Who or what is a curator?

vicky crewe

By Vicky Crewe, Principal Investigator, Cardiff University




Curator: ‘one who has the care or charge of a person or thing’; a ‘steward’, a ‘keeper’, a ‘custodian’

Archive: ‘a place in which public records or other important historic documents are kept’; ‘a historical record or document’

As part of the Family Archive Project, we’re posing the question ‘who counts as a curator or archivist?’. Of course, there are many professionals working in museums, archives and other cultural organisations who class themselves as curators and archivists. But what about the ‘ordinary’ people who save and care for documents, photos, objects, books and other items that represent their family’s pasts? Are they ‘curators’ and ‘archivists’? We think so. Take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary definitions for ‘curator’ and ‘archive’ above, for instance – you don’t have to be a professional working in a museum or archive to fit into these categories.

Moirlanich longhouse dresser
traditional archive

Above: a dresser at the National Trust’s Moirlanich longhouse in Scotland (image source). Can an item like this, perhaps containing family papers, photos and meaningful objects, be as much of an ‘archive’ as the more conventional image below (image source)?

In recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cultural and heritage institutions calling on the public for help in cataloguing and interpreting collections, often digitally. Terms such as ‘crowdsourcing’, ‘citizen curators’, and ‘citizen archivists’ have emerged, as professional curators and archivists invite the public to tag historical images and documents, upload digital images, transcribe records, and select material for display in exhibitions. The United States National Archives are doing just that, while closer to home Edinburgh Museums are inviting local communities to be ‘citizen curators’.

These projects are very valuable for breaking down traditional barriers between ‘the public’ and ‘the professional’, and everyone involved can gain an awful lot from them. They also demonstrate that many people working in public institutions are aware of those traditional barriers and are working to remove them.

But, importantly, the driving force behind most of these initiatives is usually a museum or archive. The public are encouraged to ‘add value’ to national, public collections held by those institutions. The danger here is that the ‘citizen archivist’ or ‘citizen curator’ only exists at the invitation of the professionals. Members of the public themselves are rarely asked how and why they keep and look after items relating to their personal family histories. What are we missing if we don’t ask these ‘citizen curators’ about their own archival practices and values? We’ll be holding focus groups as part of this project to ask just that sort of question.

It is especially important that we ask these questions now, as public museums and archives face struggles in terms of funding, staffing, and storage space. These institutions can’t always accept family archives when they are offered to them, so it’s important that families gain the confidence to care for their own collections themselves. One way in which institutions are trying to help is by sharing their expertise with the public through free online resources. For example in the UK, the Victoria and Albert Museum have online guidance about caring for personal collections, and The National Archives, one of the partner organisations on this project, has free videos and podcasts for family history researchers. Organisations outside the UK also offer useful resources on personal archiving and family history, such as the Library of Congress and Australia’s National Archives. By helping people to find and use these resources, and asking them to share their own family archiving practices, we hope that ‘citizen curators’ will benefit from this project.

Feel free to leave comments below or join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #famarchive – we’d love to hear from you.




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