A Day in the Life of a Curator

Special Collections and Grainger Museum Blogger Anastasia Vassiliadis chats to Dr Heather Gaunt about her role as Curator at the Grainger Museum.

Can you tell me a bit about the Grainger Museum?
The Grainger Museum houses and displays the Grainger Museum Collection which is a much larger entity mostly stored off-site. That’s the collection that was almost completely put together by Percy Grainger himself from the 1930s onwards until he died in the 1960s. His original conception for the display was for his story to be told, and also the story of music in Melbourne and the Southern Hemisphere, as well as key contributing composers and the like that he felt were significant for the development of Western music in Australia. He was also interested in Ethnomusicology.

What we do now within the museum is uphold his concept of telling his own story with the permanent display. The other half of the museum is changing temporary exhibitions. The temporary exhibition is our way to expand our audience, our utility, tell different stories related to [Percy] Grainger or more generally music or creativity. It’s a chance to expand our story.

What does being a Curator entail? Describe your day-to-day life at work.
As the Curator, my job is to maintain the permanent display and refresh it as necessary, work out an exhibition schedule, decide on what I’m going to show, why, who the collaborative partners will be, what the key content we’re going to use will be, intellectually create the content, and physically get it up with the small team that we have. I also make online exhibition content for each of our temporary exhibitions, using the Omeka platform.

Most of the Grainger Museum Collection is in our off-site store in Brunswick, and these [the objects on display in the museum] are just the top layer of the collection. I try to have a day out there once a week, where I pull content together for the exhibitions, decide what I’m going to show, work out display techniques, and research for the next exhibition.
As the Curator of the Grainger I’m also the Collection Manager, so I look after the collections in terms of their intellectual and physical wellbeing.

What is the difference between working as a Collection Manager and a Curator? Are the two roles normally combined?
No, they’re not normally combined. It depends on the size of the institution. Because the Grainger is quite small and with few staff, the job of Collection Manager and Curator is combined into one role, which makes it a really huge role. In big institutions, curators would never do any collection management. Collection Managers go and see the material in the stores. They have the management expertise about the material, that is, how to look after it, how to manage the resources financially, intellectually and digitally, and how to make them accessible to the public in online forms. Curators typically have the intellectual expertise about the material. Curatorship involves cataloguing, purchasing, negotiating with lenders or donors, longer term collection strategy, and creating exhibitions for the public.

Do you create exhibitions by yourself?
So it depends on the project. Sometimes the projects are on a much bigger scale. Objects of Fame is a collaboration with Arts Centre Melbourne. Because the university is overtly about utility into the community, that is, we have a public mission as well as our internal mission, collaborations like this are valuable for outreach and engagement. Objects of Fame is explicitly about engaging with another major collection of music and performing arts material. Because it’s a collaborative effort, Objects of Fame has a bigger budget than our normal temporary exhibitions, and a full team across two organisations on it. So there’s an Exhibition Manager from the Arts Centre Melbourne who is running the project, and two Co-Curators, in addition to conservators, exhibition installation staff, registrars, etc.

[interjection] Is it harder working in a team than by yourself?
It’s different. Very different. With Synths [Synthesizers: Sound of the Future], I curated it mostly by myself with some curatorial input from our key partners at Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (especially about the synthesizers in the exhibition that came from their collection), and with intellectual input and collaborative guidance from academics at the MCM and the VCA to do with the larger picture of experimental music in the period. You don’t do anything in isolation, but as the Curator you are steering the project and essentially working out the scale of it and how much additional information or expertise you need to bring in.

Do you decide how the exhibition will look?
Yes. As a physical exhibition, I designed Synths myself. I laid it out, decided what was going to go where to tell the story effectively, and I worked with a contractor who installed it. I had a vision in my head. I had to think about the colour, the look and feel, as well as the auditory character that I wanted to go for.

