Thursday, 12 August 2010

Vacancy: museum curator, superpowers required

I said I would write about my experiences learning to be a curator – well lesson one is I don’t have enough hours in a day, how did I think I would find even more time to write a blog? But, finally I’ve got a few minutes spare…

I was asked the other day what my superpower would be if I had to choose one. From a professional point of view there can surely only be one answer to that question: time travel. Perhaps you’re thinking that I’m a sentimental historian and I’d like to be able to go back and meet my heroes. Well, there’s an element of truth there, but it isn’t the main reason I went with that. Actually for work it would be really helpful to know what the curators that went before you had in mind. The store room where the collection I’m responsible for is held is chaotic to say the least. I’m sure that the majority of what’s in there has made it onto the database somehow, although often in batches and often with very little recorded description. But, at least you have a few clues to go on. Then there are the mystery items. Sometime they’re items so staggeringly banal that you’re left wondering whether they were collected because they belonged to somebody famous – surely no curator would have collected them otherwise. Other times it simply isn’t clear what an object is. Even if you can work out what it is and hazard a guess at why it’s interesting you have no documentation to support your hunch. Of course the usefulness of a time machine assumes that the curator had a good reason for doing what they did, I'd be willing to bet that a few of the things we’ve ended up with are unsolicited donations that the curator took on out of a general reluctance to throw anything away – after all that’s not what we do in museums.

On the other hand if all my predecessors had been brilliantly keen on documentation and storage my job would be a lot less interesting. I definitely enjoy the detective work involved in identifying a mystery object, and get excited when I uncover something unexpected lurking at the back of a shelf. All this rather begs the question, what do I want? What would be an ideal state of disarray for the collection? The thrill of uncovering a mystery would be a lot less if I always knew that it was solvable. And its all part of the challenge of getting to know a fabulous collection. But sometimes it would be less frustrating if everything was organised.

Maybe time travel isn't for me - perhaps I'll settle for a miraculously shortened commute instead, so do I go with flying or teleporting?