Who on Earth is the curator? Part 1

Many people ask me what a fashion curator does. I totally understand the confusion; it is quite a niche profession, especially in Brazil. But to be perfectly honest I don’t think it is that dissimilar to any other curatorial position. The only difference lies in the type of collection one takes care and the type of knowledge one specialises. That said, I don’t think many people really know what a curator actually does either, so we thought it would be a great idea to produce a sort of ‘101 guide curatorship’. I had originally written this post as one single text. Of course I also wanted to be thorough (there you go – the first thing that curators do!) and as a result, it became obscenely long – too long for comfort. So to save you from boredom or going somewhere else, I decided to split it into a weekly series, with each post focusing on one aspect of the curatorial job. I also thought we could invite curators to write about their own experiences. I hope you enjoy it!

For the first instalment, I thought I could give you a brief introduction to what you can expect from the following posts, as well as a discussion on what constitutes a collection/object. By dissecting the concept of the collection, I intend to create a theoretical base onto which to analyse the different tasks associated with the curator.

The word ‘curate’ seems to be very fashionable at the moment. In the mainstream, it is usually used in the context of ‘curating’ playlists, or mood boards on Pinterest, or shopping in ‘curated’ stores. It sounds very exciting and special, but it is not accurate. To curate is not the same as just assemble random things based on one’s taste. If it were, my Masters degree and all these years of training and working experience would have been a complete waste! No, to curate means to learn, care, manage, develop, present and share a collection and involves A LOT of research and dedication, if not a touch of obsession. Of course, like everything else in life, the job is always evolving and what a curator does in one museum is not necessarily the same as what another curator does somewhere else. But at the heart of it, we all work with collections – they are the main reason why we get up in the morning.

Specimen collections of the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mikepants
Specimen collections of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Photo by Mikepants

‘What is a collection?’, one may wonder. Most people tend to think of collections as a bunch of stuff. Most of the time, they are! But it doesn’t necessarily need to be physical objects that one can handle. At Historic Royal Palaces we consider each palace an object (mind blowing, right?!). Most importantly, objects have a value. Not necessarily a monetary value, but cultural and social. It is also a matter of who assigns this value to them and in which context they are inserted. In that sense, anything can be special if in the right place for the right people. And that’s why research is such an important part of a curator’s job. It is through research that a stained unlabelled blouse becomes an important aspect of a community’s identity or a piece of ceramics becomes a significant evidence of a Roman settlement in North England. Without the knowledge that comes with research they are just a stained unlabelled blouse or a piece of ceramics.

If you want to know more about collections, here is a little reading list:

  • Candlin, F. & Guins, R. (eds.) (2009) The Object Reader. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Caple, C. (2006) Objects: Reluctant witnesses to the past. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Dudley, S. (ed.) (2010) Museum Materialities: Objects, engagements, interpretation. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Dudley, S. (2012) Museum Objects: Experiencing the Properties of Things. London and New York: Routledge.
  • Pearce, S. (1993) Museums, Objects and Collections: A cultural study. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books.
  • Taylor, L. (2004) Establishing Dress History. Manchester: Manchester University Press.