Patricia Tomlinson, the Appleton Museum of Art Curator of Exhibitions, muses on how becoming a virtuoso in any field is a wondrous journey. Tomlinson, a former professional archaeologist, joined the museum in 2016 after serving as curatorial staff in the New World Department at the Denver Art Museum.
When I am asked what a curator does, one of the things I always say is: “A curator is the designated expert of a collection.” What does it mean to be a designated expert, however?
In all honesty, being a curator is less of a job and more of a lifestyle. It is immersing yourself in a given genre; knowing the subject inside and out through years of research, thinking about your chosen subject endlessly, collaborating with other experts, and often becoming highly specialized.
One of the most amusing curatorial job postings I’ve ever seen was from a very important and large museum that was looking for a “Curator of Mollusks.” Chuckling aside, there is something to be said for an expertise so detailed that you’ve basically seen it all. This is the person who is consulted on news broadcasts and noteworthy documentaries as the “voice” of their field—the person in the know.
All this knowledge comes about because we like, I dare say even love, to learn. Most curators have graduate degrees, speak several languages and think it’s fun to geek out on topics like types of paint used through the centuries. Before you count us all out as completely boring, remember that uncovering truths and finding out new information about the past is almost detective-like, and what’s not to love about that?
Additionally, being an expert calls upon one to be aware of trends and new innovations in their field. Museums, for example, have changed drastically over time and, due to the new constraints created by COVID-19, curators worldwide have embraced digital technology to a degree they never have before. We have been conducting gallery tours, looking at art objects in-depth and even conducting global symposia digitally. It’s been an exciting, but occasionally challenging, learning curve for many of us.
Experts, no matter what genre, are important because without them we never would have gone to the moon, unearthed ancient civilizations or created lifesaving innovations such as penicillin. They are an integral part of the world and its wonder.
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