What exactly do you do?

The Courtauld Gothic Ivories project board meeting

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been asked this, I’d be a wealthy man. The usual thing is that I meet someone at a social event, the talk turns to work and careers, and then comes the big moment when I reveal that I am a museum curator. This usually earns a lot of blank looks, and then some courageous soul pipes up with ‘what exactly does that involve?’. The sub-text here, of course, is that museums are assumed to be unchanging places, and the museum curator is an ivory tower academic who maybe sometimes dusts things.

Actually, curators do an incredibly busy and varied job, many of them putting in long hours for very little financial reward, largely for love of the wonderful objects that they work with and the pleasure of communicating about them with others. If you’re reading this blog, then the chances are that you already knew that, but I thought you might be interested to get a detailed sense of what this curator, at least, does on a daily basis. So, below, I’ve been through my diary over a recent two week period, and pulled out some of the more interesting things I found myself doing. Maybe now I’ll never have to answer that question at a party again!

March 10th-11th: to York, for a conference on medieval stained glass and its display in museums, organised by the History of Art department at York University. My paper looked at the challenges we’d faced, and the choices we’d made when developing our new Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. The discussions were lively, because no way of handling the display of stained glass is entirely satisfactory, and there are strong opinions!

March 15th: A student group from University College London came to the Museum, and I ran a close-up session for them looking at five medieval ivory and bone carvings produced in the period 1300-1450. Talking to students is always fun, because their views are often fresh and unclouded by too many assumptions. Later that day, I had a meeting with a colleague to discuss an idea for a potential exhibition of medieval textiles.

March 16th: Locked in a basement in north London, recording audio tours and commentaries for an iPod app that we’ve developed to showcase the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries. I was feeling pretty confident, until  I was told that they’d had Rupert Everett in the day before doing recordings for a similar audio tour of our Cult of Beauty exhibition…

March 22nd: I finally finish drafting a catalogue record for an interesting ivory depicting the murder of Saint Thomas Becket by four knights in Canterbury Cathedral. This is the ivory in question: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O106938/panel-martyrdom-of-st-thomas/. There are a few of these in existence – this example is quite late in date, but copies a design that was at least thirty or forty years old at the time this ivory was carved. The clue is in the figures’ armour – those square shapes on the shoulders are characteristic of armour fashion in the 1330s, but this ivory was carved no earlier than 1360.

March 23rd: a board meeting for the Courtauld Institute’s Gothic Ivories project. This, by the way, is what’s going on in the photo above. This ambitious project aims to put the vast majority of surviving gothic ivory carvings (about 4,000 in number) on a single, searchable website, complete with high quality images. It involves an enormous amount of collaboration between institutions, and in the photo above you can see curators from London, Paris and New York, together with well-known collectors and dealers in the field. If you want to learn more about the project – and to search the database – then take a look at their website: http://www.gothicivories.courtauld.ac.uk/

March 24th: in the morning, a lovely visit to the National Gallery’s current exhibition on Jan Gossaert. In the afternoon, a colleague from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore visited, and together we looked at medieval objects in the collection that have been altered over time. At the end of the day, I find myself fielding an urgent phone call regarding a visit to the Museum the next day by a group of donors. Fortunately, in the event, I’m able to persuade a colleague to take this one on…

March 30th: I give a formal lecture to students on the study course The Medieval World at the V&A. It’s about medieval textiles, and is followed by a visit to the galleries to see and discuss the objects in detail. After two hours of solid talking on my part, my voice is in need of a rest!

And that’s it. Just two weeks of my life, but quite busy and varied. Working in the V&A is fun, exciting, and intellectually challenging. But how to sum that up when asked? I’m still not sure I have a good answer.

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