National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > Collections 2010 series > A curatorial perspective > transcript

A curatorial perspective

Jennifer Sanders, Museums Australia, 14 May 2010

GUY HANSEN: Our next speaker is Jennifer Sanders. Jennifer has had a long and distinguished career as a curator. Appointed to the Powerhouse in 1978 as a curator in decorative arts and design, she was a key member of the team later that decade in the development of the 1988 Powerhouse Museum. Appointed Assistant Director of Collections in 1988 then Deputy Director in 2000, Jennifer led the museum’s curatorial, registration, preservation and outreach programs, and for several years exhibitions, education, publications and library services as well – a busy job. A member of the National Cultural Heritage Committee from 1999 to 2008, Jennifer is currently a member of the Council of Museums Australia and the external advisory panel for the Design Research Institute at RMIT University. Please welcome Jennifer.

JENNIFER SANDERS: Thank you very much, Guy, and thank you to Phillip [Jones], Eric [Archer] and Maryanne [McCubbin] for covering a lot of ground and throwing up a lot of issues. My brain went into overdrive and meltdown when Guy asked me to reflect on 30-plus years. I have tried to distil it down to several themes and generalisations off the top of my head but I hope it will start you thinking.

At the outset, let me declare the two tenets that underpin my philosophy about museums. Firstly, a museum’s collection defines its identity, gives it its character and is the primary means by which it is of relevance to the community – by which it fulfils its purpose – which leads me to the second which I learnt from Steve Weil, a truly inspiring thinker about museums and their role in society. His powerfully simple tenet was that museums must fulfil a public purpose, not simply carry out a function.

So to the first theme: Farewell the keepers!

When I began as a museum assistant in 1978, there were still positions called keepers of collections. The title was no longer in tune with increasing efforts by museums to open up their collections to the public, and it soon disappeared to be replaced by the title curator, a position that required at least a degree in a suitable discipline.

However, the Oxford Dictionary definition of a curator as ‘a custodian of a museum’ is still inadequate when ‘custodian’ itself is defined as a guardian or keeper or worse overseer, warden or watchdog.

The reality is that it’s a fine line balancing custodial responsibilities with public access or even perhaps with curator access from what Philip [Jones] said. There is always a tension between ensuring the preservation of collection now and for future generations while giving the present generation the opportunities to engage with the collection as fully as possible.

But the term ‘curator’ has gone beyond the Oxford and into contemporary parlance with a twist. It seems it is code for: ‘I have a discerning eye and great taste’ – and therefore I can make great selections for myself or as a service to others. So, the forthcoming Vivid Festival in Sydney has a contemporary music, sound and light program for which Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson are the curators.

There are fashion bloggers, disc jockeys, TV producers, designers et cetera who ‘curate’ selections from their specialist field, both real and virtual, as a free and a paid service. ‘Community curator’ is a new job out of Web 2 whose function is to organise online communities. And digital curators ‘separate art from junk and package it in creative ways’ – online.

My personal view is that it’s great to see the term appropriated and transmogrified beyond the museum world, as it shows both respect and interest in what a curator does, not that these non-museum roles share the responsibility of curating in a complete sense a permanent collection held in trust for the public. My quick reading of the contemporary usage is that it is focused on immediate ephemeral needs and experiences, both online and in person, with an emphasis on the process of selection in which personal taste and judgment are up front. You have to admit though, it is pretty neat to be in the company of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson.

My second theme?: The age of managerialism

To be effective and efficient in achieving an organisation’s purpose, tools such as corporate, strategic, business and operational plans, accounting standards, auditing cycles, zero budgeting, risk management, staff performance reviews et cetera have important roles to play. However, the ever-present risk is that management processes dominate at the expense of the museum’s core business – that management is more visible than museum professionalism – that management processes slow down museum business. We must be accountable for the resources we expend – time and money- and for the use we make of the public’s assets – the collection and the museum’s infrastructure. But the museum must be focused on fulfilling public purpose not carrying out management processes. ‘Purpose not process’, to paraphrase Steve Weil.

Then there is the tendency for the vapid terminologies of KPIs, products, outcomes et cetera to detune and flatten the distinctive and powerful definitions of arts, culture and heritage. My firm advice is to learn the language and principles of management so that you can operate and advocate from an empowered position for the museum. Be an active contributor to a well-managed organisation but do it first and foremost as a museum professional – take it over! Remember – and it might not be grammatically correct: management is a verb not a noun.

Theme three: Collections are more than the sum of their parts: out of the silos into the world

Late last year I attended a symposium run by RMIT’s Design Research Institute on trans-disciplinary design. The aim was to consider how to encourage design thinking and research which transcends disciplines and links across the two cultures of the arts and sciences in order to foster deeper contributions to global problem solving: global warming, urban planning, sustainable land use, et cetera. One of the keys to fostering trans-disciplinary design is to encourage widely educated, knowledgeable, open minds inquisitive about the world, about other cultures, about other disciplines, open to new ideas and generous in encouraging others’ contributions.

Just as academe is being exhorted to leave their silos, so museum curators and collections need to be un-siloed and working as a rich and rewarding resource unconstrained by discipline typecasting and contributing to broadening perspectives and deepening horizons.

I have been in silos. I remember when we first started planning the Powerhouse and I was curator of costume and textiles, toys and jewellery – we got out the plans, we got out the coloured pencils and we coloured in our square meterage for the costumes, the textiles, the toys and the jewellery – thank God none of that happened!

