Museum Life: curatorial qualifications

Should curators be expected to know how to make the collections they curate? Should a dress curator be able to make a pattern based on a historic gown in a collection or textile curators know how to construct an ikat textile? This is an issue that I have grappled with over the years in my profession as a Museum Curator and Registrar. Coming from a largely practical based tertiary education I have, at times felt under-qualified amongst my colleagues who have a plethora of theory based graduate degrees. Learning embroidery, basketry, garment construction and weaving somehow isn’t as prestigious as a degree in Ancient History.

In my opinion, understanding techniques is a huge part of fashion and textile curating. Identifying construction, dating a garment and knowing how it was worn is done through having a solid knowledge of techniques. Although some scholars such as Anne Hollander in her publication, ‘Seeing Through Clothes’ may criticize curators for being overly descriptive in their approach to fashion history, I believe it forms the foundation in knowing the cultural, historic and context of a garment or textile.

Maurice Davies’ 2007 study of recruitment in the museum workforce, ‘The Tomorrow People: Entry to the museum workforce’ outlines the issues many young people face in finding museum employment. One of the main problems outlined; the lack of entry-level positions and the over qualified nature of potential candidates. A postgraduate degree is almost essential for many junior positions in museums these days. I wonder if this has resulted in more of an emphasis on theory-based degrees such as museum studies and fashion theory as opposed to degrees in fine art or fashion design. I don’t think there is anything wrong with these qualifications in fact I think it’s incredible that we live in an age where people have the opportunity to study a range of fields in a tertiary context. My fear is, however, that with the need to become overly qualified to gain employment in the museum industry, perhaps potential museum staff aren’t valuing practice and technical based education as much.

Starting out in the museum industry as a volunteer at the Powerhouse Museum, two of the most influential curators I encountered were Lindie Ward, Curator of Lace, Textiles and the Australian Dress Register and retired Lace Curator Rosemary Shepherd. Both are some of the most knowledgeable curators in the area of lace, textiles and dress I have encountered. A few years down the track and I am still learning and working with both these curators. With Lindie, I have learnt in detail about the internal construction of mid-Nineteenth Century dress and with Rosemary I have learnt basic bobbin lace techniques. Due to this I have been able to gain greater understanding of the significance of particular items in the Museum’s collection. This includes, understanding modifications in dress construction, therefore identifying how a particular garment may have been worn through pregnancy or for changing fashions. Understanding the structure of bobbin lace has enabled me to draw correlations between the reduction of threads in the ground of 18th Century Valenciennes bobbin lace (first image) and the distribution of labour in the lace industry (more on this later).

These curators have taught me that curatorial knowledge and practice should start with a solid understanding of technique.

I know that many Worn Through readers are aspiring and current museum professionals and that this is a hot topic of conversation. Talking to my colleague, Loans Registrar, Lauren Dalla, she mentioned that is was also the theme for a recent copy of the Australasian Registrar’s Journal. In this edition, current registration staff explored their education and professional experiences. The conclusion was that registration staff in the Australian and New Zealand region come from a wide range of educational backgrounds and that there is no one way to gain employment.

Finally, I would love to hear your opinions about this topic.

What is your experience as a current or aspiring museum professional? What qualifications/ experience do you think a curator or other museum professional should have?

Image:  A9148-19 Valenciennes lace border, symmetrical floral motifs, Flanders, c. 1720Photo: Powerhouse Museum collection



Anne Hollander, ‘Seeing Through Clothes’, University of California Press, United States of America, 1993

Maurice Davies, ‘The Tomorrow People: Entry to the Museum Workforce’, University of East Anglia, United Kingdom, 2007

Lauren Dalla (ed.), ‘Australasian Registrars Committee Journal’, Sydney, Australia, No. 63, December 2011


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  • Sarah August 03, 2012 07.17 am

    Hi Rebecca,

    I’m so glad you’ve raised the points you have. As both a museum professional (conservator), independent curator and educator, I’ve often grappled with the tension between theory vs. practice. Today it seems many education programs that aspiring museum professionals enter into focus solely on the theoretical. I know many curators who have essentially lost the “connoisseurship” approach that curators in the past once had. Curators today can organize highly theoretical shows, but many are at a lost in trying to decipher a textile’s structure, or a garment’s construction. I don’t know if these tensions will go away any time soon, but I’m hopeful that the dialog around these issues will continue to grow. I explored this topic in a paper called Materiality: Locating the Object in Fashion Studies for the Fashion Studies Today: History, Theory and Practice conference earlier this year in NYC.

