1

It occurred to me, after I gave the title, that it was ambiguous. It could be an
imperative

2

That’s not what I meant, though… in fact, the talk is very much about what
happens when the curator doesn’t rule. So let’s go back to the previous
version, without the exclamation mark.

3

My talk will be both historical and prescriptive…

The Curator Rules

Steven Lubar
Bisson Lecture in the Humanities
Virginia Humanities Conference
April 2015

The Curator Rules!

Steven Lubar
Bisson Lecture in the Humanities
Virginia Humanities Conference
April 2015

The Curator Rules
me from…
Where they co d when to break them
…an
Steven Lubar
Bisson Lecture in the Humanities
Virginia Humanities Conference
April 2015

4

First, though, some actual curator rules. This “Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is the earliest list of rules for
curators that I know of.

5

Curators “have entire charge of their respective Departments and are
independent of each other.” That’s still pretty much the case today at the
Met.

6

Curators are “responsible for the safekeeping and preservation of all art
objects.”

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

7

Curators keep a property book. They’re registrars, not just curators. And
again, by department, not across the museum.

8

They report once a month to the director about what they’ve done. This is
when the director finds out what’s been collected.

9

There are some practice things here, as well. “No more than one curator at a
time shall be absent a whole day from the Museum.” Worth noting that there
were only two curators at the time!

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

Metropolitan Museum of Art,
“Director’s Agreement with
Curators,” June 10, 1886

10

This, by the way, is the man these rules applied to: William H. Goodyear, first
curator at the Met.

11

A few years later, the Met published an entire book of rules.

12

In these new rules, the director has a bit more say. It seems the curators
decide what to put on display, the director arranges it, and the curators label
it. Must have made for interesting managerial politics!

Professor William H. Goodyear,
first curator of The Metropolitan
Museum of Art. Portrait by Wilford S.
Conrow 1916. Brooklyn Museum.

Rules and Regulations of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889

Rules and Regulations of the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1889

13
THE

METROPOLITAN

MUSEUM

OF ART

Circular Letter to Curators
ATTACH
a copy of regulations to be followed in recording the
location and condition of objects of art in all departments except
the Library and the Department of Prints, which have their own
specialized forms of records. I wish you would, as promptly as possible,
take the steps necessary to put them into effect. The following notes
are for your guidance in so doing:

Later rule books at the Met are mostly about keeping good records:
recording object moves, photography, conservation, using new forms.

I

z. LOCATION

My talk isn’t really about this kind of rules, though. But for a Washington
audience, it seems right to show you one more:

RECORDS

Cards for use under Rule B are to be obtained from the Storekeeper,
who will have a supply of special guide cards on which to enter case
numbers. Ordinary guide cards should be filled in with the number
of the gallery, number of storeroom, name of shop, etc., to cover the
objects grouped under these heads.

2. INSPECTIONS
The special guide cards referred to above constitute forms on which
to enter the records of the opening of cases.The records of the annual
checking of each gallery and each storeroom should be entered on the
face of the guide cards for these rooms.
While most of the checking of the contents of rooms and cases
will probably have to be done by each department during the summer

season, the checking of some of the caseswill be spread over the year,
since a case checked in the course of rearrangement, or opening for
some other reason, during the calendar year need not be checked again
that year.

3. OBJECTS OF INTRINSIC

VALUE

Particular attention is directed to these rules. Rules B and C under
this heading are in immediate effect. Therefore, no object of intrinsic
value can be moved out of a department until an extra set of photographs is available. Rule D is not only in effect immediately, but is
retroactive; as soon as possible full setsof photographs and descriptions
of objects of intrinsic value now in possessionof the Registrar are to
be made and turned over to him. The photographing necessary to
carry out Rule A is now under way. You will note that one com-

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 

Circular Letter to Curators, 1935

14

Only in Washington… the Office of Personnel Management position
description for curators. These are the 1962 rules, still in use. Museum
curators collect, design exhibits, undertake education programs, and do
research…. and so on, for 16 pages. *

These are the official rules… what are the real rules?