To foster a shared essential of purpose for the collection, we developed at the Powerhouse a Collection Development and Research Policy that embraced the entire scope of the collection, from trains to lace, cloisonne to Kooka stoves, so that the same agreed aim and criteria were used to assess both the current collection and all new acquisitions and – for de-accessioning.

However, we all know that leaving the silos comes down to a willingness to share information, to work across the organisation and the functional charts, to engage in discussions and debate about big pictures, lifting one’s eyes to far horizons and wide perspectives. It is worth pursuing for the cumulative knowledge and insights and the capacity to engage audiences in big stories and issues.

Theme four: Tipping the iceberg – three per cent on display – what about the other 97 per cent of the collection?

The strategic importance of this was made starkly clear to me when showing a member of state parliament the collection in the days when it was stacked up in less than ideal storage. I naively expected the usual wonder and enthusiasm at the diversity, rarity, quaintness of the objects in store, but his reaction was: ‘What have you got all this junk for?’ It’s a question that has resonated in my mind throughout my career. After the Powerhouse opened, there remained a mighty task to bring collection to order. With only three per cent on display, the rest of the collection needed to be located, assessed, de-accessioned if not required, documented and properly stored so it could then be made publicly accessible, physically and online.

The single collection policy we had organised transmogrified into a single collection database that, because of its unified terminology, laid the foundation for the Powerhouse collection’s virtual popularity and extraordinary facility as a Web 2 resource. Virtual access and interaction is a key measure of public relevance, and a powerful complement to the public access that the Museum has achieved at the Powerhouse Discovery Centre at Castle Hill, which Christopher Snelling will talk about in more detail later. But suffice to say we approached the Discovery Centre so that it reflected the Museum’s statewide history and statewide role and, as a location for others to come to learn how a museum looks after its collection.

Theme five: Curating in a digital world

Curators are scholars. They are knowledgeable experts in their fields, they bring the necessary rigour and judgment to the development, research, interpretation and communication of collections. Putting the collection online has opened it up to a much wider public keen to be involved, keen to contribute to the facts, the figures, the narratives about objects in the collection. Web 2 has democratised the activity of curation. There has been an exponential increase in the number of enquiries and web postings that curators need to respond to, need to both embrace and manage – tricky I know – but look at the world that has been opened up in terms of more information, connections and context.

A second but different serious challenge to curating thrown up by the digital world is how to collect, research, document and indeed preserve the digital-born when so much is opaque and invisible – or worse, when visible is bland and boring because it is computer generated.

For example, Australia has a distinguished industrial design history. The working papers, models, plans, sketches of past and present designers and design companies are an intrinsic component of our cultural heritage and an invaluable research resource. Regrettably, less and less of current design inspiration, thinking, processes and practices are visible or intelligible to the naked eye. Yet there is so much revealed and communicated in the sketches, writings, records and even napkin scribbles where the hand is evident. Personalities, characters, influences, dead ends, struggles and eureka moments are conveyed in these personal documents in a human way. They speak to you; they tell stories.

Theme six: Telling stories: heartbeat and public good

Significance studies – the authored essay by a knowledgeable curator that puts the objects in local, state, national or international context – that describes and establishes the object’s significance to our society – are a major development in establishing a collection’s value. A Significance essay articulates the public purpose of a museum and communicates cultural identity. It contributes to a shared understanding of where we have come from, our heritage and history, enabling us to better imagine the future – it connects people to our culture.

Peter Day, the BBC4 business journalist, coined the phrase ‘heartbeat economy’ to describe the ability and desire of consumers to circumvent dominant consumer pathways of department stores and go direct to the designer maker to get to know them and their work in order to tailor their purchase of goods to their individual needs. Complementing this is the slow food movement, which has spread into all forms of consumerism such that the locally made and locally distinctive products designed and made by someone you can get to know are valued above the generic and anonymous. The stories on the back label of wine bottles are classic examples of tailored personalised appeal.

And museums are full of stories: stories we tell and stories others tell us about our collections are such a powerful way to engage our public.

Theme seven: Go beyond the walls with collaboration, connectedness and partnerships

It’s the sharing, not the keeping. All of us have been involved in outreach activities that involve us the communities across the state or across the nation who have collections that don’t have the same resources that we have in the large museums. The more we can work in a collaborative way to uncover the stories in our own collections as well as help realise the value of collections in those communities, the richer our shared heritage.

Finally, the new curator: What are the qualities for a curator in this next phase of museum development?

Being out there, being nimble, being informed, connected, networked, thinkers, exercising judgement, discernment, discipline, detailed observers, scholarship, storytellers, investigators, being part of teams – internal and external, listening, being alert, thinking big, thinking laterally, working together but standing apart, being consultative. Above all – advocacy, facilitating, brokering, engaging with the public closer and virtual, but giving priority to community, reflecting the world but leading thinking about the world.

It’s a big and exciting job, so I will close with a quote that has the necessary gravitas. It was one that was given to me by Ken Burns who is the documentary film maker of programs about the American Civil War, baseball, big bridges et cetera and recently, that fantastic television series about the United States national parks. Ken was describing how he was being shown through the archives of the New York Public Library by the then head of the library Vartan Gregorian. You can imagine rows and rows of books and papers, and Vartan Gregorian turned to Ken Burns and said, ‘This is the DNA of our civilisation.’ Thank you.

Date published: 21 June 2010