WHO ON EARTH IS THE CURATOR? PART 2

The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford.
The interior of Duke Humphrey’s Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford.

Here is the second installment to our ongoing series on the curator – that omniscient figure which seems so trendy right now. Last week we analysed the concept of a collection and what constitutes an ‘object.’ From now on we will focus on the different tasks associated with the curatorial profession. This week we will start with research.

As discussed last week, it is through research that a curator is able to assign value to stuff. Research can be a long, exhaustive process, which requires much dedication, a keen eye and LOTS of patience. It also requires commitment and discipline, especially during a glorious sunny day in summer, when you’re stuck inside a library or an archive without windows! But man, when you finally find what you’ve been looking for, or even better, something you didn’t even know it existed, it can be the most wonderful moment. All of the sudden your life makes senses, and all the suffering and sense of social exclusion becomes pure joy! And sometimes it only takes one single article or map or image to change your whole argument, shed light into a whole new aspect of something’s story and if you’re lucky it can open another window to a time long forgotten.

Research is like detective work, where one tries to find clues to help you solve a mystery. Usually, but not exclusively, these clues are found through primary sources, including historical documents, accounts contemporary to the period you’re studying, diaries, illustrations/portraits, other objects, etc. Primary sources provide first-hand evidences about whatever you are researching, and they are usually found in archives, museums’ collections and libraries. Along these, there is a wealth of secondary sources, which help put all the pieces of the puzzle together. Secondary sources discuss, interpret, analyse, evaluate and process primary sources. These include academic articles, books, biographies and so on.

Finally, through research curators are able to insert the objects they look after (aka. our most cherished treasures) into social and cultural contexts. For example, let’s say that you’ve done your research and you realised that a stained, slightly crooked blouse is a typical example of the blouses hand woven in a village in Transylvania. So what? What does it mean to that community to wear that blouse? What skills and techniques are involved in producing that blouse? When is it worn? Who wears it? Who doesn’t wear it? These are all questions that help us see the bigger picture and make sense of a collection in the grand scheme of things.