What do museum curators really do?

Dr Rob Symmons shows there's much more to being a museum curator than labelling dusty pots
Dr Rob Symmons shows there's much more to being a museum curator than labelling dusty pots
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Dr Robert Symmons, curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester seeks to dispel a few of the myths about his profession

The person you are thinking of would probably be old, male and bearded, and so engaged in their collection that they are barely aware of anything else.

As it happens, I am male, old(ish) and bearded, but that is where any similarity with the curator stereotype ends.

In fact, in 15 years working for museums I have not met a single curator who fits this popular mould.

My job description says that I am responsible for the ‘protection and accessibility’ of our museum’s collection.

Admittedly this can involve a certain amount of labelling ancient pottery, 
but this is normally done by our volunteers.

In practice it means I have to know where each of our 300,000 objects are and be sure that they are not at risk from poor storage conditions, theft, getting lost or anything else.

Curators also need to know as much as possible about their collections and ensure this information is available to anyone who wants it.

All of this means that most of us spend amazingly little time with their collections, but instead focus on tasks like setting insect traps, monitoring humidity levels in stores, negotiating with researchers, writing policies or designing exhibitions.

In the last week alone I have found myself dealing with a scaffolding company, safety-checking an x-ray machine and investigating a leaky roof.

Curators aren’t immune to office admin either, so managing rotas, risk assessments, and budgeting are all part of our day-to-day work.

And these days few of us would be surprised to find ourselves unblocking the occasional drain – or worse.

So rather than the stereotypical image of someone who is totally focused on their specialist subject, to the exclusion of everything else, modern curators are generalists.

We have to deal with a huge range of situations and people, often thinking on our feet.

That’s what makes it, in my opinion, the best job in the world: no two days are the same and there is always the possibility that you’ll learn something new.

Besides, not many jobs pay you to hang out in a museum.

n Fishbourne Roman Palace is in Roman Way, Chichester, West Sussex, PO19 3QR. Visit sussexmuseums.co.uk