A curator (from Latin: cura, meaning "to take care") is a manager or overseer. Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library, or archive) is a content specialist charged with an institution's collections and involved with the interpretation of heritage material.
A traditional curator's concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort — artwork, collectibles, historic items, or scientific collections. More recently, new kinds of curators have started to emerge: curators of digital data objects and biocurators.
In smaller organizations, a curator may have sole responsibility for acquisitions and even for collections care. The curator makes decisions regarding what objects to select, oversees their potential and documentation, conducts research based on the collection and its history, provides proper packaging of art for transportation, and shares research with the public and community through exhibitions and publications. In very small, volunteer-based museums such as those of local historical societies, a curator may be the only paid staff-member.
In larger institutions, the curator's primary function is that of a subject specialist, with the expectation that he or she will conduct original research on objects and guide the organization in its collecting. Such institutions can have multiple curators, each assigned to a specific collecting area (e.g., curator of ancient art, curator of prints and drawings, etc.) and often operating under the direction of a head curator. In such organizations, the physical care of the collection may be overseen by museum collections-managers or by museum conservators, with documentation and administrative matters (such as personnel, insurance, and loans) handled by a museum registrar.
In the United Kingdom, the term "curator" also applies to government employees who monitor the quality of contract archaeological work under Planning Policy Guidance 16: Archaeology and Planning (PPG 16) and manage the cultural resource of a region. In the museum setting, a curator in the United Kingdom may also be called a "keeper".
In Scotland, the term "curator" is also used to mean the guardian of a child, known as curator ad litem.
In the US, curators have multifaceted tasks dependent on the particular institution and its mission. But in recent years the role of the curator has evolved alongside the changing role of museums. As US museums have become increasingly more digitized, curators find themselves constructing narratives in both the material and digital worlds. Historian Elaine Gurian has called for museums in which "visitors could comfortably search for answers to their own questions regardless of the importance placed on such questions by others". This would change the role of curator from teacher to "facilitator and assistor". In this sense, the role of curator in the United States is precarious, as digital and interactive exhibits often allow members of the public to become their own curators, and to choose their own information. Citizens are then able to educate themselves on the specific subject they are interested in, rather than spending time listening to information they have no desire to learn.
More recently, advances in new technologies have led to a further widening of the role of curator. This has been a focus in major art institutions internationally and has become an object of academic study and research. A biocurator is a professional scientist who curates, collects, annotates, and validates information that is disseminated by biological and Model Organism Databases.
In contemporary art, the title "curator" identifies a person who selects and often interprets works of art. In addition to selecting works, the curator is often responsible for writing labels, catalog essays, and other content supporting exhibitions. Such curators may be permanent staff members, "guest curators" from an affiliated organization or university, or "freelance curators" working on a consultancy basis. The late-20th century saw an explosion of artists organizing exhibitions. The artist-curator has a long tradition of influence, notably featuring Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), inaugural president of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, founded in 1768.
In some US cultural organizations, the term "curator" may designate the head of any given division. This has led to the proliferation of titles such as "Curator of Education" and "Curator of Exhibitions". The term "literary curator" has been used to describe persons who work in the field of poetry, such as former 92nd Street Y poetry-director Karl Kirchwey. This trend has increasingly been mirrored in the United Kingdom in such institutions as Ikon, Birmingham, UK and Baltic, Gateshead, UK.
In Australia and New Zealand, the term also applies to a person who prepares a sports ground for use (especially a cricket ground). This job is equivalent to that of groundsman in some other cricketing nations.
In France, the term curator is translated as conservateur. There are two kinds of curators: heritage curators (conservateurs du patrimoine) with five specialities (archeology, archives, museums, historical monuments, natural science museums), and librarian curators (conservateurs des bibliothèques). These curators are selected by competitive examination and attend the INP (Institut National du Patrimoine). The "conservateurs du patrimoine" are civil servants or work in the public service; the use of the title by private workers is not possible.
Education and training
Curators hold a high academic degree in their subject, typically a Doctor of Philosophy or a master's degree in subjects such as history, art, history of art, archaeology, anthropology, or classics. Curators are also expected to have contributed to their academic field, for example, by delivering public talks, publishing articles, or presenting at specialist academic conferences. It is important that curators have knowledge of the current collecting market for their area of expertise, and are aware of current ethical practices and laws that may impact their organisation's collecting.
