The Keepers of the Treasure: Eight ROM Curators on What They Do at the Museum, How They Got Here, and Why They Love It

By Engstrom, Mark | ROM Magazine, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Keepers of the Treasure: Eight ROM Curators on What They Do at the Museum, How They Got Here, and Why They Love It


Engstrom, Mark, ROM Magazine


What does a curator do?

Sometime after arriving at the ROM in 1988, my landlady noticed my seemingly erratic schedule, including stints of being away one to two months on fieldwork and, suspicious of some sort of conspiratorial plot afoot, asked me: "What exactly do you do all day? And how can the museum let you go on vacation for six weeks after arriving just this year?" My rambling response comprised a laundry list of activities, and I realized from her befuddled expression that if were to dispel her doubts, I needed to step back and explain the role of curator, as it applied to the ROM.

The role of curator has different meanings, from keepers of the collection to academic researchers. At the ROM, we are all these things. Curators are responsible for providing the vision to build and shape the collections, cultivating donations and gifts, recommending strategic purchases, and often directly collecting objects and specimens through fieldwork driven by specific research questions. Over the ROM's 100-year history, these curator-led acquisitions have resulted in a superb collection of over 6 million objects and specimens in an almost encyclopaedic array from South Asian art to black flies, documenting world cultures and natural history around the globe.

From its beginning in 1914 as the University of Toronto's museum, the ROM rootedits collections in its research program. Although the ROM and University were separated in 1968, our curators are recruited and continue as cutting edge scholars, and the Museum's reputation of intellectual strength rests on that foundation. Most of our curators are also cross-appointed as university faculty, teach courses, and supervise university graduate students. It is a talented person who can meet the academic rigour of the university system while also having the added responsibility of developing temporary exhibits, permanent galleries, publications, and programs for our primary audience, the general public.

As the ROM moves into its second century, it is that relationship--the one with Museum visitors and general audience--that is being brought to the fore. The curators' research programs, their expertise on collections, and their abilities to bring meaningful connections among those objects and specimens to life through their work are the heart of the Museum.

So how did I answer my landlady's question about what curators do all day? They write grant proposals, they conduct fieldwork, they collect artifacts, they arrange them, they study them, they write about them for the general public and academic peers, they conceive and help build exhibits and galleries based on their storylines, they do public programming and build web pages, they teach, they supervise and mentor graduate students, and they build public networks connecting people to the Museum. The curators are the intellectual centre of a larger team that places the ROM in the ranks of the world's leading museums. And doing fieldwork is NOT like being on vacation!

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Hernan Lopez-Fernandez, 39

Curator, ichthyology

Started at the ROM: 2008

What do you do at the ROM?

I am working to understand the incredibly rich freshwater fish diversity of South and Central America and really to understand the evolutionary processes that originated this diversity. We combine exploration in the field with DNA analysis and examining the fossil record to "map" how and when these species originated and trace their evolution.

First impressions of the ROM

I remember arriving from Texas and walking in the already-dark early evening outside the Museum. It was minus-10[degrees]C and there were piles of snow along the ROM Plaza on Bloor Street. I stood there thinking, "I study tropical fishes. How did I end up here?!"

Memories of museums

My first "museum moment" was when I was an undergraduate student. …

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