How I Became a Curator, Part 1

Here on the Fanciful Lobster, I primarily talk about my life outside of my job as a museum curator. While I highlight the Museum's exhibits once they've opened, I've never discussed the actual process of curating, nor have I ever mentioned how I came to be an art museum curator in the first place.

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After sharing my experiences with undergraduates at my alma mater last spring though, I thought it'd be beneficial to post my story up here in case other museum-minded folks are trying to break into the field and are wondering how I did it. For the next three weeks then, I'll be discussing my journey as a curator so far, beginning with my academic experiences. While I have to emphasize that every curator's professional journey is different, and that there is no single definitive way to get into this field, my story has worked out for me so far.

The truth is, while I've always enjoyed visiting museums, I didn't necessarily see myself working in one. I majored in art history, and like a lot of academically-inclined students, I had vague fantasies of becoming a college professor. I've had plenty of folks tell me that I'd make an excellent teacher, and I still get that compliment now and then after a tour. The current bureaucratization of the university, however, along with the ongoing struggle my fellow PhD friends have securing any sort of teaching position, never mind a tenured one, has turned me off to that field, at least for the time being.

Anyway, while today I work primarily with American art collections, back in college I was an Old Master kind of person. At that time, the art history department at Lake Forest College only had two full-time art historians, so you either focused on Northern Renaissance, or contemporary. I went with the former and studied with the indomitable Ann M. Roberts, who remains my one of my professional inspirations today. During my senior year, I became especially interested in German Franciscan art, and even wrote a thesis on one altarpiece done in Cologne around 1500.

Master of St. Severin and Master of the life of St. Ursula, Saint Francis Altarpiece, central panel, ca. 1500, oil on panel. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne.
At the age of 22, I was convinced that I was going to become the expert of fifteenth and sixteenth-century German Franciscan art. I'd get my Master's and PhD, land myself a cushy tenure-track job at some prestigious college, and begin cultivating my eccentric professorial persona. My life was set.

Then I actually went to graduate school.

I did my Master's work at the graduate art history program at Williams College, one of the most renowned M.A.-based art history programs in the country. To this day I'm somewhat bewildered that I got in at all, as my classmates were some of the brightest and most inquisitive minds I have ever met, but evidently I passed muster. It was a challenging program, but also very fulfilling, and I'll always be grateful for having had the chance to attend. It was a tremendous boost to my self-esteem to successfully complete my degree there, and it gave me the confidence I needed to thrive in the museum field.

During my time there, I took advantage of larger faculty to take a broader array of classes, jumping back and forth between ancient Greek art, twentieth-century domestic architecture, genre painting, and more. I recall that my classmates were somewhat perplexed by my eclectic curriculum, but in retrospect, it was an excellent training ground for my museum work, where I'm constantly having to adapt my skills to new collections, artists, and types of art.

Up to this point, my work-study experiences had been academic in nature. As an undergraduate at Lake Forest, I worked in the Archives and Special Collections. During my first year at Williams, I was an assistant for the Research and Academic Program, and a Teaching Assistant during year two. I did, however, have a little museum experience. During my summers off from college I worked as a guide at Victoria Mansion, giving tours of an antebellum summer home up in Portland Maine.

The exterior of this marvelous brownstone. Despite its aesthetic merits, in terms of local environment it wasn't the wisest choice of material, as the damp, salty air can be corrosive.

The grand entrance. The owner of the mansion, Ruggles Sylvester Morse, was a hotelier and incorporated a lot of contemporary hotel design into his own home. It was also on the cutting edge of technology, being lit entirely by gas.
During the summers between my first and second years at Williams, I was a research fellow at the Museums of Old York, also in Maine. There I gave tours, helped conduct surveys, installed exhibits, and even played a historical character in full 18th-century costume for an old goal open house. It was a good preview for my future work as a curator in terms of the variety of stuff I'd be doing.

Perkins House, one of the many buildings owned by the Museums of Old York. I actually lived in the old servants' quarters along with my co-fellows.
But back to Williams. Despite my varied academic palette, I was still focused on the Old Masters, and dedicated my Qualifying Paper to seventeenth-century Dutch tooth-pulling scenes.

Yes, that was a thing, and yes, there are more of them out there than you think.

Most scholars interpret these works as didactic, teaching viewers about the perils of fraud and so forth, but I took a more visceral approach and explored the actual depiction of pain. I had initially explored the topic in a genre painting class with Mark Ledbury, but the final course of the paper was strongly influenced by a seminar on violence in representation that I'd taken with Marc Gotlieb.

Gerrit Dou, The Extraction of a Tooth, ca. 1630-35, oil on panel. Musee de Louvre, Paris.
It makes for a great conversation topic, as you can imagine.

Jan Steen, The Dentist, 1651, oil on canvas. The Hague, Royal Gallery.
I completed my B.A. and M.A. back-to-back, and my initial plan was to continue straight on to the PhD so that I could get it all done in one fell swoop. By the fall of my second year, however, I realized that I was experiencing academic burnout, and that I needed to switch over to the working world for a while. 

I can still remember the exact moment when I realized I couldn't go on with a PhD right away. I was sitting in my living room around mid-October, translating an article about Bernardino of Siena from French into English for a portraiture seminar. Bernardino was a fifteenth-century Observant Franciscan preacher, and rather the equivalent of today's televangelists: charismatic, conservative, and a great showman. He's a far cry from the nature-loving St. Francis, taking a "burn them all" mentality to witchcraft and homosexuality, among other things (To his credit, Bernardino was staunchly opposed to the violence incited by ongoing familial rivalries). He's also the first known saint to have his visage preserved through a death mask, hence why I was writing about him. Unlike other saints, who tend to have a generic, angelic appearance, we know what Bernardino looked like, warts and all so to speak.

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About halfway through the article, however, I paused and had the following realization:

"I'm nearly twenty four years old, and the only person I'm interacting with is a 15th-century toothless friar whose opinions I find so repulsive I wouldn't want to have a cup of coffee with him."

I had realized that my life was imbalanced and something needed to change. It was a frightening prospect to abandon the neat little course I had planned out for my life, but it was necessary, so instead of filling out PhD applications, I applied for internships. Since the majority of the available internships out there were from museums, I focused on these institutions. By the time I graduated in 2010, I had secured two jobs that would cover my employment for the next year. My plan at the time was to take a year or two off and then go back for the PhD, but, as you've probably guessed, that would not end up being the case.

In next week's installment, I'll discuss my first three years on the job.


  1. S. W., It is indeed rare to see old paintings of teeth being pulled. I think to Marlon Brando having dental work done for the Godfather and leaving the cotton in his cheeks. -DAC


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