The increased complexity of many museums and cultural organisations has prompted the emergence of professional programs in fields such as public history, public humanities, museum studies, arts management, and curating/curatorial practice. In 1992, the Royal College of Art established an MA course co-funded by the Royal College of Art and the Arts Council of Great Britain, the first in Britain to specialise in curating with a particular focus on contemporary art. The course is now funded by Arts Council England, and in 2001 the course title was amended to Curating Contemporary Art to more accurately reflect the content and primary focus of the programme. Similarly, a number of contemporary art institutions launched curatorial study courses as an alternative to traditional academic programs. Established in 1987, the École du Magasin is a curatorial training program based at the art center Le Magasin in Grenoble, France. Similarly, the Whitney Museum of American Art, through its independent study program, hosts a curatorial program as one of its three study areas, and de Appel arts centre has hosted a curatorial programme since 1994. Other institutions that run programs in curating include Norwich University of the Arts; The Courtauld Institute of Art; Kingston University; Goldsmiths, University of London; Birkbeck, University of London; Chelsea College of Arts; University of the Arts London; California College of the Arts; University of Southern California; Bard College; School of Visual Arts; the École du Louvre; the Institut national du patrimoine (The National Institute of Cultural Heritage); University of Rennes 2—Upper Brittany; OCAD University; and University of Melbourne. (See →External links for further information on courses.)
Community curation— also known as co-curation or public curation—is a movement in U.S. museums and public humanities organizations to involve community members in various curatorial processes, including exhibit development and programming. Community members involved in community curation are likely not trained as museum professionals, but have vested interests in the outcomes of curatorial projects. Community curation is a response to the 19th century “information transmission” model of learning, in which museums are sources of expert knowledge and visitors are the recipients of that expertise. Community curation seeks not to abandon expertise, but to broaden definitions of expertise to “include broader domains of experience” that visitors bring to museums.
Community curation practices are varied. The Wing Luke Museum conducts community outreach at the beginning of exhibition projects, and convenes community advisory committees at various stages in the curatorial process. The Brooklyn Historical Society has accepted exhibit proposals from community members and trained them in curatorial skills to co-create exhibits. Such efforts to allow communities to participate in curation can require "more not less expertise from museum staff."
Technology and society
In the same way that a museum curator may acquire objects of relevance or an art curator may select or interpret a work of art, the injection of technology and impact of social media into every aspect of society has seen the emergence of technology curators.
Technology curators are people who are able to disentangle the science and logic of a particular technology and apply it to real world situations and society, whether it is for social change, commercial advantage, or other purposes. The first U.K. Wired Conference had a test lab, where an independent curator selected technology that showcased radical technology advancements and their impact on society, such as the ability to design and "print" physical objects using 3D printers (such as a fully working violin) or the ability to model and represent accurate interactive medical and molecular models in stereoscopic 3D.
MLOVE, a Confestival started in 2010, celebrated the disruption of the perception of what a tech conference should be, using a radically more interactive format that drew on a variety of influences outside of the traditional world of technology, including religion, micro-banking for developing countries, and interactive art installations/workshops such as the Future Cube and a giant interactive video projection.
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- Alix Friedman (June 13, 2000). "POETRY CENTER DIRECTOR KARL KIRCHWEY LEAVES 92nd STREET Y". 92nd Street Y. Retrieved October 15, 2010.
The 92nd Street Y announces the departure of Karl Kirchwey, longtime director of the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Center. Mr. Kirchwey will become Director of Creative Writing and Senior Lecturer in the Arts at Bryn Mawr College starting next fall. The Poetry Center is a program of the 92nd Street Y Tisch Center for the Arts, the Y's arts presenting division.
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- 'Hang it all', article on contemporary curating and the rise of curating degrees, the Observer newspaper, Sunday March 9, 2003.
- 'Career Curating' article on curating contemporary design, the Guardian newspaper, Saturday July 14, 2001.
- CRUMB – Curatorial Resource for Upstart Media Bliss
- International Curators Program / Antwerp
- The Exhibitionists – geared towards children, an interactive guide to how an exhibition is put together
- Tate staff preparations for the Turner Prize 2008 (blog), Tate, UK
- UMsystem.edu – University of Missouri Board of Curators
- Interview with Agustín Pérez-Rubio, current director and former chief curator of the MUSAC
- Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College Graduate Program
- MA Curation Degree Course | Norwich University of the Arts
- Critical Curatorial Cybermedia – Research based Masters Programme, Geneva University of Art and Design, Geneva, Switzerland
- Curating Contemporary Art MA | Royal College of Art
- de Appel Curatorial Programme, de Appel arts centre, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- École du Magasin Curatorial Training Program, Le MAGASIN, Grenoble, France
- Exhibition Design & Management, Department for Image Science, Danube University, Krems, Austria
- MA Curatorial Practice, California College of the Arts, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.
- MA Curatorship, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia
- MA Art and Curatorial Practices in the Public Sphere, USC Roski School of Fine Arts, Los Angeles, California
- Master of Art Curatorial Studies – Theory – History – Criticism, Frankfurt, Germany
- Whitney Independent study program
- Criticism & Curatorial Practice (MFA)—Graduate Studies—OCAD U