Curators are the keepers of collections of artifacts, stories and history. Our City of Kingston curators take care of the thousands of items in our civic collection. Do you have a question for our curators? Contact us to ask us anything and we will get back to you within 5 business days.
1. What does a curator do?
The short answer would be: Curators research, collect, document, and display objects.
But in reality it’s not so well defined as it depends on the size and nature of the institution. Curators at the smallest museums and historic sites might be in charge of virtually the entire operation – from sweeping floors to designing exhibit panels. In this case, skills of business administration, facility management and marketing are as important as knowledge of the collection.
In large institutions, curators typically have a more focused role as the content expert. As part of a team of designers, collections managers and programmers; curators guide the intended experience of the visitor. Others duties would include ongoing research into topics related to the collections in their care and publishing and lecturing on this research. As content experts, curators will also field questions from the public and other institutions looking for information.
2. Why do we have museums?
The word “museum” has origins in ancient Greece and referred to the temple of the Muses as a place dedicated to the study of the arts. Some of the earliest museums originated in Europe and were buildings housing private collections from wealthy individuals in so-called “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities”. The first modern museums open to the public emerged in Western Europe. Museums like the British Museum, which opened in 1759, were accessible only by the upper classes and people had to apply in writing for an appointment. Museums have also been referred to as storehouses for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
Museums have spread around the world today and their purpose and function has changed with society. One definition of a modern museum is a place to collect, preserve, interpret, and display items of artistic, cultural, or scientific significance for the education of the public. However, from a visitor’s perspective the purpose of a museum is subject to their point of view. A visit to a local or national museum is often seen as an entertaining and educational way to spend the day. Whatever your impression or reasons for visiting your museum they remain places of knowledge and learning, some containing a collection of objects and art, but collectively acting as important parts of a community’s cultural vitality and identity.
3. Where do museums get their artifacts?
Museum collections originate from many sources. Artifacts often come from within the museum’s local community, particularly if the museum’s mandate includes locally based history, art, or science and technology. In this case, objects and works of art are most likely to come from residents as gifts or more rarely, as purchases (many museums do not have specific budgets to purchase artifacts). Artifacts can be family heirlooms or objects connected with a person’s work, business, hobby, sports activity or personal collecting interest. Sometimes objects are transferred between museums, particularly when an artifact is a duplicate or when it no longer fits one museum’s mandate, but may fit another’s. More rarely, objects may be purchased from antiques dealers or at auction. Historical artifacts may also come from archaeological excavations. Natural history museums collect animal and plant specimens often acquired during scientific research expeditions. One of the most important things about an artifact is its story, the history of its use and ownership. This information provides an object with context, meaning, and relevance to daily life and society. In the art world, this history of ownership is called provenance.
The museum’s core mandate and collecting policies direct which objects are acquired for the permanent collection and the formal legal acquisition process to be followed. Only artifacts which meet the museum’s collecting criteria will be deemed appropriate for acquisition. On occasion, other items that fall outside the museum’s mandate may be borrowed on a short-term basis for special exhibitions or other projects – these pieces are returned to their owners at the end of the specific loan period.
4. How are exhibits developed?
Exhibition themes may be inspired by a variety of factors. Museums most often work from their own collections, building themes around the core strengths of the objects they hold. Themes may originate from items in the news, moments in history, historical persons or communities, social and cultural trends, advances in science and technology, artistic movements, and anniversaries and community celebrations. Exhibitions are sometimes developed internally by curators, interpreters and programmers, but increasingly, in response to a community interest, need or specific request. Many exhibitions include community consultation and participation which could include community members acting as curators alongside museum staff to develop and mount an exhibit. As museums evolve, they are increasingly responsive to their communities and able to reflect the community back to itself in its exhibitions and programming.
An exhibition development process can include a number of stages: setting a theme, core messages and objectives, budgets (which can include application for grants and sponsorships), research, artifact and archival image selection, community consultation, establishing a storyline and interpretive plan, developing interactive elements within the exhibit, programming, object conservation, exhibition and graphic design, fabrication, installation and follow-up evaluation. In larger museums, a multidisciplinary museum teams of curators, interpreters, programmers, collections staff, conservators, designers and fabricators work together to develop the exhibition. In small museums, individual staff members may fill several of these roles. Some jobs such as graphic design and fabrication are often contracted out.