The occupation of curator was recently ranked one of The 50 Best Careers of 2011 by U.S. News & World Report. While we may find this true over the course of the next year, one thing becomes more and more certain and we continually embrace the information age: the role of the museum curator is changing.
Traditional curators are extremely knowledgeable about art/artifacts. New curators may have to be extremely knowledgeable about people.
Curators decide what to show the public and manage how visitors will experience art and artifacts. They are the gatekeepers who decide which artworks will be presented… but engaging visitors no longer stops with choosing which painting to hang on the wall and telling docents and interpreters to help build the bridge between academia and public understanding. Curators will need to become increasingly involved in the bridge-building process.
We are in the midst of an incredible time of information-share, user-generated content, and social technology. Everyone’s a curator.
Museums will need people who can help visitors curate for themselves in creative ways.
According to the U.S. News & World Report article, “The Labor Department projects the number of curators will rise by 23 percent over the next several years, well above the average rate for all careers. By 2018, there should be about 2,700 new positions added.” I argue that a good portion of these positions added will not be asked to serve the role of traditional curators.
The upcoming need for more curators is great news for museum professionals- especially since the employees that museums need to curate content to optimize visitor engagement may not be the traditional PhD’d curators of the industry in the past. We may find that new curators are specialists in people and communication. We’re already seeing these changes take place in the museum field. For example, Allison Agsten is the Curator of Public Engagement at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She was hired in order to help make the museum more interactive. She’s not a traditional curator; her background is in communications. But in many ways, she is the traditional curator- evolved. Museum marketers, object conservators, museum interpreters, and program producers may be filling some (perhaps most?) of those 2,700 curator job openings as museums heed the call of community engagement and social technology opportunities.
Specialists and academics are critical for museums and similar institutions to have on staff and their importance will not diminish. However, museums of the future may find that they need people to actively build and maintain the bridge between the academic realm and the sphere of public understanding. They will need people to not only choose works of art for display, but to chose them with a new focus on conversation and audience engagement.
Thanks to emerging tools, the walls between highly academic museums and the communities these institutions serve is more easily scaled , and museums will likely continue to become more interactive. The institution that keeps up the wall may one day wake up to find itself isolated. They’ll need a curator to help lift people up… which, we are learning, will require touching them.
The curators of the future may not look like the curators of the past.