Material Culture

Curatorial Research Centre a year on

I just wanted to mark the anniversary of founding the Curatorial Research Centre. Technically that happened on 22 October.

I created the idea out of a desire to take action on a set of broad but related systemic issues I had experienced and observed during my career so far–hierarchy, reputation, diversity, anti-intellectualism, shifts in values around material culture and collections. These issues don’t just affect the museum and higher education world where I am from, but also more widely.

Why curatorial research? Because I love being a curator and I love research, and I wanted a place to think and speak differently about it. I am trying to write a book on the philosophy and methodology underpinning how I now come to think about and practice curation but I must admit I am struggling to prioritise the time to do this. When you start a new business, it can be a bit overwhelming: the accountants, the admin, the ‘make sure you keep your company seal in a secure location’. I do sometimes think that many important things have missed the bus and still roam around in the 18th century.

What’s happened so far? Well, we’re still here and trading and very much in business. We are loving working with Cornwall Museums Partnership and seven Cornish museums to lead the Citizen Curators Programme. We really can’t see anything of this scale and ambition happening inter-institution anywhere else. We are nearly half way through a three-year programme thanks to the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund. And of course, I am also studying closely the results, this is active research.

In January 2019, Tom Goskar joined me in the enterprise, bringing in particular his technical and digital experience to the range of services we offer. He is the CRC’s Archaeologist and Audiovisual Specialist. He’s been researching and testing the curatorial applications of such products as 3D digital models. Surely we can do more with them than spin them on a screen, and go, “cool!” His creative archaeological mind has brought a completely different dimension to my view on curating. Some of his point cloud and texture imagery are even being worked up into fabric designs.

We have a fabulous Swiss-design inspired logo and brand thanks to Paul Betowski of Design by Paul. I’ll just leave you with it.

Curatorial Research Centre logo
Community and Diversity Curators

#MuseumHour 4 Years On

On Monday 8 October we celebrate #MuseumHour‘s 200th edition. It also marks the community’s 4th birthday. Twitter timelines on Monday evenings in the UK and all sorts of other time zones across the world have never been quite the same.

When Sophie Ballinger and I started up #MuseumHour this is what we had in mind. Amazingly, there has been no mission creep. It is still the same, just bigger.

It’s a very simple enterprise, light weight but high energy and without any constrictions of institutionalism or stakeholder expectation. It’s free and for all-comers.

Two years ago we were marking our 100th #MuseumHour. Then, we had two co-organisers, had 46 guest hosts and ~130K impressions per month. Today we have three co-organisers, have had 102 guest hosts (some serial guests) and we get ~ 313.1K impressions per month. A few weeks ago we passed the 10,000 follower milestone.

And we don’t even bother with a blue tick.

We are not funded or supported by any organisation. It’s as independent as you can get. Even if you are not a Twitter-user, you can access all the chat from the website. Unlike Facebook, Twitter is not (yet) a walled garden.

The we is important. My view as a co-organiser is to let the community lead its direction. I have no desire to manage the community or shape the various themes and subjects that get suggested to us. The result is that people seem to really feel like they are part of something, and they are as equally part of it as the next follower.

It’s because of this attitude–shared by co-organisers Katy Jackson and Kate Groome–that the most engaged-with tweet over the last 6 months was about museum toilets.

And that’s all I’m interested in saying about analytics and statistics. The popularity of #MuseumHour and the organic way it has grown has meant it has attracted the attention of more people and organisations wishing to use the platform to gain a new audience. This is great, but we don’t provide analytics or statistics to guest hosts as this is about taking part first, promotion and profile-raising will come automatically if you do that well.

It’s nice to hear that #MuseumHour is now a regularly recommended part of someone’s study or volunteer work, and many pledge to take part as part of their AMA (CPD award organised by the Museums Association).

The one area of change that I am particularly keen on supporting is the growth in interest outside the UK. Over the last year and a bit we have had #MuseumHour hosted in Estonia, Croatia, Sweden and New Zealand (twice). Maybe #MuseumHour could use a different language as well as English some time?

Happy 4th Birthday, #MuseumHour! Here is every person and topic that has made it happen so far.


Community and Diversity Cornish Heritage Curators

Becoming a city of culture

A Musical Club showing composer and musician Joseph Emidy of Truro (1775-1835). Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Cornwall
A Musical Club showing composer and musician Joseph Emidy of Truro (1775-1835). Courtesy of the Royal Institution of Cornwall

I’ve been working in recent months on the value and role of museums and similar organisations in place making–the new way of describing what has developed from early millennium debates on creating a sense of place.

What makes places unique isn’t cutting it anymore. Like our museum visitors and users, people’s expectations from a city visit have changed. We want experiences that are memorable, not just an ill-defined and oft-unsatisfying learning something new.

