The roles within a museum are as diverse and specialized as the collections they house. Two key roles, often misunderstood by the public and sometimes used interchangeably, are those of the museum conservator and the curator. Did you know that in French, a “conservateur” is a curator? Understanding the difference between these two key museum roles, as well as the unique ways they can collaborate, will enhance the preservation, presentation, and interpretation of museum collections.
What does a museum conservator do?
A museum conservator is primarily responsible for the physical care and maintenance of the artifacts within a museum’s collection. “Activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education” (AIC).
The role is highly specialized, normally requiring an advanced degree or many years of apprenticeship experience. It combines practical skills with a deep understanding of the science behind materials and decay. A museum conservator can specialize in a variety of sub-fields, such as paper, textiles, ceramics, or paintings conservation. Some conservators, like our Director of customer Success, Melissa King, specialize in preventive conservation.
Pros and cons of being a museum conservator
The role of a museum conservator offers the satisfaction of preserving important pieces of history for future generations. Museum conservators have direct access to touch and intervene objects that no one else may be allowed to handle. The job requires meticulous attention to detail, and the results can be highly rewarding.
However, it also presents challenges. The nature of the work can be physically and emotionally demanding as the responsibility of caring for (often) irreplaceable objects can be stressful. Additionally, conservation positions often require advanced degrees and highly specialized training, which can be both time-consuming and costly to obtain. This is coupled with the fact that conservator salaries tend to be lower than would be expected based on the necessary qualifications to carry out the job and that permanent conservation positions are few and far between.
What does a museum curator do?
According to the most recent version of CurCom’s Curatorial Code of Ethics (CurCom, 2009), Curators are “highly knowledgeable, experienced, or educated in a discipline relevant to the museum’s purpose or mission. Curatorial roles and responsibilities vary widely within the museum community and within the museum itself, and may also be fulfilled by staff members with other titles.” (American Alliance of Museums Curators Committee). They often have academic backgrounds in a specific field related to the collection under their charge. As such, they could come from a wide variety of backgrounds: art, history, anthropology, archaeology, biology, etc. Curatorial duties include (but are not limited to) selecting and acquiring new items for the collection, researching artifacts, and developing exhibitions.
Pros and cons of being a museum curator
Being a museum curator allows for creative and intellectual engagement with the collections. The role often involves research, writing, and public speaking, which can be intellectually stimulating and rewarding. Traditionally, the curator was considered the repository of knowledge and understanding of a museum’s collection, which comes with an associated social prestige.
However, curators often face high levels of responsibility and can experience pressure to keep exhibitions not only fresh and engaging, but also aligned with current socio-political expectations. Additionally, similar to conservators, curators usually need advanced degrees (normally PhDs) and several years of experience, which can require significant investment in spite of facing similar challenges related to permanent, well-paid positions.
Collaboration between museum conservators and curators
Successful collaboration between museum conservators and curators can lead to a more enriched visitor experience. The conservator’s insight into the physical state and care of an object can inform the curator’s interpretation and presentation of the item. A conservator’s actions during treatment may also uncover important historical information about an item’s manufacture or past use which will be of great interest to the curatorial staff.
Similarly, a curator’s in-depth sociohistorical knowledge of an item as well as their ability to read the scripts that may be written on the object will enable the museum conservator to make better decisions about which kinds of interventions are acceptable and appropriate. Check out this specific example from The British Library where library conservators, conservation scientists, and curators collaborated in the conservation treatment of a 14th century manuscript.
If we think about preventive conservation measures, as opposed to just treatment decisions, effective collaboration between museum conservators and curators may lead to improved display conditions. Lighting decisions can be made taking into account both the meaning of objects and their potential for fading. Similarly, museum conservators (working with or without professional mount makers) may design special cases or mounts depending on the aspect of the object the curator wishes to display.
According to this article by the Museums Association, “Curators of the future need to know how to collaborate with their staff to provide a better service to visitors and create an experience which connects them to the collections.” Naturally, this goes both ways and museum conservators should also be open to discussion and collaboration with other colleagues in the museum for a true team approach which will not only benefit the public but also allows for a more holistic approach to collections care.
While the roles of museum conservator and curator may differ significantly, both are essential in preserving, interpreting, and presenting a museum’s collection. Understanding these differences and fostering collaboration between these roles can greatly enhance the effectiveness of a museum’s operation and the richness of the visitor experience. Encourage your team to talk to each other and find how each person’s expertise and experience can enhance the work of others. Before you know it, this cross-disciplinary collaboration will positively impact not just your collections care practices but also your work environment.
If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with both museum conservators and curators or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.