Crowd sourcing has become trendy within the humanities as a means of opening academic projects to the public. In the museum world, community-curated exhibitions have offered a response to this movement, and a number of these exhibitions have recently occurred along the east coast. These special exhibitions grant the community increased access to museum collections and invite sustained conversations between the public and museum staff. They complicate curatorial authority and the spatial hierarchy accorded by privileged access to storage facilities, even though in most cases the public chooses artworks for these exhibitions from a digitized archive. In fact, allowing the community to use digital media to effectively call up works of art from storage to the exhibition space mirrors trends in the way that we (the public) relate to works of art, that is, through digital means. Platforms like Artsy, for example, allow the user to amass a personal, albeit digital, art collection culled from images of fine art physically held by collections around the world. The community-curated projects I discuss below unfold in various combinations of the digital and physical realms. Each offers its own take on the evolving relationship between the museum and public. Read more.
For 26 years, I’ve been filled with a monomaniacal desire to study the humanities. Earlier this year, however, I became interested in Vertebrate Paleontology—that’s right, dinosaurs. With that being said, a couple of weeks ago I attended a lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia given by a well-known paleontologist named Jack Horner. Dr. Horner bills himself as a renegade dinosaur authority. Even though he never earned a college degree except the honorary kind, he has changed the way the world thinks about dinosaurs on more than one occasion. His lecture, titled, “Dinosaurs: How to Get Rid of Some Old Ones and Make a New One” outlined some highlights of his research on dinosaur growth and evolution. By viewing thin slices of fossilized bone under fancy microscopes, Horner and his graduate student pals are discovering that some dinosaur species are actually just the misidentified juveniles of other dinosaur species. He isn’t really getting rid of dinosaurs as the title of his lecture would lead one to believe– instead of pruning the family tree he is simply condensing and reorganizing it.
The histological study of fossil bone needed to prove his controversial hypothesis requires Horner to employ some unorthodox tactics–basically he needs to saw through multiple fossil specimens. The idea of purposefully damaging an ancient fossil is like fingernails across a chalkboard to me. As curator of Paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, Dr. Horner is the professional overseer of a large collection of fossils and, well, he can pretty much do whatever he wants with them. Yet it is worth mentioning that curators at other repositories generally have the same fingernails on the chalkboard reaction to his requests to use their specimens for his destructive research ventures regardless of how important his findings may be.
The 45-minute drive back to my apartment was filled with armchair thoughts about the differences between curating a Natural History collection and curating a Fine Art or Cultural History collection. Both types of collections are used for research as well as exhibition, but in some cases, the approach to studying the objects varies. For example, a scientist working on a project investigating the evolution of renal function in female alligators might request to slice open rare preserved specimens to prod at the curled wires and nodules that shape the excretory system. On the other hand, it is far less likely that a folk historian studying 18th century lead-glazed redware jugs would need to mutilate the artifacts in order to draw his or her conclusions.
Last December, U.S. News and World Report declared the occupation of curator to be a growth career in the next decade based on U.S Department of Labor reports. Reading through the short article led me to check out the DoL Occupational Outlook Handbook from which this information was gleaned http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos065.htm. A few things struck me which I will expand upon in this and future posts. First, the sense one gets from the article is that the curatorial field will practically explode in the next several years outpacing the growth of other careers. This implies some sort of “golden age” of museums when budgets will be flush with funds allowing them to hire more curators to care for their collections and develop wonderful, thought-provoking exhibits.
As a former curator and currently an administrator of a small historical organization, I haven’t an inkling of these changes for the profession. What wasn’t mentioned in the U.S. News article, though clearly stated in the DoL report, was competition for jobs in the profession will remain fierce as the supply of qualified workers outstrips the demand. Academia has to take some responsibility for this situation.
For those of us with the inclination toward research and education the siren call of an academic life is very strong. When I embarked on my graduate studies there were forecasts of a future demand for history professors with the retirement of the old guard and the coming of the Boomer generation’s children pointed to as the rationale. Fortunately, during my grad school years, even though I was not advised of this by anyone I could see for myself the job prospects were not as rosy as once portrayed and I decided to stick to my original plan of pursuing a career in museums.
As public history programs mature and multiply, professors and career counselors are now more actively directing students eager to study and practice history into public history and museum studies programs. While the professionalization of public history occupations is commendable and needed, students need to know that finding a job will not be easy. And when they find that job, they may not be paid anywhere near the $49,000 median wage or even the $35,000-$50,000 average wage mentioned in the U.S. News article.
The question that confronts us as public history professionals and faculty ( I also teach public history courses occasionally) is how do you make the realities of the job market known to students without discouraging them entirely? It is a tricky proposition. I try to enlighten my students and interns, telling them how competitive the field is while also giving them advice on how to make themselves more marketable. But history departments and public history programs need to work to maximize their students’ success in the field by actively promoting their students to potential employers and by advocating the hiring of trained professionals in public history positions. The latter tactic worked for unions in the 20th century, it can work again now. That way, perhaps the rosy picture U.S. News has painted will have a better chance of becoming reality.
Interior of exhibition theater created by artist Antonio Martorell, showing "costumed" seats and screen. In our featured article, the curator of Nueva York reflects on the opportunities and challenges of this pioneering collaboration between the New-York Historical Society and El Museo. Photo by Giovanni Rodríguez.
By Marci Reaven
One of the least acknowledged yet defining aspects of New York City’s history is its centuries-long connection to the Spanish-speaking world. Although Spaniards and Spanish Americans only began coming to New York and other eastern cities after the American Revolution, economic and political connections and conflicts date to the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, the South American trade helped turn the New York-Brooklyn metropolis into one of the world’s most prosperous urban centers. Cárdenas, Cuba, became known as an “American city” for its large North American population, and Cuban wags referred to New York as a neighborhood of Havana. The connections only thickened in later years.