What happened to the expert curator?

Matt Kenyon shopping basket
Are we all (or none of us) curators now? Illustration by Matt Kenyon

It’s often said that the British Museum is the oldest national public museum in the world. Founded in the second half of the 18th century, it was a place open to all “studious and curious persons”, but managed by those who came exclusively from the echelons of high society: the elite, the wealthy and the learned. Only after offering your credentials at the ticket office did you receive a pass to enter the displays, perhaps some two weeks later.

The curator in those days was a figure of intellectual authority, most likely male, smartly dressed and supposedly knowledgeable about the provenance, meaning and cultural context from which the objects he cared for came. This period established the public museum as an institution with values apparently tied to rationality and objectivity, though more realistically packaged in a certain kind of patronising, supercilious world order.

Back in the present day, what was previously an expert practice has democratised. As academic and curator Peter Ride sees it, this change in curatorial activity sits “in line with the whole shift from expert to amateur, from having gatekeepers to public participation”. The very structure of knowledge and the institutions in which curators mainly operate are now being questioned. In fact, they have been since the avant-garde movements of the early 20th century – artists were the first to realise that their ideas didn’t always align with those of the curator.

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