Expert Interview with the Curatorial Research Centre

Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Founder of the Curatorial Research Centre explains what it means to be a curator and the importance of story-telling in education and the arts.

Manoj Phatak

Manoj Phatak

We are joined today by Dr. Tehmina Goskar of the Curatorial Research Centre in the UK. Tehmina is a curator with 20 years’ experience in the cultural, arts, academic and private sectors. She is a Fellow of the UK Museums Association and a member of its Ethics Committee. Welcome Tehmina.!

Why did you decide to found the Curatorial Research Centre (CRC)? What need are you fulfilling and for whom?

Creating the CRC in 2018 was the culmination of a professional lifetime of fascination with material things and their changing, and often conflicting, meaning to different people. In short, I am a geek of things. I started out training in history and got addicted to historical research. 
 
This led me to start out in archive conservation and research but an early taste for display and interpretation and an opportunity to curate my first exhibition (which was on the history of the Basingstoke Canal at Surrey History Centre in Woking, UK) turned my attention to museum studies. 
 
I trained as a postgraduate in Museum Studies at the Textile Conservation Centre, then part of the University of Southampton, gaining a rare distinction. My main research was on the phenomenon of the earliest collections and collectors during the British fascination with the Grand Tour (travel as a form of cultural education) in the 18th century. 
 
The obsession with the classical world and its forms elevated certain kinds of collections over others and this remains pre-eminent in many of the UK’s oldest museums. As a curator, I am always interested in the long view. Many of the ways of looking at the world in the late 18th century still exist in our attitudes around public museums and galleries today. 
 
So, over the years of curating many exhibitions, researching collections in the UK, Italy, USA and beyond, and through my historical research and teaching, I had formed a philosophy that has grown from real-world observations and experiences. This philosophy needed a home and so I formed the CRC shortly after completing an Arts Council England leadership fellowship called Change Makers. 
 
Tom Goskar joined as my business partner early in 2019 and heads up our audiovisual, digital and archaeological projects.
 
I decided to create an independent organisation for two reasons. One, to retain the integrity around our philosophy without pressure from a larger institution such as a university or large museum. The second, to be able to work globally across public and private sectors. 
 
Particularly through our educational work, we recognise that there is a desire to learn about curation without the massive financial burden of a university course, particularly among practitioners and students who do not have access to such specific educational opportunities where they are. 
 
For example, we can provide much lower cost but equally as stimulating and rigorous online learning with one-to-one support, backed up by direct and current knowledge of the sector. Many traditional academics have limited practical curation experience. 
 

Can you tell us more about your methodology to combine the ‘art of knowledge’ with the ‘science of communication’?

The foundation of all our education and research is that a good curator is part knowledge creator, part communicator. We call it the 50% model
 
The identity of the curator has been adopted by many fields in recent years, we have curated playlists, curated menus, we even have curated ears! 
 
I am relatively easy going about this appropriation, or as I prefer to call it, curatorial proliferation, but many of my art and museum colleagues are less than impressed. So if anyone asks me what a curator is, it is someone with skills to generate stories, ideas and information from collections of things.
 
These may be artefacts and archives, data or intangible things such as voices, tastes, smells – and we need the skills to understand and choose effective combinations of interpretation. 
 
As creative beings, we have so many forms of communication at our disposal and most of the time most people use them poorly or are oblivious. You can use poetry, sound, visual stories (including digital visualisation), textures, elegant labels or sometimes the arrangement speaks for itself and words are not needed at all. 
 
The broadcast/keyboard warrior mentality of social media and the tyranny of the ‘like button’ has not helped people to realise that effective communication is a science. 
 
A good curator will find the best way to communicate their ideas and narratives, or those of the client they represent, to surprise new audiences, and delight existing ones.
 

How does the role of Curator differ from a Conservator or a Registrar?

The answer is, it depends on who you speak with. 
 
Some conservators self-identify as curators as well. It’s not unusual for people whose work is devoted to art and collections to have multiple functions. Being a registrar is often a part of a curatorial role, say, in a smaller museum or gallery with few staff. 
 
Many registrars won’t self-identify as a curator too. I used to be a registrar for previous museums I worked at, or with, and the role was very much like that of a logistician and a lawyer. 
 
You have to understand the laws and protocols around borrowing art and objects from abroad; you have to be super-organised, thorough and with serious attention to detail. 
 
Some curators today will not have those skills too, their strengths may be more in creativity and building personal relationships. 
 

Does your curatorial methodology differ between museum, private and retail collections?

No, not really. This was another reason for setting up the CRC. 
 
I see curatorial skills as being very relevant for any organisation or individual who takes an interest in collections, historical artefacts or art. One thing that may differ is museum ethics. 
 
I am a member of the UK Museums Association’s Ethics Committee and train my students in museum ethics at the outset of their courses. This is because in museums you need to immediately understand how the value of the artefact changes when it is removed from the normal circulation of commodities. 
 
Museum ethics are a code of conduct to which private collections and retail may not ascribe. They are not mutually exclusive, and both the public and commercial art worlds can learn a lot from each other–and in any case there is often a lot of cross-over. 
 
The way I would curate public or private collections from an interpretive point of view would largely be the same. 
 
Seek out the gem, then share it with style!
 

How can a curator help a corporate brand, such as a bank, an insurance company or a fashion retailer?

Authenticity, provenance, story, heritage. 
 
If you think about our simple model of what a curator is, what we are good at is finding hidden stories and ideas among things that others may overlook as being of no consequence, or understand very superficially. 
 
A good curator can bring depth and originality to the stories and heritage of a brand, even new ones. This provides a corporate brand with provenance. Provenance is important to building trust and enthusiasm between a brand and its customers. 
 
Any brand deemed to be shady or from uncertain origins is likely to be viewed as inauthentic and to be avoided. Look at how good advertisers work. In many ways they act like curators, although sometimes they can get it very wrong, for example the National Trust’s doomed Easter 2019 ad campaign with Cadbury’s
 
A good curator would not put their clients in that position as, by and large, personal and institutional integrity is important to our profession. 
 
A note of caution, there are a lot of people who are parading as curators out there who have little track record or knowledge to back up this privileged title. This is fine if they are playing galleries at home (or on their ears) but I would advise brands to make sure they work with bona fide curators who can demonstrate they understand your context, and know what they are doing.

Can you tell us of your experience in applying curatorial skills in other areas, such as medicine?

I believe that the knowledge and communication-based skills of a good curator are infinitely transferrable, particularly to any field that depends on investigation. 
 
That could be journalism, police work or medicine, such as a doctor taking a patient history to ensure a correct diagnosis. Interestingly in early 2018 I trained a small group of medical students on being a ‘curator for a day’. 
 
The key method we teach for knowledge generation is asking powerful questions. These are well-aimed open questions, such as, who made it, what did it do, how did it come to be here. 
 
Several of them commented that those powerful questions are very useful for doctors. Interestingly that group chose to hold an event at their host museum around art and objects interpreted from a medical point of view. 
 
We had the biology of Egyptian mummification explained, the medical reasons behind a portrait of a 17th century giant, and the use of blood letting to alleviate mental distress in the Victorian period. 
 
It’s not just curators who can bring richness and clarity to a subject, other professions can help us understand things, and therefore humanity, differently, and that is to be encouraged.
 
 
 

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