Why curators and collection managers often talk at cross-purposes instead of complementing each other to a perfect team
The days when museum storage managers were the strong guys with hands like duct covers are long gone. Today, collection management is the field where well-trained specialists in the handling of arts and artefacts are called registrars or collection(s) managers. They are responsible for the safe storage and transportation of collection objects and for any documentation about those objects. The jobs of the curator and the collection manager are very different.
The one who makes an exhibition has to:
- be creative
- surprise the visitor with something new
- have not only a plan B, but also a plan C, D and E for everything that goes
- react in a short period of time to unexpected and unforeseeable events
- present museum objects from their best side
The one that cares for collections has to:
- think in long-term periods
- use only materials that have been tested again and again for meeting archival standards
- document everything that happens to an item of their collection – really everything
- plan every detail so nothing goes wrong
- divert attention from storage areas, and the transportation of museum objects
This is the reason why there are often issues between these two people or teams when it comes to developing and building an exhibition. Needless to say, most issues can be avoided if both parts know how the other one thinks and what his requirements are. Even more, if they fully understand what the other one’s responsibilities are the curator and registrar can form a very effective team. From a collection manager’s point of view who worked long enough for the “opposite side” there are five crucial points exhibition managers should know to have effective collaborations with registrars:
An eye for the future
Registrars think in generations. If visitors will enjoy seeing a certain artefact in an exhibition is not part of their considerations – at least not in the first place. For them, it’s most important the artefact goes to the exhibition place without damage, is presented in a safe way that doesn’t lead to damage and, finally, comes back safe and sound.
This might sound simple. In reality, a good registrar will only give his or her nod of approval if he or she sees each and every step in this lane is safe for the artefact. For the exhibition coordinator, this means he or she should provide as much detailed information about the planned exhibition as possible. Being able to provide good answers to questions about temperature, relative humidity, illumination, sunlight exposure, interim storage and safety installations increases the likelihood of getting a loan approved.
If the planning process is far enough along to tell how the artefact will actually be presented, this information should be given to the registrar. If there are issues with this kind of presentation it’s better to discuss it in the earliest possible state. This is far better than having the courier stop the positioning of the artefact just before the opening. Or, even worse, having a loan called back by the lending institution while the exhibition is still running – letting visitors stare at an empty showcase.
Don’t confuse museum storage with an online shop
There is a tendency to present the museum’s collection in an online data base. This is great, because it raises public awareness for the collections and the work behind the scenes. On the other hand it sometimes raises false expectations. Neither one can borrow all things shown in the data base, nor does it in most cases represent the whole collection.
While planning an exhibition one is tempted to “fill the shopping cart” and place an “order”. Additionally, one is inclined to lend more items than one actually needs in the exhibition. Accustomed to online shopping, one tends to think “I’ll send it back if I don’t use it”.
Despite the new ways to present museum collections the classical collection work hasn’t changed at all. Every object has to be taken out of its storage place and examined to determine if it can go out for the loan or not. The registrar not only does a check on the object’s condition but also to see if it is scheduled for another project, if the loaning institution meets the specific requirements and if the data in the data base is correct and up to date. Every object needs exactly the same amount of care, no matter if it is finally shown in the exhibition or not. If the registrar in charge gets the impression that the borrowing institution is ordering objects without thought and planning he or she will be equally willing to collaborate like a curator who is told his job only consists of hanging pictures on walls.
The other way round the curator can take advantage of the profound knowledge of the collection manager if he or she communicates the intention for asking for a certain artefact. Often, interesting objects are recent acquisitions that can’t be found in the online data base. The collection manager might immediately recognize that some of them fit into the exhibition context and can give a hint.
A matter of time
No one has time to spare, least the exhibition coordinator. But haste makes waste and if there is one thing every registrar tries to avoid it is waste.
A loan requested without enough advance notice is not likely to be successful. If the time for checking requested artefacts and requesting institution is too short, it is very likely that the registrar will object to the loan request. The earlier the request the more likely the object is not scheduled for another exhibition project. It is more likely that there is time slot for necessary cleaning or conservation measures. Furthermore, one can unhurriedly think about packing and transportation matters and talk about crucial points to find good solutions.
But what time is the right time? This depends on many factors. If the curator is still not sure if an artefact should be shown it is too early, at least in most cases. No institution is excited to get a loan request that is changed several times afterwards. On the other hand, like mentioned before, there are many steps involved for the loaning institution and there should still be time enough to look for an alternative if the request is turned down. It gets especially tricky if there is a board of trustees or similar institution involved in granting a loan. In this case the request must be early enough for the next scheduled conference.
