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What a curator's job involves
  
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Susan Robinson




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PostPosted: Oct 10, 2011 06:39    Post subject: What a curator's job involves  

Hello All,
I thought I would provide some information on what a curator's job involves. I am the wife of the curator at the A. E. Seaman Mineral Museum at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan - the famous "Copper Country." I have helped him over thousands of volunteer hours put a collection into better order than it was before, pack it for its move into a new building, and now bring it back into order again. There are still nearly 125 more boxes of specimens to be unpacked and the minerals put back into their proper places, both in the systematic storage and display areas. I help him since there is no one else to provide the help, and no one experienced enough to handle the minerals properly. He does not allow students to handle minerals. Period.
A curator's job is like juggling many balls at once. George teaches a course in mineralogy in the fall, but at the same time does mineral identifications for people, provides information for requests, tries to plan where and what minerals, graphics, etc., will go into the new exhibits areas, and keeps pace with donated collections (sorting, cataloging, etc.) With all that is going on, trying to create and take an exhibit to mineral shows is difficult. Even changing or creating one display case for public view is an all-day if not several days job. There is no exhibits department here, as might be provided at the Smithsonian, Canadian Museum of Nature, etc. We are it and have to do it all.
Regarding labels that are incorrect - that happens in all museums, and it requires that the information re the locality be verified, then a new label be made for the public display, then change the information in the database, and, if you have a hard copy catalog system, change that label, too. It is not a good idea to open the case while the museum is open for visitors, so that means the label is changed either before the museum opens, after it closes, or on a Sunday (when it is closed here). We have worked many, many weekends to make progress on the collection here. It keeps our minds from the 250" of snow we get over the winters.
No once knows what a job involves until you are actually doing it. There is no end to any aspect of taking care of a major mineral collection. The work goes on over many years and is passed on to the next curator, who will have to "hit the ground with the feet running" to keep pace with the job's duties.
I thought I'd provide my experience and insights for the Forum,

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PostPosted: Oct 10, 2011 06:39    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

This is a great thread!

I encourage all curators, members or not of FMF, who read or noticed this post to add their opinions. I believe the public don't knows so much about the real task that curators do, so this thread could be an excellent space where enlight about it.

Just for fun I add a comment Susan sent to me and that I can't resist to share with everybody.

Susan Robinson wrote:

I don't think people realize how hard a curator's job is. Most of the public don't understand minerals and just like to look at "pretty objects." A public survey was done at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa (CMN) many years ago while George was curator there. They were planning a new mineral gallery, and wanted to find out what the public knew about minerals. Many of the answers were "they are something you eat", since most people take vitamins and minerals. Often people will ask if the crystals are natural or if people faceted them and put them on the rock.
These answers and statistics show what a curator is up against in trying to both educate and make people appreciate minerals.


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B. Chandrasekhar




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PostPosted: Oct 10, 2011 06:39    Post subject: Curators and PhDs  

I came across an interesting article recently which talked about Paul Desautels and how his career was adversely affected by his lack of a PhD. While it is inconceivable nowadays for a curator NOT to have a PhD, I was wondering what motivatied this change of thinking, and what forum members' opinions were of it? I would guess that it happened as a result of the changing role of a curator, from dusting mineral cabinets to undertaking original research. But if that is the case, why did the role of the curator change?
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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 04:52    Post subject: Re: Curators and PhDs  

I would be interested in seeing the article you referred to because, in fact, Paul Desautels' career was not in any way affected by his not having a PhD. In spite of the Smithsonian's policy of no PhD, no curatorship, he easily became a curator and was so for the best part of his tenure there. And, in spite of his success, it was made very plain to me that I could never become a curator without a PhD. It was for that reason that I started the Mineralogical Record because it was to be my escapte vehicle since I did not care to be a technician for the rest of my career. Ironically, the Record so impressed the director of the museum that he promoted me to a curatorship just the same, thus I eventually gave up the magazine as I no longer needed it.

The emphasis on PhD's is a sore subject with me. It is somewhat like an exclusive club without a really good reason for its existence. Having a PhD does not make one a good curator, in fact there have been numerous curators with PhDs who have been terrible. It is thought that curators with PhDs would be involved in "cutting edge science" but that seldom happens and the science, for the most part, is mediocre.

