ‘care’ of objects. He also pointed out the level of trust placed in curators by their colleagues – they seek to understand things better, and bring that understanding into a wider context.

The final speaker was Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at the National Gallery. She commented that this is an issue which has run and run, but it cannot be disputed that research is at the heart of what it means to be a curator. She went on to describe her own experiences of research as a curator, and explored the occasional scepticism as to whether museum research is ‘pure’. Caroline then described two exhibitions she worked on: ‘Bellini and the East’ (National Gallery, 2006) and ‘Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence’ (Courtauld Institute, 2009). In conclusion, she described how museum work has enhanced her research skills, making her more sceptical and rigorous in her analysis of data, and more adept at presenting her ideas in physical form.

Programme: Afternoon

The afternoon roundtable was chaired by Layla Bloom (University of Leeds and AAH), and featured four speakers. After introducing themselves, each set out their perspective on the day’s question.

Jenny Gaschke (Collections Officer, Fine Art, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery) admitted that she sometimes questions her role as an academic, especially when comparing her recent publication output to that of her university colleagues, but asked delegates to compare the amount of research and writing necessary for regular curatorial work, such as funding applications or object interpretation.

Heather Birchall (freelance curator) wondered whether such distinctions were necessary, citing the case that within universities there can sometimes be an ‘us and them’ culture between PhDs and non-PhDs.

Marika Leino, (Lecturer in History of Art, Oxford Brookes University) suggested that the problem might be how curators think of themselves – not necessarily as academics or even art historians.

Ben Thomas (Lecturer, Deptartment of History and Philosophy of Art, University of Kent), who described himself as being both lecturer and curator, suggested that research is very much a collaborative project, and was acutely aware of the importance of objects, despite some academics objecting to ‘things’ muddying the pure waters of philosophical aesthetics!

Opening the floor to questions, a lively debate ensued; exploring notions of culture and politics, and asking questions such as 'how influential are job titles?'; 'What is an "academic"?'; 'Are divisions within institutions, or within art history itself?'; and 'what is the potential of cyberspace for highlighting research within museums?'. Concerns were also raised regarding effects of the REF Impact agenda, open access publishing, the constraints museums find themselves under when disseminating information, models of engagement, and recognition of individuals – the notion that most exhibition curators remain anonymous being met with incredulity by university colleagues.

This fascinating and thought-provoking day concluded with a tour of the Ashmolean’s paintings collections led by Catherine Whistler, but given the questions raised there is much scope to continue the debate.

 
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