Curator’s Advent. Day 13. The troublesome donor

    Scotch egg without runny yolkScotch egg without runny yolk

The problem donor is like a fancy Scotch egg. Promises loads on the outside, loaded up with pretty (but tasteless) garnishes, yet when you cut into the business end of the egg you are met with a rather rubbery egg with a hard yolk.

Donors who never give something for nothing, for example, like a named gallery, a particular series of exhibitions (that s/he guest curates) or a plaque, or a raft of stipulations about perpetuity, or a direction to purchase certain things for the museum that will be good for the collection, plague the curator on a regular basis. Pressured to accept things that have no place in the museum, in return for some government-incentive backed, tax break-driven cash injection, the curator is often the a lone voice of dissent amongst a cacophony of obsequious kowtowing from colleagues and ‘friends’.

Curator’s Advent. Day 12. Show and tell

Show and tell interactive in the Unwrapping the Past gallery on ancient civilisations at the Royal Cornwall Museum

Show and tell interactive in the Unwrapping the Past gallery on ancient civilisations at the Royal Cornwall Museum

Show and tell is my most favourite activity as a curator. I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I should like. It’s quite simple. Choose a theme or subject, get some great stuff out from your stores – or even out of a showcase – and show your visitors. If you are feeling brave, tell them how to handle the thing safely and let someone else get their mitts on your hallowed treasure. It’s the best feeling all round.

Curator’s Advent. Day 11. Research enquiry

Lamp-post by N. Holman, Makers, Penzance (Market Jew Street, Penzance)

Lamp-post by N. Holman, Makers, Penzance (Market Jew Street, Penzance)

The research enquiry is a most basic way for a museum to share the knowledge and stories contained in its collections–and often that about its surroundings too. A publicly-minded museum curator will relish the opportunity to share openly and widely with researchers of all motivations and from all walks of life. Answering enquiries is a direct and intimate activity between a museum and member of the public whether they are academic professors, students, TV production companies, family historians or just plain curious. Curators, where museums still keep them, have a special responsibility to dispense the ultimate purpose of a museum working for public benefit by generating and disseminating accurate and honest information. In turn, the museum may receive new knowledge from the enquirer which can be recorded and reshared to expand or challenge its understanding of its collections and the communities, and communities of interest, that it exists to support.

Curator’s Advent. Day 10. Relative humidity

Image of a beach. Relative humidity on a warm sunny day with a light breeze is just about right for humans but can be iffy for some objects

Relative humidity on a warm sunny day with a light breeze is just about right for humans but can be iffy for some objects

Mould, corrosion, warping, splitting, delamination, vinegar syndrome, desiccation, off-gassing are all symptoms of poor control of relative humidity and fluctuations in the moisture of the air surrounding a museum object remain the biggest threat to their long-term health and well-being. Too dry can be as bad as too wet. The whirling hygrometer spun purposefully around our heads has been replaced, by and large, by digital and radio controlled monitors. We love to see that 50-55% for paper and wood and 35-40% for iron.  For the curator who does not have the yackers (money) for multiple environmentally controlled zones, or who can’t afford the energy bill of hefty air conditioning units, silica gel has become a friend. Secreted (discretely) in a showcase or in appropriate quantities within the packaging environment, the curator can employ this and a treasury of techniques to keep objects nice and comfy, and presentable.

Curator’s Advent. Day 9. The showcase

A nice museum showcase, anti-bandit, anti-UV, anti-pest, anti-humidity... get the idea?

A nice museum showcase, anti-bandit, anti-UV, anti-pest, anti-humidity, antacid… get the idea?

The museum showcase is the frontline defence system that repels all manner of undesirable effects on our hallowed collections: bandits, the environment and sticky fingers. You may laugh but most curators will have to specify a showcase made from anti-bandit glass at some point in their careers. But there is a more elevated purpose for the showcase. It maintains the air of reverence and mystique surrounding a museum object. The vitrine is a window to wondering. It provides artful elevation of even the humblest artefact – a bit like a simple ingredient in the hands of a skilled cook. Visiting museums with showcases full of object is a bit like watching a cookery programme – you can imagine and long but you can’t taste, touch or smell.

Curator’s Advent. Day 8. Light and UV

Two identical coasters showing the effects of UV and sunlight damage

Left: on a window sill. Right: Not on a window sill*

Few of us use the p-word any longer – perpetuity but it would be nice if our museum objects could weather at least a few generations’ worth of abuse. Some wavelengths of light, especially sunlight, and ultra violet greedily snatch colour away from many of our written, painted, printed and dyed objects. This may reinforce the idea that the past really was all black, white, beige and grey. While a museum object kept permanently in the dark is of as much use to the curator as an empty box of teabags, let’s be grateful for those who assiduously protect our colourful heritage. *No real museum objects were harmed in the writing of this post.

Curator’s Advent. Day 7. Object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

An object and a record, but not an object record

They say that without provenance the museum object is worthless. The object record acts as a certificate of authenticity and contains everything from vital statistics on materials, dimensions, broken or worn bits, to ownership history, exhibition history, publication history… quite a lot of history. Index cards used to be the favoured medium of the curator’s record keeping but now we use all manner of databases–all that history reduced to 0s and 1s. Led by simple names controlled by peculiar technical dictionaries called thesauri or vocabulary lists, there was a strange habit, that I believe some still indulge in, whereby it’s frowned upon to write in proper sentences so you might get something that reads like a Victorian telegram:

record, vinyl, 7″ (17.78cm), black and silver, with sleeve, paper, torn, 1964.

Curator’s Advent. Day 6. Gloves

Me as a curator wearing full length oven gloves as a precaution against contaminating museum objects

I prefer to leave nothing to chance.

Museum objects are living gods and goddesses. Lords and Ladies of the material world. Most usually donning white cotton (or purple nitrile) gloves the curator is able to undertake her calling as high priest and footman.  It’s vital museum purity laws are adhered to. Contamination of the museum object by greasy palm or sticky fingers or unappointed non-curators results in the need for complex ritual cleaning and prayers involving Pygmy goat-hair brushes and holy distilled water and liturgical implements too numerous to list here that you wouldn’t understand anyway.