Go figure!

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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 05:48    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

I personally feel that the requirement that a person has a PhD or some similar qualification in a field for them to carry out their work is ridiculous. Yes a certain level of academic qualification can indicate something but it does not indicate that you are good at doing your job. I was asked to do a PhD by Oxford University but turned them down as I wanted to go out and become an engineer, not spend years becoming an academic. Over the years I have seen many less able people collect the necessary 'labels' while the more able have just got on and done a great job. I have collected 'labels' too, but often very late and only because someone has said that if I did not have them I could not do a certain type of work which has forced me to prove the obvious - that I am competent in my field. In fact at the moment one of these silly requirements means that I might finally bother to collect my masters degree certificate, which I have never bothered to collect as I could not see the need to have the piece of paper, as I know what I did.

And for me that is what we need in many fields including curators. People who understand the subject and do it well.

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Susan Robinson




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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 06:13    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

George and I fully agree that a PhD is not a necessary requirement for a curatorial position. What is needed is to be an experienced collector in all aspects - to recognize minerals as to what they are and their localities without reading the labels, and be able to know the current market values. Also, to understand how to clean, preserve, and catalog them so they can be easily retrieved by the next curator.
The collection at Michigan Tech, upon George's arrival, was stored in alphabetical order under the cabinets, and not the Dana System. The display of the systematic collection was too crowded, and the rest of the displays were of donors' collections. His office had several newly-arrived donor collections in it with flats stacked to the ceiling and boxes taking up an entire area of the display floor. Needless to say, the task ahead for formidable. Now the minerals are in proper conservation-type boxes in Lane cases, and the storage on the floor is being put back into order as it is unpacked. Another formidable job, but do-able. Actually, unpacking the minerals is like seeing old friends again.

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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 06:17    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

I forgot to mention that George also does editing for Rocks & Minerals magazine, and revised the Mineralogy of Michigan book since being here, has completed a book with another fellow on the history of the Seaman Museum's collection, and is now involved with Steve Chamberlain in writing a book on New York State minerals.
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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 07:00    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

Moreover, Susan, I would like to comment that "Minerals, An Illustrated Exploration of the Dynamic World of Minerals and Their Properties" by George Robinson became one of the best introductions I have ever read about minerals and how they appear. We have reviewed it at Spanish Forum. Its didactic explanation are a "must know" for the beginner and the amateur.

Regards

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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 07:05    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

I’m completely agreed with John’s notes about this theme.
The Academic (and administrative) world use to be too much “formal” and so, some malfunctions and disfunctions in a lot of very specialized jobs are a direct consequence of this “formality”.
It’s clear that the job of Museum Curator, and specifically the job of curator in every Natural History subject, needs a particular preparation not subject to an specific degrees (as PhD in USA or Dr in Europe) that they not assure a satisfactory labor all along a life.
I accumulate near 40 years of continuous formation in mineral (and mineralogical) conservation and I’m yet learning a lot of new items every day about the job and this is because I have a concrete vision of curatorial and collection needs and objectives.
I can affirm now (take it as a license of elder curator) that most of my old teachers and educators and a lot of young university professors, all them doctors, are evidently not prepared for a so special task.
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PostPosted: Oct 11, 2011 08:57    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

This is unfortunately the sad reality with many professions. I got my Ph.D. in large part because I realized that I would be taken less seriously (with a poorer chance of landing a job) without it. In the industry sector wherein I work, board certification is a must if one wishes to advance professionally - even though the cerification exam is widely perceived to be little more than an exercise of filling one's head with useless and arcane trivia, which will never prove helpful again (assuming one retains any of it!). I know of others in my field who lack one or both of these credentials and who are far more accomplished/intelligent than I. Some are embittered, others less so. But academia and the "advanced" disciplines that come from it can be unfairly harsh and unforgiving.

Like John, this is also a personal grievance of mine.

- Tracy

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PostPosted: Oct 12, 2011 00:59    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

Im wondering if the PhD thing is because museum directors think this will attract more revenue in the research department? Sadly most things boil down to money these days.
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PostPosted: Oct 12, 2011 01:19    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

Having a PhD does not guarantee one a job as a curator either. I have two earned PhDs. Yes, I know, it sounds crazy, but at the time I thought it would get me any academic job I wanted. 20 years ago I applied for a curatorial post in my research specialism (archaeological science) at a local state museum, and was turned down. The management had decided to split the advertised post and appoint two more junior staff, both without PhDs at the time. I went on to do other things.

