So You’ve Got a Curator. Now What?

The Museum of Health Care at Kingston has hired a curator! Huzzah!

But some of you may be wondering: what does that actually mean? What on earth is a curator and what do they do?

It’s both simple and surprisingly hard to answer. You’re probably at least vaguely aware that a curator is someone who works in a museum. You might have seen a curator in a movie, usually in the form of a pretentious, stodgy academic peevishly insisting that the hero stop touching the exhibits and with pretty even odds on getting murdered by a supernatural force trapped in some ancient artifact (as far as movie professions go, curators tend to have lifespans approximately equal to cops the day before retirement). You may have heard of someone curating a social media feed or a Pinterest board or read a thinkpiece on why calling everyone who collects content a curator will be the downfall of society. All of which can make it hard to figure out what exactly a museum curator does.

To start to unravel this idea, let’s go back to the origins of the word. Curatorcomes from the Latin root curare, meaning to take care of. Curator, then, is a word meaning someone who cares for something.

In Ancient Rome there were plenty of curators around, but they weren’t running museums. Curator was the title given to an administrator. The curator aquarum, for example, looked after Rome’s water system.

The word would continue to signify a supervisor or caretaker as the centuries rolled on, applied to religious leaders and to guardians of minors.In the 1600s, we finally have evidence of it being used specifically to refer to someone in charge of a museum, library, or zoo. 

Today, a curator is someone who is in a position of authority at a museum or other cultural institution. But that authority can take wildly different forms depending on the institution. Some museum curators focus purely on exhibitions. Some are more research and object focused. A curator in a small museum is often the only employee. They’ll install exhibits, look after the objects, supervise volunteers, fundraise, plan events, run educational programming, and even clean the museum. In a big institution, roles are more segregated. A curator at the Royal Ontario Museum or the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology will spend most of their time in the field or the lab collecting samples, researching, and writing papers, emerging into the broader museum ecosystem to provide specialist insight for interviews and new exhibits. And, of course, we have the guest curator, someone who comes into a museum to create a single exhibition and then leaves.  

So where do I fit in?  

One answer is that I approve donations to the collection, research and project manage exhibitions, write policies, promote the museum academically, and attend an awful lot of meetings.

But the other answer is: I don’t know yet! As a friend who has long been in the museum industry told me recently, “a curator is one of those rare positions where you invent the job.” There are projects to pick up and I’ve already got a short list of what needs dealing with, but the Museum has been closed and without a curator for a long time. It’s scary, but it’s also a chance to shake things up, to try something new. Curating is a job and it’s hard work. It can also be an adventure.

And if I get stuck, I’ll go back to a curator’s roots and remind myself: above all, it’s my job to care.

Sources
Rowena McGowan (Curator)
Rowena McGowan (Curator)

Rowena McGowan hails from beautiful Alberta and began her curatorship at the Museum on March 1st, 2022. Rowena holds Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Archaeology, and graduated with a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Toronto in 2016.
While working on her degree, she was co-curator of an exhibit on scientific instruments and curator at the Semaphore lab. After graduation, she spent a year as the Marketing and PR Assistant at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. She then took a short-term contract at the Archaeology Department of the Manitoba Museum doing curatorial research for the renovation of the Grasslands gallery.
She has spent the last three years at the Lac La Biche Museum, where she cared for the collection, created exhibits and implemented new educational programming in person and online. In the little spare time her cat allows her, she enjoys writing fiction and has had several pieces accepted for publication.


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