Life as an Assistant Curator: Developing Five New Galleries

Almost four months ago now, I started my new position as Assistant Curator of Medicine at the Science Museum! To be honest, I still can’t believe my luck. This is a job that is completely up my street, giving me experience of working within a curatorial team, whilst combining my interests in  medical, disability, social, and, surprisingly, religious history. I am working as part of a large team to develop five new galleries exploring the history of medicine and its impact on the lives of ordinary people, which are set to open in Autumn 2019. Having joined the team midway through this project, I am still finding my feet. However, tackling the new responsibilities that this position has thrown in my path has been fascinating so far.

So, what do I do? Assistant Curators can have a huge range of roles in different museums, depending on whether they have a permanent or temporary position, the size of the museum, and the kind of project/s that they have been employed to work on. I have been employed to work on a particular project – to support the development of the Medicine Galleries – and so my role is relatively specific. I am assisting with two galleries in particular: Exploring Medicine, which will explore the breadth of the Science Museum’s medical collection; and Faith, Hope, and Fear, which will shine a light on the human experience and emotional impact of receiving (or providing) medical care. This is a massive undertaking involving working as part of a large team (Team Med) to select, conserve, and interpret well over a thousand objects for these two galleries alone, develop the museum’s collections further, extensive research, and so much more. My job is to support the work of the curatorial team throughout this development, which means getting involved in a wide array of tasks.

My Top Three Responsibilities (At The Moment)

Researching and Interpreting Objects from the Collection – When developing new galleries, the first things that you need to think about are the main concepts or themes that your gallery will explore, and how can you use your collection to do this. You then consider how these objects will be interpretted – what will the key messages of the display be, and how can you help people to engage with these messages and these objects? Generally speaking, the Science Museum is dedicated to illustrating not only stories of scientific, technological and medical development, but also the cultural, social, and personal impact these changes often have. Therefore, the Medicine Galleries have been designed to reflect this mission, exploring not only developments to our understanding of the body, health, and medical treatments, but also its impact on communities and individuals. Unfortunately for me, I have joined the project in the middle of its development, so I missed the conceptualisation and the initial object selection stages. I am, however, going to be involved in the interpretation of a number of objects in these displays, and am currently getting stuck into research. This is really helping me to better understand the collection, and will hopefully be valuable when producing engaging interpretation. For example, I will later be contributing to both digital and print publications, as well as conducting tours of both the museum and collections store. Hopefully, my research will allow me to not only explain what the objects in the collection are, but to draw out stories that visitors will engage with and relate to.

In the gallery entitled Making the Modern World, there are a number of objects related to health and medicine, such as the CT Scanner (left) and Saints Figures (right) pictured above. These two disparate objects both reflect the mission of the planned Medicine Galleries, illuminating the impact of scientific and technological development on our understanding of the body, and the beliefs and experiences of ordinary people.

Documenting the Collections and Keeping Track of Object Selections A multitude of different objects are considered for display in permanent galleries. The lists of objects chosen changes constantly with the fluctauating plans of the Team Med and the decisions that are made about whether it is possible/appropriate to display those  objects.* Therefore, I manage a variety of different documents that keep track of the many objects selected for display, adding and removing objects when necessary, and updating the information we have about them. These objects also move around a lot throughout this process, and so my job is to make sure that each of these objects are documented as fully as possible, and that their records are kept up to date. Every time an object is selected for display or moved, the location for these objects on the collections database needs to be updated. This becomes more complicated when parts of the object need to be removed and stored separately (for example if certain parts are too fragile or dangerous), as records then need to be created for each part, with individual descriptions, measurements and locations. This is not an easy task. In Exploring Medicine alone, there are going to be about 1000 objects on display, and keeping track of them all is a tall order.

Developing the Museum’s Collections Further – This is probably the part that I was most excited about when I first saw the ad for this position – not only was this an opportunity to experience working on the development of a major set of permanent galleries, but it was also the chance to develop the collection itself further by proposing new objects to acquire. In the Science Museum, this is a formalised process, involving presenting possible acquisitions in front of a Collecting Board who will decide whether it is something that the museum would benefit from collecting, and whether to go ahead with it.*  I don’t really want to go into too much detail here about what this involves as it would just take too much time and space, but suffice to say that it involves a lot of research into what the object is, why it is significant, and also whether the museum can legally collect it. I have already successfully proposed two new objects (learning from any mistakes I made), and will be proposing two more next month! Really exciting!

Some Of My Other Responsibilities 

  • Supporting a large participation project that explores the way that medicine defines normality, and the impact that medical ideas and care impact upon the experiences of individuals with a variety of different health conditions and disabilities. A number of people, chosen by one of our advisory boards, will be interviewed during this project, and their oral testimonies will be available for visitors to listen to in one of our larger galleries Medicine and Bodies. I, on the other hand, will be supporting the development of web content for this project, to widen its reach and accessibility.
  • Supervising/conducting interviews with patients and medical practitioners for Medicine Galleries’ oral history project
  • Generally facilitating access to the collection
    • Answering enquiries about the collection
    • Conducting tours of the museum and the reserve collection
    • Writing posts for the Science Museum’s blog and articles for the journal
    • Presenting papers at conferences – I have now learned that I will be speaking at my first conference in July – I’m excited, but ever so slightly terrified!
  • I will also be involved in installing the galleries in 2019. Considering the sheer quantity of objects this is going to be a mountain of a task, but it will be amazing to see the gallery physically coming together.

To Bear in Mind

If this kind of work appeals to you, there are several things that you should bear in mind:

  • A project like this involves juggling many, many priorities. As with many jobs, the key thing that you need to be able to do is to identify what your main priorities need to be, and decide how you will divide your time accordingly.
  • It also involves  liasing with a huge array of stakeholders – ranging from potential object donors, to colleagues from different departments, to participants in collaborative projects. Each of these stakeholders have different needs and priorities, all of which need to be reconciled with your own. It can place a great deal of strain on your time or take you away from the tasks that really need addressing. Good organisation and communication skills are essential to balance these demands, allowing you to manage your time and workload, but also to manage the expectations of those you are working with – which is key to maintaining good working relationships.

 

*Being selective is a very important part of developing a collection. As much as we might like to, we can’t collect everything that comes our way – we simply don’t have the money, the time, the space or the staff power to collect, store and manage ever-expanding collections.  The Collecting Board basically gives each member of the Collections Department the opportunity to see what everyone else is planning to collect, and to raise questions about that object. This basically ensures that what is being collected is relevent to the mission of the museum. The process of presenting proposals alone encourages us to think strategically about collecting, and hopefully we won’t be left with an abundance of objects that are superfluous to our needs.

* The featured image is of the Making the Modern World gallery in the Science Museum – although the gallery itself is not focussed on medicine, there are a number of medical objects displayed within it – see above.

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