  • Carolyn August 03, 2012 09.31 am

    Thank you for this post Rebecca, it is an issue that is close to me as well. I’m on the cusp of beginning research for a Dress History PhD dissertation and I’ve been surprised by the lack of practical knowledge among eminent academic scholars in the field. I am working towards changing that. At the heart of it my interest in dress history is rooted in my love of sewing. I make almost all of my own clothes and the occasional historical reproduction. As a result, my academic work centres on historical (pre-industrial) garment construction and its wider social history implications. Object-based research is a cornerstone of my methodology and in my dissertation I intend to introduce historical reproduction sewing as a valid research practice. I seek to synthesize the practical with the theoretical, and I know I’m not the only one like me. I have also met nothing but enthusiasm for my PhD topic and approach from well-established academics and museum professionals alike in Canada (where I am), the UK, and the US. Thus, I think there is an open-ness, at least within certain institutions, towards incorporating more practical knowledge in dress history studies.

    However, it can be a pretty tall order to expect curators to be simultaneously proficient in practice, connoisseurship and theory. I, myself, am not theory-oriented and struggle with it. Neither am I a hard-core connoisseur – yet. There is also an ever-expanding body of important theoretical work which it is very time-consuming to try and stay on top of. Developing sufficient knowledge/understanding of practice is also very time-consuming and requires dedication (or a personal love of the craft). Requiring pattern-drafting skills among dress curators would be particularly demanding – you really can’t start to learn it until you are already proficient at sewing. Furthermore, not everyone is born with the natural aptitude to work with their hands.

    Hmmm, I think this is all a very roundabout way of saying that I would like to see greater inclusion of practical knowledge amongst both academics and curators, possibly to the point of requiring aspirants to at least try and learn a practice related to their particular focus. However, I think making it a formal requirement for getting a job could exclude people who are otherwise very perceptive, may have important ideas, and posses the potential to make important contributions to the field.

  • Rebecca August 05, 2012 02.30 am

    Hi Sarah,

    Many thanks for your comment! I am so glad there are others out there considering this topic in their profession.
    Thank you for the reference to your paper. I will definitely look it up!

    It is interesting that you have a background in conservation as well curatorial. I was discussing this very point with one of my colleagues. The conclusion was that if conservators should have to understand the physical properties and structure of an item to be able to preserve it, so should a curator so as to to interpret, research and display it! If a conservator doesn’t understand how something is made they are likely to damage it and I think the same is likely for a curator…

    As to the future, my hope is that people will continue to learn techniques as the basis for curatorial knowledge.

    Happy curating, Rebecca

  • Rebecca August 05, 2012 02.39 am

    Hi Carolyn,

    What a fantastic PhD topic you have! Your approach sounds similar to mine in my own research.

    I totally agree with you, that is is a tall order for potential curators. I guess, what I would like to see is an increased value for curators with a practical background and for them not to be thought as under qualified because they do not have extensive theoretical knowledge.

    At the end of the day, I also recognise that a dynamic museum workforce is made up of professionals from a wide range of backgrounds, experiences, ages and cultural backgrounds.

    Regardless of what happens, it will be fascinating to see how fashion, costume and dress theory and museum practice develops over in the future.

    Best of luck with your research!

    Thanks, Rebecca

  • LIndie Ward August 07, 2012 03.11 am

    This topic is close to my heart. The benefit of a sound knowledge of textiles, cut and techniques greatly enhance my ability to decipher new provenance information from dress collections. For example the collection at Rouse Hill House and Farm, belonging to the Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, had remained undisturbed in the one family for a number of generations. Through close inspection and careful dating I was able to name the wearers of the garments. Careful measurement, inspection of stitching alterations, checking stylistic features all contributed to greatly improved documentation. Creating sets of measurements for family members meant that garments fitted neatly into their provenence even if stored elsewhere. Comparing measurements allowed me to determine when and why alterations had been made – an extremely satisfying exploration. A broad knowledge of textiles and techniques leads to exciting results and greatly enhances our intimate knowledge of a family such as this.


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