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PostPosted: Oct 12, 2011 04:57    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

In view of Susan Robinson's comment I would like to say that her husband, Dr. George Robinson, is one of my heroes. Many years ago when he was the curator at the Canadian National Museum (or whatever its current name is), we had a discussion about adopting a hierarchical system for arranging minerals in a collection. My position was that with a huge and cumbersome group like the amphiboles, it would be impossible to organize them any other way unless every specimen in the collection had been chemically analyzed. George then informed me that he had, indeed, analyzed every amphibole in the museum's collection. Amazing!
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PostPosted: Oct 13, 2011 01:33    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

Having a PhD does not on its own ensure that a curator will be a good one. But a PhD proves the ability to complete a sustained, structured programme, which as Dr George Robinson's achievements described above amply show, is a necessary requirement for a good curator. Of course, there are other ways of demonstrating this competence, like John White's starting The Mineralogical Record or proving oneself on the job, but a PhD from a credible university is a globally recognised research qualification that assures employers that a prospective employee has passed this crucial test. It is also a test of planning, writing and communication skills, organisational ability, and sheer persistence - convenient things for an employer to know in advance of an appointment.

It is true that there is a fund-raising aspect to the requirement for a PhD in many research positions. A friend of mine (an independent sociologist) who turned 60 this year is completing her PhD because without it she simply cannot get her own research funding from donor agencies. They too want the reassurance that recipients of funding have demonstrated their capability to carry out independent research to completion. It's a bit mechanistic, but in a crowded academic world the PhD has its place as a convenient discriminator.

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PostPosted: Jan 05, 2012 11:58    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

John S. White wrote:
In view of Susan Robinson's comment I would like to say that her husband, Dr. George Robinson, is one of my heroes. Many years ago when he was the curator at the Canadian National Museum (or whatever its current name is), we had a discussion about adopting a hierarchical system for arranging minerals in a collection. My position was that with a huge and cumbersome group like the amphiboles, it would be impossible to organize them any other way unless every specimen in the collection had been chemically analyzed. George then informed me that he had, indeed, analyzed every amphibole in the museum's collection. Amazing!


Dead right about George, John. I have been exposed often to his accuracy on the amphiboles in Canadian localities I've collected at, Edenite at Cardiff Twp., Ontario being the latest. I have known George and Susan since George was in school studying rocks in NY and nearby Canadian areas. As far as curatorial abilities, George did not need a PhD, but it helped him due to its connotation, which in many cases (not George's!) is overblown.
As mentioned by others, I also went straight through school for a PhD since it was useful in obtaining jobs in the Chemistry and Biochemistry area, but I found it useful more as a learning process ("learning how to learn" and obtain and use information). I usually don't use the "Dr." in front of my name in the mineral world since it might indicate that I know more than I do about minerals (never had a formal geology or mineralogy course). One's ability as a curator has very little to do with formal university degrees, which sometimes actually hinder progress in things such as field work and also may askew attitudes on things such as field collecting (quite obvious, especially in the fossil collecting area).
When considering an individual for a curatorial position, the individual himself should be the main focal point - his knowledge, attitudes, work ethics, etc. University degrees should also be considered, but more as background information which would fit into the picture as a whole.
Sorry for being long-winded about this, but it is an interesting subject. Having known Paul Desautels and John White since the mid 1960's, I think the Smithsonian did very well by having them on board - their knowledge and foresight has been much more than a university degree gives in itself.
Also, sorry for this late input to FMF - I've kept some things on my computer and will try to peck away at comments as time permits, and hope to add a few photos soon.

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PostPosted: Jan 09, 2012 20:36    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

The natural history museum in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, is now called the Canadian Museum of Nature. They have a fine mineral exhibit there that I recommend seeing.
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PostPosted: Jan 09, 2012 20:40    Post subject: Re: What a curator's job involves  

George and I thank you for the nice compliments on his book, written about 20 years ago. I remember the long evenings in our home in Canada when he was diligently writing the text for it. He is happy that his words have helped so many understand minerals and how they come to be in different geological environments.
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