The best answer to the time question is to have one exhibition team member who is responsible for all the loans involved. He or she should have enough experience, contacts and intuition to make the right requests in the right way at the right time.
From A to B and back again
Security and transportation issues are part of a registrar’s day-to-day routine. It is part of that routine to only give way for a transport if the responsible registrar is fully convinced that everything is alright. Actually, it can happen to an exhibition coordinator that his or her van has to leave without the loan, because security didn’t seem to be sufficient. There is one simple way to avoid this: communication – talk early, talk often.
Once it is clear which artefacts will go out on loan one can talk about transportation. Is an art handler with a special air-conditioned truck needed? Is a normal van sufficient? Is there enough space on the loading platform with all the artefacts if they are securely tied down? Are climate-controlled crates necessary and do they have to be customized or built completely new? Are the packing materials stored at the borrowing institution during the exhibition or do they come back and need to be shipped again when the exhibition is over? Is a courier needed? A thousand odds and ends need to be considered, planned and scheduled so that everything runs like clockwork when it comes to setting up the exhibition.
A good collection manager will talk with the curator about issues and ask the right questions. A common issue is for example the limited floor load in historical buildings, or elevators that are not big enough for the borrowed artefacts. But even a registrar doesn’t always take everything into account. The better the communication beforehand the less likely there will be unexpected surprises when the exhibition project comes into the crucial phase.
The case of dotting the i
Registrars are notorious for being accurate when it comes to documentation. “Dot every i and cross every t” has become something like the slogan of registrars worldwide. True, registrars can be tedious when it comes to rules, policies and formalities. When in doubt they tend to better document more rather than letting information escape. This sometimes drives exhibition coordinators crazy, who need to worry about a great deal of different issues at the same time but normally are not particularly fond of paperwork.
For example: Every object that goes on loan gets a condition report that mentions every characteristic, scratch and crack. A copy of this report goes out with the loan and is asked to be continued as the object makes its way to the exhibition and back again. The condition should be checked and documented (preferably by a registrar) before it is exhibited, during the exhibition and before it goes on the transport back to the loaning institution. Filling out condition reports is time consuming and needs to be done in the critical phases before opening and after finishing an exhibition where time is especially short.
With exhibitions based on the presentation of many artefacts and/or consisting of many loans from different institutions and maybe even from abroad, paperwork becomes a sometimes overwhelming factor. It is tempting to be a little sloppy with it and give more attention to other issues. This is the reason why curators sometimes tend to react irritably when being asked to initial that everything is fine for a felt 387th time.
This changes immediately if there is an insurance claim or if customs authorities ask awkward questions. Then every exhibition coordinator can be thankful if he or she had someone in the team who was working painstakingly accurate and dotted all i’s and crossed all t’s.
Conclusion: a perfect team
The domain and job requirements of curator and registrar are very different – and so are in most cases the personalities. That’s the reason why they can complement each other perfectly in an interdisciplinary team. Much is written and talked about what makes a good curator, exhibition designer, exhibition coordinator or project manager. What makes a good registrar is less common. This is somewhat logical, because it is part of the job to keep a low profile. But the often hidden strengths of a collection manager are priceless when it comes to setting a good exhibition:
There is the accuracy when it comes to formalities and the detail orientation when it comes to planning processes. This is combined often by a treasure trove of experience in dealing with tax and customs authorities, fine art shippers and museum colleagues and a profound knowledge about regional and institutional distinctions. In most cases, managing collections means coping with a low budget and still trying to make the best of it. So registrars often have good ideas where to get certain materials, tools or services for a reasonable price and how to solve problems with inhouse means.
To be well-connected in the field is inevitable in a registrar’s job. A curator can benefit from this network if he or she has the right kind of sensibility when it comes to handling and exhibiting artefacts. A recommendation among colleagues can achieve more than a well-written letter to a head of an institution. Of course, in the case of negative experiences this applies vice versa. In addition collection managers not only have a well-kept data base but in most cases the memory of an elephant. Very useful if you are planning an exhibition: you can get hints on artefacts in the collections of other museums and long forgotten past exhibitions, facts, figures and objects you won’t find in any data base or on the
Briefly: Those who have to deal with registrars might sometimes feel reminded of the
stereotyped Prussian administrative officer or even Tolkien’s Gollum. But
understanding how they work and what requirements and ideas guide their actions
will be the key to great collaboration and team play. Whoever wants to set up a major
exhibition project will be well advised to have such a nitpicking professional in his or
her own ranks, anyway.
This post is also available in Italian, translated by Davide Bordenca