15

What are the unwritten rules of museums? Before you can break the
rules, must know what they are…
— a quick set - not definitive, but to get you thinking…

— and mostly these are good! Need to know when to break them.

I’ve exaggerated a bit here, for educational purposes!

Position Classification Standard for
Museum Curator Series, GS-1015,
Office of Personnel Management, 1962

What are the rules?

16

Start with exhibitions… What are the assumptions that go into designing
exhibits?

* Another way to think about this: “You know you’re in a traditional exhibition
when…”

17

An exhibition is orderly… It takes objects and puts them in an order, to tell a
story. Early cabinets of curiosity were not orderly - they were about
exceptions, the exotic, the odd, the wonderful. But museums take on their
modern form when they are… orderly.

18

A symmetrical vision of the world, at the East India Marine Society.

Exhibition rules
You know you’re in a traditional
exhibition when…

Orderly

East India Marine Hall between 1825
and 1867, by James H. Emmerton

19

At the Smithsonian: a place for everything, and everything in its place. A tidy
vision of the world.

20

The Wagner Free Institute of Science isn’t tidy, but from a distance it
suggests an orderliness to the world that is quite endearing… even if the
material in each case is anything but tidy.

21

Even when displaying the most un-museum like artifacts possible orderliness suggest it’s a museum. Cigarettes, on exhibit at the Museum of
Innocence by Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul

United States National Museum,
Smithsonian Institution, 1880

Wagner Free Institute of Science,
Philadelphia

Fusun’s cigarettes, Museum of
Innocence, Istanbul

22

Orderliness has another meaning - things are arranged in a particular order
— arranged so that they tell a story. According to designer Richard Saul
Wurman, only 5 kinds of order.

23

Chronology is the easiest kind of order for museums. It’s also one that can
easily oversimplify, over-order. A history museum focused too narrowly on
timelines suggest that history had to happen the way it did, that it follows a
pre-ordained path.

24

At the turn of the 20th century, the Smithsonian’s anthropology and
technology curators loved to organize things in synoptic series. This was a
more complex chronology - not about time, but about progress. Order carries
with it ideologies, meanings.

In order

Alphabetic

Geographic

Chronological

Hierarchical

By category

Timelines

“Synoptic Series of Invention: Knife, saw,
borer, scraper” Smithsonian, about 1890

25

A map filled the lobby of the Atwater Kent Museum, providing a geographic
order to Philadelphia history.

But there’s more than just orderliness, or putting things in order. Museums
suggest, more profoundly that the world is ordered.

Atwater-Kent Museum,
Philadelphia

26

By ordered, I mean, they instill a sense of order - * of discipline - that they
make an argument about how artifacts relate to each other, and how we
relate to artifacts - * how the world works. * Foucault argues that we should
understand the world by examining the structures of knowledge. Museums
the best place to do that…

27

Lambert Krahe introduced a completely new and modern system of
organizing paintings at the Dusseldorf palace in 1770s. His aim was to create
a pedagogical display that educated viewers in the art-historical principles of
the different schools of art. The art museum, from this point on, was not
about individual works, but about art history.

Ordered
…disciplined
…like objects together
…makes sense of the world

"Those beautiful structures that are so orderly,
intelligible and transparent to analysis." 

—Michel Foucault

Nicolas de Pigage and Christian von
Mechel, La galerie électorale du
Dusseldorff; ou, Catalogue raisonné
et figuré de ses tableaux (Basel,
1778), pl. 19-21

28

Not just art museums, of course - in fact, art museums were modeled on
natural history museums. “A picture collection not arranged by school and
artist is “as ridiculous as a natural history cabinet arranged without regard to
genus, class, or family.”

29

You can see this in history museums, too. As Gary Kulik has pointed out,
“Peale’s pedagogy and taxonomy were better suited to birds and mastodons
than to history and human culture…. His gallery of heroes made the
Revolution tamer, more respectable, and more orderly than it ever could have
been.” Peale’s museum offers a combination of orderly display, an ordered
display, and a suggestion that the world is orderly.

