Curating as an agent for change

Curating and curators are not synonymous with change makers. Yet I believe very differently.

If we follow our philosophy of a curator as part knowledge maker, part communicator it is logical that curatorial agency has the potential to carry much power. That power can be used for change or it can be restrained to resist it. I won’t make a value judgement as to whether change is necessarily a good thing or not.

This week I will be co-presenting a paper to the international conference Museums as Agents of Memory and Change in Estonia. The conference is organised by the Estonian National Museum and the Department of Ethnology, University of Tartu. It is taking place in Tallinn (Estonian History Museum) and Tartu (Estonian National Museum). I had previously visited Tartu in 2017 on a research trip to understand the curatorial philosophy of the brand new national museum.

In that museum you will not find a single story of a famous person nor an uber narrative of this country. That’s how much power curating can have.

Photograph of Fat Margaret's Tower, Tallinn, Estonia. A very large cylindrical tower made from limestone, with several recesses punched out for cannons.
Fat Margaret’s Tower, Tallinn, Estonia. It was used as a gun tower and now houses the maritime museum (currently being refurbished).

Who’s in charge?

This is the title of our joint paper which we will be giving tomorrow afternoon. With Emmie Kell, CEO of Cornwall Museums Partnership we will be talking to the title, “Collaborative leadership and the democratisation of curation.” Basing our paper on active research that has been taking place since 2017, Emmie will be reflecting on the realities of how leadership works within partnerships and collaboration and I will be providing a curatorial case study around Citizen Curators, presenting evidence from the pilot programme and work in progress to date.

Citizen Curators is the most wide-ranging curatorial training programme of its kind currently underway in the UK and its intention is definitely to create a positive change in museum curating, particularly among museums with a small or non-existent staff. We have encountered fantastic successes so far, but also experienced resistance and friction. Indeed if you are not experiencing resistance and friction then change probably is not happening. The art of good change, however, is ensuring that it happens at the right pace for all involved, and also to stay true to your original goals and values–sometimes you can compromise too far. Empathy for those who struggle during change processes is also essential.

What the Citizen Curators are doing is challenging accepted modes of thinking and doing but from a starting point of really learning about and understanding what collections are, what curators are and why museums are important in a civil society. Those organisations that tend to be based around a lot of control (not necessarily in a ‘heroic leader’ guise) are struggling more with the idea of sharing the power that museum collections represent with curatorial volunteers–especially when they operate as a team–than those willing to let go of the reins a bit to see what happens, to be open to learning from mistakes and to avoid the tendency to rescue or do co-curating by proxy.

We will be publishing our papers and presentations on the Cornwall Museum Partnership website after the conference and I will be blogging some more on this theme in the future.