Crimes against curators
By Rachael Sparks, on 13 February 2012
It’s a Monday, which is always a tough day, as the emails have had all weekend to pile up and all the things you didn’t manage to do last week now need to be done even more urgently this week. So maybe this is a good day to share some of my personal candidates for a museums’ version of Room 101.
Things that rattle my curatorial cage
1. Intrusive sampling of an object, with absolutely no documentation to tell us a) why it was done, b) when it was done, c) who the irresponsible bastards responsible for having it done were, or d) what they learned from the experience. The result? Beautiful objects with ugly scars slicing through their bodies, now of absolutely no use for display and an embarrassment to teach with, except when trying to train future researchers about what not to do.
2. People who cut off part of the identifying markings on objects when they sample them. You know who you are.
3. Accession numbers written on objects that are either a) too small to read without a microscope – crazy, I know, but I don’t keep one in my office – b) written in black ink on a black object, c) written so they don’t look anything like the number they represent, or d) written beautifully, then covered up with a bubbly layer of varnish that completely obscures the number and makes it impossible to read.
4. Incomplete or obscure accession book entries – because obviously, everyone knows the donor, so you don’t need to give their full name. Particularly helpful when the donor is an unmarried woman, and all we are told is her surname – as there’s a good chance she went on to change her name and therefore become untraceable on the information given.
5. Conservators who work on objects, make wonderfully extensive records about the treatments given, and neglect to record the object’s provenance or any identifying numbers. Except their own lab number, of course.
6. People who take an object out for drawing or photography and use blue-tac to keep it nice and steady while they record it. With a nice, steady, greasy mark left on the object afterwards. Sometimes they even leave the blue-tac in place, just to make sure we notice.
7. Lecturers who turn up without warning and want to have objects out for a class, right away. What do you mean you can’t do it? You’re so unhelpful!
8. Staff who think the artefact store is a good place to dump all their research material. It’s essential research material, and it will only be for a short time. Yeah, right. They never come back to look at it, and then they retire without taking it away. Hugely important material, obviously.
9. Going through the offices of former staff, who leave piles of rubbish for someone else to deal with. And who turn out to have several of your missing artefacts stashed in their filing cabinets. Actually, let me widen that a little. Going into the offices of existing staff, and seeing your missing objects tottering on the top of a filing cabinet. Next to a half-eaten sandwich and a pile of unmarked essays.
I could go on, but I might lose the will to live.
Has a curator ever snapped and gone on a collections rampage? Or are inappropriate sampling, dodgy object markings and impenetrable accession book entries really a form of passive resistance to the pressures of the job? One can only wonder at the feelings that led a museum guard to smash the beautiful Francois vase into hundreds of pieces, or a drunken British Museum visitor to use a sculpture to violently disassemble the Portland vase. So far as I know, none of the UCL Museums & Collections curatorial staff have yet reached this peak of inventiveness; we just get together and grumble from time to time.
Perhaps some of you have your own items to add? Or a rival list from the research or teaching staff point of view? Either way, just remember that what doesn’t break us (or our artefacts) makes us strong.