30

Ever wonder what was behind the curtain? This picture gives a better sense
of the order of the Peale museum.

A picture collection not
arranged by school and
artist is “as ridiculous as
a natural history cabinet
arranged without regard
to genus, class, or
family.”
—Jean-Baptiste-Pierre
Lebrun, art historian,
1793

Charles Wilson Peale, “Portrait
of the Artist in his Museum,” 1822

Charles Wilson Peale and Titian Peale, The
Long Room, Interior of Front Room in Peale's
Museum, 1822. Detroit Institute of Art

31

Archaeology and anthropology exhibitions also found order in the world. At
the Smithsonian, George Brown Goode urged that exhibitions be classified in
a double system: by race, and by “the evolution of culture and civilization,”
across race. (Museums of the Future, p. 259.)

32

There was disagreement about how best to organize exhibits, but there was
complete agreement that there had it be organization. Goode, the museum
philosopher of the 19th-century Smithsonian, put it thus: museums should be
“arranged with the strictest attention to system.”

33

Note start of red triangles… exhibitions that break the rules! when you see
these - ask what’s different about these…

Prehistoric Archaeology exhibit in
Upper Main Hall, Smithsonian
Institution, c. 1879-1903

“The people’s museum should be much more than a house
full of specimens in glass cases. It should be a house full of
ideas, arranged with the strictest attention to system.”
George Brown Goode, Museum-History 

and Museums of History, 1888

Dr. Albert Barnes upset the museum world by breaking the rules… put
furniture and wrought iron on display with his Renoirs… - he saw these as
aesthetic similarities, not as art-historical evidence.

Barnes Foundation, Merion, Pennsylvania. Renoir
and chest room 18, 1942. Library of Congress

34

Chipstone installation at Milwaukee Art Museum — fine American furniture
embedded back into nature… harking back to a pre-museum world of
wonder cabinets - not about order, but about exception, oddities, even
dreams and nightmares.

35

Part of the power of Fred Wilson’s work is the way he plays with categories.
The label says: metalwork. But somehow fine silver and slave shackles don’t
seem to rest easily in our categories.

36

This from a long case of artifacts that survive from the Jenks Museum of
Natural History - arranged, in a new installation by Mark Dion at Brown
University, by degree of decay… not the usual way of thinking about museum
artifacts, but an appropriate for an exhibition on a museum that’s
disappeared.

Martha Glowacki, “Rooms of Wonder,”
Chipstone Foundation / Milwaukee Art
Museum, 2008

Fred Wilson, “Mining the Museum,”
Maryland Historical Society, 1991

“The Lost Museum,”
Brown University, 2014

37

Mambo Maude, a voudou priestess, mined the collections of the Haffenreffer
Museum for artifacts that spoke to her of the water goddess La Sirena many cultures pulled together because of what she saw as a spiritual
similarity.

Some of the most interesting museum exhibitions of recent years are those
that break the rules, bend the categories, move beyond system.

Haitian vodou altar by Mambo Maude,
Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, 2012

38

The next set of rules: exhibits are designed for looking. I’ll come back to the
fellow peering at museum exhibits with a skiascope in a moment.

39

Exhibits are designed for looking. Artist Karin Jurick captures the essence of
museums in her series on Museum Patrons: people looking.

Designed for looking

Karin Jurick, from the
“Museum Patrons” series, 2010s

40

There’s a long history of paintings and photographs of people in museums,
looking.

41

Looking closely.

42

Looking very closely.

Frank Waller, “Interior View of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art on Fourteenth Street,” 1881

Adolphe Vasseur, “Palace
of Fine Arts,” Lille France. 1883

Alécio de Andrade,
Louvre Museum, 1993

43

Looking and pointing.

44

Staring.

45

There’s a good literature on the particular kind of looking that museums
encourage. Here, a fine illustration of the male gaze.

