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Playing Devils Advocate

September 12 2007 at 3:03 AM
Keith Matthews 

Response to Museums, curators and collectors - some thoughts

Hi Guys. I don't know the situation in Canada but hopefully some comments based on museum practice in the UK will be relevant. It is not my intention to stir this can of worms or criticise any of the very valid comments made so far. I simply hope that I can put some of the comments into context from the other side.

Museum curatorship has at its heart a serious challenge. To preserve AND interpret material from the past (there are various internationally agreed definitions, I won't bore you with them). This means thet we have a duty to not only look after the stuff long term but also to to give access to it and the stories it represents. Separately these are easy - 1/ lock it all away or 2/ put it all on open display. Combined the two are a challenge but one all museums should rise to. If they don't they should be chastised.

Curators therefore have to consider what an individual item represents and how it can be used in interpreting some aspect/s of the past (which may be a display, web presentation, physical activity, published article or accessible storage for reference, etc.). Good curators think very long term about this (who is going to want to know about this in 100 years time and what will they need). It is not our job to collect everything we can, just what is relevant, and that being so subjective is a huge responsibility.

Resources (as well as wages) are severely limited which leads to some harsh realities being faced. Unfortunately our predecessors (and some contemporaries) have not followed the required discipline. I bet every curator of whatever subject has shelves filled with stuff they wish their predecesor had not collected. Often this is due to the predecessor having an 'accept everything' mentality. I currently have around seventy bog standard Sam Brown belts in our regional collection. Of these two are currently in use. Whilst there is a likelyhood of someone here posting a photo with a 'what's this variant?' plea, I really could use the space for something else. At the end of the day a dozen Sam Brown variants would serve every potential use. Not "the actual one" but certainly 2of the right type".

All items in store in a museum use resources just by being there. To do preservation and interpretation properly has a higher cost. If you look at this in real terms, a curator must think like a collector - imagine how you would respond if a fellow collector declared that they would sell you their entire collection. You would have to look at what you already have and have not, look at the financial and practical resources you have consider other 'stakeholders' (the wife and family!) and negotiate. If the other collector then insisted that it was all or nothing and that you must always give the whole of his collection prominence and never dispose of any item even after they are long gone.. You would soon snap your wallet shut and walk away. You may start to get an idea of how it feels to be a curator. You can't even nod nicely and do some shuffling around later without fearing for your professional ethical concience (and getting a reputation which passes on to other potential donors).

This means that I too have, reluctantly, had to respond as Gerry's curator did - I have accepted uniform as offered but without items which duplicate those already in the collection (such as a Sam Brown Belt). On the whole, I have found donors are sympathetic to this. In an ideal world I want to keep a sub-collection together,and would want to collect every variant of every type of object. This is though not practical. It is this type of collecting attitude in the past which has led to vast numbers of items merely relegated to inaccessible storage.

Attracting visitors is a difficult one, often tied to generating income. Ideally, good curatorship means knowing enough about the subject to be able to spot potentially attractive subjects, relevent to a target audience and which can be interpreted efficiently. Where this all falls down is when the objects/subjects become of less importance than the money generated usually through the aesthetic style or interpretation techniques (those of us in re-enactment understand the difference between living history and "bang-bang, showtime!").

There is also the problem of differing knowledge on the part of an audience. We here know and have debated the appalling lack of knowledge on the part of the general public regarding the Second World War. As a museum curator I am here to put that right - if you criticise me for not truely representing the socio-economic circustances which led to North American production of the No.4MkI rifle with barrel MkII, in a display designed to help nine year olds to know the difference between a Canadian Halifax Pilot and a Viking Jarl. This does not mean that I should not have a broad knowledge base but that in the case of a specific display I have not included it (I am sure we all know fellow collectors who will tell us all about their latest pet subject whether we want or need to know - we don't take it in but note where they are if we need that knowledge). Once you introduce politics it can get very frought. Curators try to remain objective but have a difficult role.

I am not trying to defend poor practice but please pity your poor curator. Try to help them find the way not vilify them. Thanks for listening.

Keith Matthews

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