Museums Work

Museums Work Blog

Not such strange dry specimens…

New Walk Museum - 150th anniversary 1999

The Museum Buddies project on working in museums has now ended – but I wanted to add a few final reflections on the subject of museum curators from the sources that I’ve been researching. Firstly, in the first issue of the Museums Journal in 1901-02, there is an article entitled ‘The man as museum-curator’ which acknowledges the contribution of George Brown Goode, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, to the art of exhibition and curating. ‘The outside world…’, it comments:

‘usually regards the museum-curator as but one of the strange, dry specimens to be found within the walls of the museum. A curator is sometimes seen (through a glass door) to move, as he registers or arranges his fossils or his potsherds; but to the public the movement appears so automatic, the acts so mechanical, that enthusiasm, or it may be humour, in a museum official is apt to shock them as something out of place. Unfortunately there is always a danger of this conception becoming true rather than ridiculous’.

In the case of George Brown Goode, however:

‘his whole life stands for a proof that the successful curator may be, say rather that the great museum administrator must be, a man of enthusiasm, of ideas, of strictest honour, of sincerity, with the grip and devotion of a specialist, yet with the wisdom born of wide experience, with an eye for the most meticulous detail, but with a heart and mind responsive to all things of life, art and nature’.

As a job description, that’s quite demanding – but some of the curators I’ve encountered in the course of my research into historical documents have certainly not been lacking in either a sense of humour or enthusiasm for their work, even if the public has occasionally overestimated the extent of their specialist knowledge. In 1949 Mr A.L. Thorpe, Curator of the Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, noted that the wide range of their enquiries ‘would seem to prove that a Museum is widely held to be an authoritative source of information on subjects ranging from “old master” (?) paintings found in an attic to furniture beetles found in a utility sideboard’ (County Borough of Derby, Public Libraries, Museum and Art Gallery, 78th Annual Report, March 1949). Almost identical queries were noted in Leicester later in the century, ranging from ‘the identification of family heirlooms through to, quite literally, the insect that has just crawled out of the woodwork’ (C. Brown, Cherished Possessions: a history of New Walk Museum and Leicester City Museums Service, 2002, p25).

Another recurring theme was the asortment of objects that members of the public wanted to donate to museums, which had only reinforced, in the view of Montagu Browne, Curator of the Town Museum in Leicester in 1880, ‘the great curse of the collection…’:

‘sketchy versatility. In walking through the usual dry-as-dust collections, you find groups of very atrociously-rendered animals, a greater sprinkling of funereal and highly-disreputable birds, some extremely protracted fishes, some clipped insects, a lot of shells… I allude to those odds and ends which people do not want themselves, and which are therefore so kindly brought in as an offering – would I might say a burnt one… I do not consider the end and aim of a museum should be the collection of “bullets” collected by Handy-Andy from the field of Arrah-na-Pogue, “my grandfather’s clock”, and so on… we now have a little bit of everything and very much crowded up and incomplete at every point’ (Cherished Possessions, p8).

Until Mr Browne’s appointment, the museum had been largely run by Honorary Curators, appointed initially by the Leicester Literary & Philosophical Society and from 1872 by the Borough Council’s Museum Committee. The latter was apparently not an arrangement that pleased the then Curator, Mr Weatherhead, to judge from a letter signed ‘IMPUDENT WEATHERTAIL’ in the Leicester Chronicle (6 April 1872):

‘with respect to the rights of the Museum Curator… I quite agree with him that it is most provoking for a man occupying his exalted position in the borough, and who has been allowed for so many years to manage the Museum without any kind of control, to find himself threatened with such impertinences as “rules and regulations”. Why should [the Museum Committee] want to make him responsible for the safe custody and preservation of the Museum collection? Why should they fix any hours in the day, or any day in the week, at which he should be required to be  in attendance?’.

Mr Browne himself was notable for his skills as a taxidermist. These had occasionally to be employed outside the museum,  ‘making half of New Walk uninhabitable for weeks on end’ as he worked on specimens too large for the available space inside. On one occasion he also complained that the Museum itself was ‘so cold that I am obliged to wrap up closely… I have had the unpleasant task of brushing away mildew from many of the specimens’. Appointed as he was at a point of transition in the management of the museum, he no doubt felt a need to make his mark as a  ‘professional’ – but he was certainly not one of those ‘dry specimens’ of popular perception.

I leave you with a final thought from the Museums Journal as quoted above:

‘No investment is more profitable to a museum than that in the salary fund… No work is more exhausting to body or mind than the care of collections, and nowhere are enthusiasm and abundant vitality more essential’.