Visitors viewing Brontosaurus skeleton,
American Museum of Natural History, 1937

Henri Cartier-Bresson,
Leningrad, 1973

Thomas Hoepker, “Picasso's Les
Demoiselles d’Avignon,” The
Museum of Modern Art, 2005.

46

Even when art and artifacts are replaced by screens, it’s about looking.
Maybe even more so. We know so well how to look at screens.

47

There are new possibilities for moving beyond looking with new kinds of
screen. A new kind of attentiveness, of interaction, is possible.

48

Museums encourage a particular kind of close looking.

“Sherlock Holmes,” Museum
of the City of London, 2014

“American Enterprise,” National Museum
of American History, opening soon!

Designed for looking closely

49

Brian O’Doherty explains this in his famous “Inside the White Cube.” How we
look at art — how we look in museums — changes over time, from many
things to look at, to intensive looking at one thing.

50

And so we have the white walls of the gallery, each painting given its space,
framed in many ways: it’s literal frame, but also by the edges of the wall, the
rope in front, the lighting, the circulation of visitors.

51

The best expression of this framing is Benjamin Ives Gilman’s skiascope outlined in his Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method (1918). He presents
the skiascope as a device to limit glare, but metaphorically, it does much
more than that: it isolates each piece of art.

The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that
interfere with the fact that it is “art”. The work is isolated
from everything that would detract from its own evaluation
of itself.”
—Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube, 1976

Art Institute Of Chicago, 1990
Photographer: Thomas Struth.

Benjamin Ives Gilman’s skiascope, from
Museum Ideals of Purpose and Method, 1918

52

“In a wide range of institutional discourses and practices
wIthin the arts and human scIences, attention became part
of a dense network of texts and techniques around which
the truth of vIsion was organized and structured.“

Jonathan Crary calls our attention to the ways that close looking becomes
part of not just the museum but other areas of research in the late 18th
century.

Let’s look at some exhibits that break the rules of close looking

—Jonathan Crary , “Unbinding Vision,” 1994

53

A remarkable show that broke museum rules by hanging the quilts high in the
air - not to be looked at closely, but to be appreciated as a collection, as a
set of patterns and colors - as a quilt of quilts!

54

Occasionally, museums are designed for other senses, but not very often. or
very well. Hearing - but only as an adjunct to looking. Almost never touching.

“Infinite Variety: Three Centuries of Red and White
Quilts,” presented by the American Folk Art Museum at
the Park Avenue Armory, 2011. Photo by Gavin Ashworth.

“Return to the Sea,” National
Museum of Natural History, 1964

55

Alexander Dorner at the RISD Museum tried a range of techniques in his
“atmospheric rooms”: colors, environmental sounds, close listening.

56

And museum educators have devised many ways to move beyond just
looking. Here, first close looking, and then drawing.

“Classical Room,” Museum of the
Rhode Island Museum of Art, 1939

Next: another category of rules… how museums use objects.

Saturday Morning Class in the Print
Room, Art Gallery of Toronto, circa 1931

57

Object Rules

I’ll talk about three kinds of object rules - collecting rules, rules about treating
objects, and the notion that museums keep objects forever

58

Collecting Rules

59

First, what to collect: What is “museum quality?” Prof. Lieu, the Art Prof,
says: “museum quality work is work that talks about contemporary issues,
yet is timeless.”

While I don’t like the notion of museum quality - museums collect should
collect work defined in many ways - this combination is not bad: meaningful
today, and meaningful in the future, maybe in different ways.

60

There’s a long history of rules about what to collect - and what not to collect.
This is Burcaw’s famous listing of what isn’t museum quality - rules
superseded now that we’re interested in not just history but also the way the
public understands and uses history… Still no two-headed calves, though.

