What is the role of a curator? A note from Catherine Futter, Decorative Arts Curator
I have been a curator for over 18 years. My job has changed little as I have moved from one museum to another (four so far), but essentially my duties in each museum have stayed the same. What do my curatorial colleagues and I do? Every day is different and full of unexpected events and this makes it an exciting and fun career. I learn something new every day—and that is not an exaggeration!
In tackling what a curator does, I think it helps to start with the word itself. The word curator derives from the Latin verb curare—to care for. In England, curators are sometimes called keepers.
I define my role in the museum in this way: I am the keeper of the object’s history—when it was made, who made it; who owned it, how it was used and even how it was made. I also judge the quality of the work of art. Of course, this is somewhat subjective and I can only do this after looking at lots of comparable objects. We call this connoisseurship. Just like a wine connoisseur judges a fine wine or rejects a corked bottle, I have been trained to look for the very best qualities, or the lack of them, in works of art. I must be able to tell when a piece has been changed in any way—a new leg on a chair, refinishing a table, etc.. I have learned how to detect this by looking at many works in collections all around the world.
I also do research—in libraries, in other museums and by talking to colleagues—to find out more about the works. One of the most exciting times in my career has been when I have identified an unknown object. Imagine finding lost treasure! This is why we are focusing on the sword—is it a lost treasure? In order to do this I will look at similar objects in books and search for pieces that closely resemble the sword. I will also research the maker and why swords such as this one were made, who used them, when they were carried. I will also look into who donated the sword to the museum—sometimes this can give us important clues.
As the museum puts works of art on view, it is part of my job to determine what objects should be on display. The curator plays an important role in deciding what goes on view. We want to make sure that the visitor to the museum sees a wide range of extraordinary works of art.
Other parts of my job include searching for works of art that might enter the museum’s collection. Sometimes generous donors give works to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and sometimes, although rarely, we purchase art to enhance the collection—we call these acquisitions. The sword is a gift from Mrs. Ida Van Liew of Kansas City and came into the collection in 1940. Van Liew’s Home and Garden is a Kansas City garden statuary store that has been in business since 1927.
Curators do not work independently, but with lots of other staff members. I work with educators to decide the most important aspects of the object that should be communicated to visitors. Working with exhibition designers and a mount-maker, we determine how one object or many pieces should be positioned to show its best points or focus on a particular aspect. With three-dimensional works of art, this leaves lots of possibilities. To install the sword we worked together to make sure that it looked its best and that you could see all the details.