Objects of Fame is very different. There’s an Exhibition Designer who has been working with the objects for some months. We’ve got about 250 objects across both collections that are in the exhibition so it’s a major exercise in organisation and exhibition storytelling. We’re in the process at present, two weeks out from opening, of finalising details of the exhibition layout, plus text content, including objects and extended text labels, vinyl text and graphic content for the walls, etc.

What are some considerations that must be taken when deciding how to present something or what to include in an exhibition?
What people are likely to take in, what the crucial stuff that you have to get across is…how you could get across other information in other ways apart from what you can do in the physical exhibition if it’s really important: for example, with public programs, talks, or more material delivered online.

Aesthetics underpin everything. Your primary goal is to tell a story and to engage people with the content that you want them to go away with.
Relevance is the key thing you’re looking for in an exhibition. In a small museum with a small budget, each exhibition deliberately targets a particular group in the community, not trying to exclude others, but attempting to spread the utility across a spectrum of potential visitors.

How long does it take to put an exhibition together?
It depends. I was thinking about Synths 15 months ago, so July last year. In my head I decided that’s what I was going to do. I had a few initial meetings with the collaborators over the next couple of months and started really putting together content in November. And then the final crunch starts about 10 months before the exhibition opens.

What is the typical audience at the Grainger Museum?
There is a traditional audience which attracts the 40-years-plus demographic.

I also always get lots of students because I do a lot of academic programs with University of Melbourne students. Other exhibitions, like Synths, attract different audiences—in the case of Synths, the hipsters arrived in droves! Plus we attracted families, and people across all ages who were interested in electronic music specifically.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
Finding enough time to do it. That is the most challenging thing for sure. Knowing how to balance all the different demands of the job so that you do everything necessary but also do things as well as you can.

[interjection] Do you work long hours?
Yes. It always takes longer to do the final stages of an exhibition than you can predict. It doesn’t fit in the standard working hours. It’s typical of the arts. There’s a lot of work done for the love of it.

What is the best part of your job?
There are some outstanding things… I have a genuine love for collections. It gives me a great deal of joy to work in historic collections particularly. My PhD is in history so I love material culture. I love the stories that I discover, the ‘affect’ of objects means a great deal to me. The other thing I love is communicating and collaborating. You can’t do one without the other. I’ve really enjoyed working with students across different disciplines in the museum and hearing completely different perspectives from them, and the insight that comes from a shared experience of the museum environment and particular objects is incredibly enriching.

What has been your favourite collection to work with throughout your career?
I do love the Grainger collection, because of its diversity and richness. The fact that one person would think that they could tell their whole life story through material culture and then physically build a museum and put all that stuff in there, that’s phenomenal. Can we understand somebody through the objects they’ve left behind? I’m still not sure that you can. Because I know when you have so much, you realise how complex people are. People aren’t single linear narratives. They’re complex. [Percy] Grainger has given us a chance to explore that.

The other collection I loved working with, was at Museums Victoria—the Indigenous Cultures Collection. It was an amazing privilege to be able to work with objects that are representative of Indigenous cultures around Australia.

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time? Still working in curatorship? Trying something else within the Museums sector? Or returning to academia?
That’s a good question. I like being surprised by things. Any of those options would be very interesting. Academia’s fun, I love teaching. I don’t think I’ll still be here at the Grainger in ten years, I think you shouldn’t stay in a job for that long. I think stay five to seven years, and then give someone else a chance to have a go at it. I think it’s good for everybody to keep moving around.

What would you say to someone interested in working in curatorship? What is the industry like? Are there many opportunities? How can someone best get involved?
I graduated from Curatorial Studies in ’92, and the course had only just started the year before. So in terms of growth of a professional field, I was fortunate to come in at the beginning, which is always helpful. I think now when I give lectures to curatorship students, I’m very aware that it’s a much harder ask. In Australia it’s difficult. If you’re passionate and lucky you’ll get somewhere, but you can still be passionate and not have luck. But in places like China, for example, where they’re building many new museums currently, there’s lots of openings for museum professionals. So yes, if you have a global perspective, there are opportunities. But I wouldn’t say it’s a field you could walk into easily!

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