Clara Lieu, The Art Prof blog, 2013

“Relics, curiosities, personal memorabilia, glorification
of specific individuals or specific families…do not
belong in a public museum…. No two-headed calves.
No bricks from the old school house or mementos of
prominent families.”
—G. Ellis Burcaw, Introduction
to Museum Work, 1975

61

A new interest in contemporary collecting - breaking old rules about waiting
to see what might be worth saving… Some museums are setting up new
categories of collections - objects easier to deaccession if it seems collecting
them was a mistake.

62

This means each thing seen separately, protected, held for ever.

63

The Rembrandt Rule - treat everything like a Rembrandt. All objects equally
precious - click once for both images - the historic house museum world is
starting to ask the question about whether this is true - whether it would be
better to tilt more toward education and less toward preservation - a hot
topic in the museum world. They talk about the “Rembrandt Rule” - the idea
that everything needs to be treated like it’s a Rembrandt.

Many museums collect
contemporary objects,
stories, images and sounds.
But reasoned policies and
procedures are very often
lacking. And – given the
uniquely detailed record of
contemporary life recorded
by today's ubiquitous media
– how best are museums to
record and present
contemporary life in their
collections?

Respect the object

The “Rembrandt Rule”

64

This was not always the case. Note the way these paintings are hung - floor
to ceiling, overlapping - not respectful in the current sense.

65

In the Brooklyn Museum’s 1923 “Primitive Negro Art” exhibition, blankets
were hung on the wall and draped over stools. Perhaps the Brooklyn
Museum thought it OK to break the rules because it was displaying
“primitive” art?

66

The ultimate taboo: Open the case and touch the flowers. Museums are
supposed to keep the cases closed!

Bryan Collection, New-York Historical
Society, before 1908

"Primitive Negro Art,”
Brooklyn Museum, 1923

Forestry Hall, American
Museum of Natural History, 1911

67

Benjamin Filene, the curator of “Open House,” broke many rules: Not
“authentic” artifacts from the house; words and artifacts mixed
promiscuously; many of the artifacts not “museum artifacts” - bought for this
exhibit. Many different voices overlapping.

68

Artist Mark Dion’s imagined reconstruction of the office of John Whipple
Potter Jenks. A biographical sketch in objects - even though none of these
artifacts have any actual connection with Mr. Jenks.

69

One of the most shocking exhibitions ever at the Met. Not shocking because
of the sex… but costumes from the collection shown in a lively way and
placed into period rooms. And broken objects!

“Open House,” Minnesota Historical Society, 2006

“The Lost Museum,”
Brown University, 2014

“Dangerous Liasons,”
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2004

70

Yinka Shinobara re-imagines a period room as a dreamscape - breaking all of
the rules! A wild party in a Victorian dining room! Headless manikins with
their feet on the table!

71

Maira Kalman not only cuts open the back of the chair to install a screen…
she has handwritten labels!

“Party Time,” by Yinka
Shinobara, OBE, Newark Museum, 2009

Artists bring a refreshing willingness to break the museum rules.

“Maira Kalman Selects,”
Cooper Hewitt Museum, 2015

72

“The wistful, sentimental
appearance of this head
made it a favorite of
romantically inclined
visitors until Dorner
corrected the false
impression by as truthful
a restoration as possible.”
—Samuel Cauman,
The Living Museum, 1958

Conservation philosophies and guidelines change over time. Alexander
Dorner, director of the RISD Museum of Art in the 1940s, had strong feelings
about what it meant to do a “truthful” restoration - what we would call a
reconstruction.

73

Keep objects safe, forever

Museums like to think they keep objects for ever. I want to ask two
questions. Do they, and should they? Answer to the first: they don’t really. (Of
the 174 paintings that were part of the Metropolitan Museum's first purchase
in 1871, only 60 are in the collection now. Only 19 are on view today.)

And to the second: 99 percent of the British Museum’s collection is in
storage - it seems to me that there’s an ethical issue here: museum objects
aren’t useful if they are never used.

74

Behind the scenes of every museum are storage rooms - usually with more
than 90 percent of the museum’s collection hidden away, most of it never to
be displayed.

When I’ve taken students to visit museums, this is always what they like best
- what they remember most.

