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#AskACurator 2015

with Duncan MacLeod, Curator at Vancouver Maritime Museum

What does a curator do?

The role of a curator really depends on the structure of the museum or institution. In large museums you can have curators of specific geographic areas, time periods, cultural groups etc. A curator may or may not be involved in the management of museum collections. Most often they are responsible for the interpretation of a museum’s / institution’s collections and presenting that to the public. At our museum, the curator does exhibit design, collections management, some conservation and the interpretation of our maritime collection.

What is your working day like?

The VMM is not a huge museum, nor is it small by any means. Nevertheless people often have the impression that working at a museum is a quiet, slow-paced place to work, but there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes. For my day, I do quite a bit of email correspondence, usually to do with loans of objects or exhibits and project planning. I spend parts of some days doing research for new exhibitions or fixing up current exhibits where signs have been damaged or faded. Throughout the year the museum receives quite a few offers to donate objects to the collection. Our collections committee meets once a quarter to accept or decline these offers and some of my days are spent processing the objects coming into our collection. It is also part of my job to work on proposals for grant applications. Funding is hard to come by for museums so grant writing is an important part of improving our facilities.

How do you decide what to display?

I am often influenced by anniversaries of events in history.  Occasionally I am influenced by current events, such as the finding of HMS Erebus by Parks Canada. That discovery led us to mount an exhibition chronicling the quest for the Northwest Passage and the search for Sir John Franklins lost expedition. 

Sometimes the idea for a display comes up because there is a particularly interesting artifact or collection of artifacts in the museum’s holdings. Our controversial “Tattoos and Scrimshaw” exhibition from 4 years ago was based around an interesting collection of scrimshaw at the museum.

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What do you love about it?

I love being surrounded by history, and being able to tell stories about which many people would not have otherwise known. Learning about and interpreting beautiful antique objects, or discovering the unique histories behind seemingly ordinary objects.

One of the other aspects of the job that I truly enjoy is being able to collaborate with professionals at different institutions and collaborating on new projects. It is extremely rewarding to learn that another institution wants to present an exhibit that you have created.

what’s hard about being a curator?

One of the difficulties that many curators struggle with is finding enough space to store all the wonderful items in a museum’s collection. Another difficulty I find is trying to keep up with all of the requests that come into the museum for information on objects, historic events and people; requests for photographs. 

My background is classical history and archaeology so adapting to a new subject area was difficult in the beginning. I have learned a lot about maritime history during my time at the museum, but there is still so much that I wish to learn about world and Vancouver maritime history but it is hard to find the time to learn everything I wish to.

What skills do you need to do the job well?

As a curator you need to be well organized to plan well in the future for exhibitions, and to plan around any events that might be taking place at the institution. 

You need to be creative and find interesting and innovative ways to engage the public and let them explore the subject you are interpreting. 

It is important to pay attention to details, whether this is writing a display panel or conserving an artifact.

And of course a steady hand is extremely important.

what advice would you give someone who is interested in becoming a curator?

Read as much as you can and if you have the opportunity to volunteer at local museums and archives, that experience will help you when establishing a career. It is important to gain experience in the field early on so you know what aspects of it you find most interesting and what aspects you find less interesting.

More and more, museums are using digital media and new technology to attract a broader audience, so it is useful to know how museums are employing these technologies.

How does the museum preserve its collection

One of the most recent avenues of preservation that we are following is digital preservation. We are digitizing our archival collection which is a straightforward, but time consuming process. We are also in the process of digitizing the entirety of the St. Roch. This is being done with a 3d laser scanner and is being carried out for the CyArk 500 project which is currently digitizing heritage sites from around the world.

And now for some Fun Facts!

How many items in the collection

We have approximately 35,000 artifacts. The archives at the museum comprise over 125,000 slides, negatives, and prints of nautical and Arctic subject matter; 2700 vessel plans and many charts and maps.

oldest item

We have some fossils in the collection from the Arctic. They are estimated to be nearly 400 million years old.

Biggest item 

Without a doubt the biggest item in our collection is the RCMP vessel St. Roch at 104 feet in length, it takes up an entire A-frame building.

Most valuable item

Again this would have to be the St. Roch. The chronometer used by Captain George Vancouver is also one of our most prized artifacts.

Most recent donation

A metal flask which belonged to Jack Foster (one of the engineers on the St. Roch) is one of our most recent donations. It is unique because it is inscribed with the names of dozens of people he met throughout the Arctic.