‘What is the Work of a Curator of a “Closed” Museum?’

There are many of us that have had to justify our job’s existence, especially in these times of never ending cuts. Often those with the purse strings have no idea what a curator does on a day to day basis, and this lack of understanding is something that we are constantly trying to rectify to help ensure the safety and future accessibility of the collections under our care.

Depending on your point of view, it may be sad or comforting to know that this is something curators have had to deal with for generations. The following article was written by Miss Joan Harding, the curator of Warwickshire Museum from 1938 to just after WW2. The museum was closed and emptied for refurbishment in 1938 and Miss Harding packed up the collections with little help to a draughty, leaky building nearby. Before works began, the museum was requisitioned by the army as a Civil Defence store, and all of the collections had to remain in their rather inadequate temporary location for a lot longer than was originally planned. To add insult to injury, the Education Committee tried to disperse the collection in 1947, but this was fortunately not approved.

Despite her best efforts over this decade of mothballing, some objects were lost during the constant battle of attrition, and Miss Harding left and emigrated to South Africa in 1948, possibly after running out of patience. Miss Jocelyn Morris took her place shortly afterwards and oversaw the long overdue renovations for the next 3 years, opening up the museum to great fanfare in May of 1951.

Without further ado, here is a transcription by Janet Vaughan of the observations of Miss Harding:

 

What is the Work of a Curator of a “Closed” Museum?

From Miss Harding’s Notebook, CR 2547/146, held at Warwickshire County Records Office

“This question suggested itself to me when an educational authority (and one who should know better since this particular human is administered by an Education Committee) voiced in my hearing “I can’t think what she finds to do.”

Well! For those who might wonder likewise here are some of the duties required of a Museum Curator “in store”.

First and foremost there is an ever present bogey in the mind: Are the collections in store alright?” There is only one way of answering that question – unpack them and see! To so many people the word “storage” means safety. That may be so if you have deposited the treasures in a building especially constructed for them in one in which there is humidity control, central heating and proper ventilation. Where these things do not exist you may look out for damp, extreme variation in temperature and insect pests. In terms of the storage of your own household possessions there are items which you pay your repositor to look after and although this gentleman will not doubt have properly dry and heated premises he nevertheless looks your stuff over from time to time to correct any fault he finds amongst them, such as beating dusty carpets and cleaning up here and there.

Now, when a varied museum collection insured for several thousand pounds is stored away there is a good deal more to it than dusting and cleaning. In the first place, there are the more fragile things such as soft materials, papers, leathers, insects and stuffed birds etc all horribly vulnerable to the attention of beetles, moth, mice and damp. There is no permanent prevention against these things, so there is nothing for it but to unpack, perhaps a hundred wooden boxes at least twice a year to see what is going on. In this box you find some valuable book with silverfish slipping in and out of its binding – it must be removed and treated at once: in that box or glass case there is a nice group of birds skilfully mounted but showing the presence of mites which are creeping in amongst the feathers and if you do not tackle them this time, this attractive group will be absent from/the bird exhibition at the end of the war. In yet another box there are leather objects drying up or growing mildew – they must be removed and treated….(iron objects, minerals, wooden etc continues in same vein).

These are a few of the things demanding attention when collections are in store, and it is always far more difficult to keep an eye on things nailed up in wooden boxes than it is to cast an eye over material either exhibited or systematically stores in a cabinet and there is a good deal of labour in the lifting of the required cases.

That is the collections side, is there anything else a “stored curator” can do? Yes! No curator is content to be put away with the collection indefinitely. At Warwick we embarked on the launching of a schools Loans Scheme. For this, all suitably duplicate material was removed from the collection and suitable materials were arranged and set up in small portable cases for the use of any Council funded school in the county that made an application. This work is in a state of continual growth and the list of available items now stands at … including cases of specimen, models and lantern which convey such fields of school work as biology, geography and history. What is not usually realised in this work is the amount of planning that is required for the set up of each case in order to make it completely meet the requirements of the child-mind – and it is not often easy to pack a certain kind of information into a small space!

Explanatory leaflets are thought out and written up in each case. Then there are school talks and demonstrations. On an average three per week are asked for and whenever possible the need is met.

Two students who could not reach Birmingham for a course in Minerology came to the museum and asked if it would help them. It could, but it had to unpack 90 boxes. ( – longer section here explaining helping people with research)

Occasionally a request for a lecture comes in and the curator, in view of a young audience wants to make the subject a “live” one and therefore explores several outside sources for illustrative matter for use with the — if all the matter she requires is not forthcoming then she sets to and draws her own illustrations.

Again, enquiries come in and she gets such questions as what is the identity of this beetle, butterfly or moth. Is this a prehistoric stone implant? What kind of pottery is this? How can I handle plaster casts so that they will take colour? How can I successfully cure rabbit skins/ Can you send me particulars of your School Loan Scheme? What is happening to the Museum of Warwick and so on.

Yet again there is a considerable amount of clerical work apart from the usual correspondence. A full index of the more valuable of the collection has to be named (?), an index of the school loan must be kept up to date, a list of the large collection of lantern which is required for the use of teachers; labels, schemes and notes for each new loan that is added to school collection must be drawn up and an need of all scientific books, papers and periodicals relating to Warwickshire. Registration of any gifts or purchases; reports etc.

It is not generally realised that in museum work, instant reference is often necessary and therefore a system of indexing and of filing is vital to its efficient functioning.

Modern museum technique is important; the curatorial eye must be kept on as many museum journals and reports as possible, abstracts are made of useful information and an index card is added to the appropriate filing cabinet.”

 

References:

Green, M. (1986) Warwickshire Museum, 1836 to 1986, Warwickshire Museum Publications

Harding, J. (1938-1948) What is the work of a curator of a “closed” museum? Hand written notebook

 

Foreword, and transcription, by Laura McCoy, Collections Assistant, and Learning and Community Engagement Officer, Heritage & Culture Warwickshire (HCW).

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