Storage, Old Sturbridge Village

75

Bird Storage, National
Museum of Natural History,
Smithsonian Institution

Collections are essential for research, especially in natural history

76

And to a lesser extent, in anthropology

77

But perhaps less so in history. In fact, the history of collections in history
museums is a discourse of constant worry about what to do with collections?
How do we use them? How do we prove that they are valuable, useful, worth
the high price it costs to store them?

78

Cary Carson’s 1978 worry is still mostly true.

Anthropology Storage, Museum
Support Center, Smithsonian Institution

Firearms Storage, United States National
Museum, Smithsonian Institution, about 1920

“No matter what standard measure objective scholars
use they can hardly avoid the conclusion that the study of
artifacts has contributed to developing the main themes
of American history almost not at all.”
—Cary Carson, Colonial Williamsburg, 1978

79

I couldn’t resist…

We need to think of storage as more than just - dead storage. And museums
have started to find ways to use their stored collections for their educational
goals, to bring them to life.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark,” 1981

80

At Brown, we put our museum storage racks inside of glass exhibit cases.
We literally put storage on display!

81

The collection of the Jenks Museum at Brown was lost, literally carted off to
the dump - here, its storage recreated as an art project. 80 student artistss
were given lists of collections that did not survive, and summoned forth their
ghosts.

CultureLab, Haffenreffer Museum of
Anthropology, 2012

“The Lost Museum,” Brown
University, 2014

82

The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre is open for occasional visits organized mostly for storage, but also for display.

83

Many museums have densely packed open storage rooms - in combination
with access to collections data on screens, a way of letting the public see
collections that would otherwise be hidden.

84

And, of course, visible storage and study rooms are becoming more
common. Here, the Victoria and Albert Museum.

*

Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of
American Art, Metropolitan Museum

Visible storage in the porcelain
galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum

The Clothworkers’ Centre for Textile
and Fashion Study and Conservation,
Victoria and Albert Museum

85

The V&A is asking: How can we reinvent museums - how do we change the
rules - so that the public can make use of our objects?

86

Harvard Art Museums new Art Storage Center - anyone can ask to come and
see any work of art.

87

Finally, some more general curator rules.* These are really about moving
from “The curator rules!”, with an exclamation mark, to that phrase, without
an exclamation mark.

“We aim to remove every barrier possible between the
public and the collections…There’s a special intimacy
that comes from encountering an object first hand. I
personally believe we can trust the public more with
things, and perhaps it might even be worth changing our
policies on conservation to enable such access.”
—Kieran Long, Senior Curator of Contemporary
Architecture, Design and Digital, Victoria and
Albert Museum

The expansive Art Study
Center allows visitors to
request objects not
currently on display in the
galleries, facilitating selfdirected teaching and
learning from works in all
media…, the Art Study
Center encourages
extended interactions with
original works of art.
—Harvard Art Museums

Curator Rules
Curators are experts, and
make the choices

88
The museum must remain
“firmly in the control of a
trained elite [to] maintain
standards of quality
independent of the
contingent values of daily
life.” Museums “must
direct public taste…and
not be dictated [to] by it.”

http://harvardmagazine.com/2002/09/reverence-for-the-object.html

—Paul J. Sachs, Harvard
Museum Program, 1920s

89
“The strong sense of high
purpose and personal
responsibility and the
strict intellectual
integrity…mark the
museum curator.… As a
professional he is a
stronghold of individual
initiative and
responsibility in a world
threatened by the ant
heap of collectivism.”
—Remington Kellogg,
Director, USNM, 1952

"If an exhibition hall is to
approach its ideal, its plan
must be that of a master
mind, while in actuality it is
the product of the
correlation of many minds
and hands.”
—Carl Akeley, In
Brightest Africa,
1923

Remington Kellogg at the Smithsonian: the curator as “a stronghold of
individual initiative and responsibility in a world threatened by the ant heap of
collectivism.”

A fine example of Cold War rhetoric! Curator as John Galt!

