The reassuring rise of the museum curator

It’s a good time to dismantle two prejudices against curators

It must be so tiring, just standing around all day, and having to wear a horrid hat,” someone said to me at quite a sophisticated dinner party shortly after I became a curator at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I realised then that lots of people did not have the faintest idea of what a curator does all day long, and, despite the huge rise in the popularity of museums over the last 30 years, they still don’t.

This was clear from the general surprise at the news last month that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had appointed its curator of tapestries to succeed Philippe de Montebello as director — surprise that was immediately qualified, it has to be said, by respectful remarks about Thomas Campbell’s scholarly achievements and his popularity with his peers, yet astonishment at the unfashionableness of his subject area, and that the job had not gone to someone with a proven record for virile management and fund-raising, or, alternatively, to some modernist who would “drag the museum into the 21st century”.

This appointment comes a few months after another scholar was appointed to a top job, Nicholas Penny to the National Gallery in London. He knows about old masters, rarely in the media now that contemporary art commands the big bucks, and sculpture, even less in the public eye.

Two swallows don’t make a summer, of course, so it would be premature to say that this proves there is a widespread reaction against the last two decades’ obsession with an MBA vision of museums. Nonetheless, it’s probably a good time to dismantle two widespread prejudices against curators.

Misconception number one: that curators have a narrow range of knowledge. The reality is that a good curator has breadth as well as depth. Tom Campbell knows everything there is to know about warp and weft, but also about the artists who painted the cartoons on which the tapestries are based. He knows about the meaning of the subjects depicted (which also involves knowing about the history and literature of the day), the patrons who spent fortunes on commissioning the tapestries, the life at the courts where they were used. And all this for a period of some 400 years. He speaks a number of foreign languages and, it goes without saying, is highly literate. In other words, he is brainy and learned, to use words you don’t hear much nowadays.

Misconception number two: that curators may be brainy, but they are constitutionally incapable of understanding management and so can’t be trusted with the top jobs. The truth is that some do indeed dislike and fear management, but others simply add that skill to their quiver when it is needed. Remember, these are clever people. They would have to be dottily reclusive not to know that running a museum nowadays requires considerable policy- and decision-making capacity, and recognising this is half the battle. The other half is to appoint good administrators under you, which is what has happened over the last few decades at the Met, and the National Gallery and the British Museum in London. This frees the curator-director to lead the intellectual policy of the museum, to get the best out of the other curators, to inspire people inside and outside the institution. Just think of the achievements of Neil MacGregor, even more of an outsider than Tom Campbell when he was appointed to the National Gallery in 1987 and now, at the head of the British Museum, one of the most respected museum directors in the world.

Any director needs the backing of the board, so it is good to know that Tom Campbell was chosen by unanimous decision of the Met’s trustees after a long selection process. He was asked to apply, and gradually emerged as the best candidate: thoroughly expert, thoughtful, familiar with the museum, eloquent, young and independent-minded, free of any particular agenda, a good balance between old and new. Sensibly, he’s not talking to the press yet, but it is known that he believes strongly in communicating the collections to the public and trying to make up for the gaps in people’s education. And he’s also a bit of a technology geek, so expect the mighty Met to turn its sights onto the world of multimedia (an advantage of entering the field late is that the glitches have been worked through in other museums).

What we should hope for is a flowering of creativity and deepening of the knowledge in these museums. Some of it will be visible—in the way the galleries are presented, in the choice of exhibitions—but much of it will be invisible because, as in the theatre, it’s what goes on behind the scenes that guarantees the quality of what the public gets to see. This quality can’t be achieved by marketing and PR departments because these are essentially parasitical and draw on the strength of the museum itself. And that strength is built up over generations because museums are in it for the long haul, independent of boom and bust in the art market. As the British Museum proclaims in letters carved into the floor of the Great Court: “Let thy feet millenniums hence be set in the midst of knowledge.” To which one says: a little ambitious in timespan, but very reassuring as the world slumps into yet another financial and existential crisis.

The writer is General Editorial Director of The Art Newspaper

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20 Sep 09
14:14 CET


Misconception #1 "Narrow"- necessarily so with regard to the great range covered by museums such as the Metropolitan, a curator is obliged by definition to specialise, and cannot have an intimate knowledge of any but a very few areas that make up any such large Museums As your example of Tom Campbell only serves to make obvious-how 'general' is knowledge of some 400 years of European Art? #2 This may be more easily understood as an inherent difficulty or impossibility of combining the "skill" to be a curator and the very different managerial "skill"; in fact these are not so much skills as philosphies, ways of thinking about art, of dealing with it, and may be said to be inherently opposed Just as we find that artists are only exceptionally able to manage or promote their careers with any genius, and that a great deal of suspicion is directed at those who do We wish a curator to display an intuitive sensibilty and passion which we associate with the trust of art, whereas a successful manager has merely the attributes of any common or garden business person in any area of business be it the art or any other-is personable, gets things done, good head for figures, knows how to delegate, etc etc, and should he or she have any essential talent it is the talent for manipulating politicians or fellow businessman donors Your's J. Madden

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