Just before I left for a study trip to Finland and Estonia, Cornwall was in the midst of some pretty grim arguments about putting Truro forward as a candidate for European City of Culture 2023 (unfathomably a joint bid of Truro-Cornwall). The development of the bid itself came under fire and eventually it was dropped altogether following our recent local authority elections.

At about the same time I was working in a small group comprising good minds from Truro Cathedral, Hall for Cornwall and the Royal Institution of Cornwall (the organisation that runs Royal Cornwall Museum on River Street) to discuss how three of Truro’s leading organisations could come together to promote the city as a cultural centre, for local communities and tourists alike. All are also developing ambitious new plans for their future and it made sense to me that they should try and work together in a strategic way. They are, after all, the content holders, when it comes to creating stories and narratives about a city, its heritage and most importantly its people.

While visiting Tartu in Estonia–the country’s second city and cultural capital, I realised what it really meant to be in a city of culture and came back with some tips…


Collections Community and Diversity Curators Learning The Shop Floor

Citizen Curators programme launched

Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator
Street art in Santiago de Chile, one of the many important topics for the modern curator

Last Thursday at Cornwall Museums Partnership’s annual Share and Learn day in Helston, I launched the Citizen Curators Programme and introduced its prospective pilot at Royal Cornwall Museum.

Citizen Curators is basically museum studies in the workplace and takes the place between attending one-off training and a full-on course at a university such as an MA in Museum Studies.

Citizen Curators is a work-based training programme aimed at skilling up volunteers (and also staff who want to develop new skills) in modern curatorial practice. The idea behind this programme was developed over 18 months ago in response to the increasing lack of opportunities to learn curatorial and modern museum skills while working or volunteering in a sustained manner, and have the opportunity to test and assess competencies and in a peer learning framework.

The rural context of Citizen Curators is important. People of smaller museums in large rural regions lack the most access to training, skills, networking and peer groups.

For me it’s an opportunity to experiment with delivering education to workers while they work, and also led by the needs of their work. Colleagues will know about my growing interest and involvement in museum skills development and I am grateful for this opportunity try out something new.

Apart from access to skills and an opportunity to test them out, the Citizen Curators pilot will also focus on recruiting at least 50% under-25s.

The emphasis will be on the participants’ learning goals, rather than on fancying up a regular volunteer opportunity or disguising a dreaded unpaid internship.

That said, participants will have to demonstrate commitment and a dedication to completing the course and creating an outcome that is meaningful to the museum.

Chart showing Citizen Curators competencies
Citizen Curators competencies

It is thanks to Arts Council England support through Cornwall Museums Partnership received through through the Change Makers leadership programme that I am able to conduct this pilot.

Download the Citizen Curators Pilot summary (PDF)

Download the Citizen Curators Flier (PDF)


Curator’s Advent. Day 24. Tea

Tea opens up the curator’s mind.



Curator’s Advent. Day 23. The learning officer

The invention of the curator, not the learning officer
The invention of the curator, not the learning officer

Just want to get something straight. The learning officer isn’t always ‘the fun one’ in the museum.


Curator’s Advent. Day 22. Conservation supplies

In need of conservation supplies. Serious condensation inside a showcase
In need of conservation supplies. Serious condensation inside a showcase

Purchasing conservation supplies is retail therapy for the curator.

Solander boxes. Unbleached cotton tape. Melanex sleeves. Acid free tissue. Goat hair brush. Distilled water. Tyvek. Humidity control cassettes. Nitrile gloves (S, M, L, XL). Solid brass paperclips. Book sofa. Light meter. Thermohygrometer. Plastazote.

Museum gel.


Curator’s Advent. Day 21. Art hang

Nothing is straight - shows a row of five framed prints
Nothing is straight

Simple, yet fiendish, the art hang requires a different set of skills to the mounting of objects in showcases or for open display. What happens when:

  1. The ceiling isn’t straight
  2. The tops of the walls aren’t straight
  3. The floor slopes
  4. The frames aren’t straight

Throw out the spirit level and trust thine eyes.


Curator’s Advent. Day 20. Documentation backlog

Documentation at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli, Italy
Documentation at the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli, Italy

The documentation backlog was the bees-knees museum trend of the late 1990s/early 2000s. It sailed forth amongst the arguments over access vs preservation and rose above the fights for and against perpetuity. Any curator who has the luxury today of dealing with a documentation backlog will no doubt relish the task ahead. It’s probably the nearest today’s curator will get to the Joy of Cataloguing. The depressing bits usually involve a lack of paperwork showing what belongs to the museum and what doesn’t and discovering an entire filing cabinet of ‘long-term loans’ or even ‘permanent loans’. Many modern museums will not permit time to be spent on documentation backlogs meaning that collections will be properly prepared for the post-truth era.


Curator’s Advent. Day 19. The exhibition

Fossils on show in gorgeous gallery at Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter.
Fossils on show in gorgeous gallery at Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter.

“Lights, levels, labels… and action!”

The museum exhibition is the curator’s own art form. Stand aside.