90

Curators make choices both because they are trained to - they were what
Sachs called the “trained elite.” Paul Sachs was head of the Harvard
Museum program in the 1920s and 30s - trained most of the museum
directors of his day - and this still stands as widely held belief - even if most
museum directors are less likely to be so blunt.

Akeley was the mastermind of the natural history dioramas at the AMerican
Museum of Natural History.

91

Robert Multauf, explaining why the Museum of History and Technology today’s National Museum of American History - was divided into exhibits
organized according to the specialized interests of the curators.

92

John Cotton Dana is represents another tradition - museums looking not to
their own interests or expertise but that of the community. This has become
increasingly common in recent years.

93

Mark Dion’s “Sketches for Curator's Office 2011” - an installation at the
Minneapolis Institute of Arts that offers the empty office of the museum’s
mysteriously vanished first director of contemporary art.


“Our exhibitions represent
primarily the judgment of
the curator-in-charge as to
the best method of dealing
with his subject.”
—Robert Multauf, Museum
of History and Technology,
1965

The first task of every
museum is “adding to the
happiness, wisdom, and
comfort of members of the
community.”
—John Cotton Dana, 1917

He asks the question: what happens when the curator vanishes?

Mark Dion, sketch for “The Curator Vanishes,”
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2011

94

One answer: Ask non-curators what they think. Let them make choices about
art and artifact to display.

95

Write on the outside of cases and give people pens

96

Give artists uncharted spaces to work in, and to present their own work.

“Expression,” Kelvingrove Art Gallery
and Museum, 2013

“Exquisite Things,” Haffenreffer
Museum of Anthropology, 2012

Photos courtesy S. Hollis Mickey, RISD Museum

“One Room,” RISD Museum, 2013

97

Or, as an important recent book suggest… let go. Letting go means working
with the community, working with your audiences in new ways.

98

It might mean reorganizing the museum so that curators are part of a team
responsible for visitor experience, not collections.

99

It might mean moving beyond thinking about museums be only about
education - and individual education - and think about what the museum
does for the community.

Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and
Laura Koloski Letting Go?: Sharing
Historical Authority in a UserGenerated World, 2011

Alternative Museum
Organizational Chart

To sum up… let’s think about rethinking the rules.

Theory of Change, Santa
Cruz Museum of Art and
History, 2015

100

First, the display rules:

101

Some of the rules for exhibition; Model is an old-fashioned university lecture!

Rethinking the rules

Display rules

Designed around looking (not other senses)

Clear lines and divides between exhibit and visitors,
narrator, audience and subject

One story, beginning to end; neutral, unbiased, single
voice, a simple straightforward narrative

Focus on objects, respectfully treated

Conveys authority

What would happen if we broke these rules?

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Object rules

What counts as an object is narrowly defined:
“museum quality,” old, original condition, of interest to
a curator’s scholarly interest

Display objects in a respectful way

Keep objects safe, forever, even if that means not
using them

To what extent are curators thinking of the big picture of the museum, to
what extent their own work? what structures shape collecting?

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Curator Rules

The curator is the expert

The curator is an academic subject-matter specialist,
not a generalist

The curator is anonymous, the voice of the museum

The curator is not part of the story

This last rule seems so central to museums - but broken now in every other
medium. What would happen if we broke these rules?

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Breaking Rules

Let go. Share authority. “It’s not about you.”

Put the audience first.

Overcome bureaucracy.

Make museums useful.

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Thank you

George Scharf, Staircase
of the old British Museum
in Montagu House, 1845

And finally: the curator rules? The traditional rule is that the curator is an
expert, and a specialist - and that expertise is defined as academic, subject
matter expertise. This assumption about the nature of expertise allows the
curator to be not a person, not part of the story, but an anonymous voice of
authority.

Some final thoughts on how we might break the rules. What if we put the
audience first? If our collections and exhibits overcame the bureaucratic
structures of the museum? If we first asked, as John Cotton Dana
suggested, how might we be useful?