Curator of the Month: Jacob Moss, The Fan Museum

This month’s curator ran a successful fundraising campaign through our Art Happens crowdfunding platform for the exhibition Street Fans. Here he tells us about the experience of curating in a small museum dedicated to one beautiful, yet niche, art form.

Name and job title

Jacob Moss, Curator at The Fan Museum.

What inspired you to become a curator?

Since early childhood I’ve been fascinated by objects and their back stories. In 2010 I graduated from London College of Fashion, having studied MA Fashion Curation, where I developed theoretical and practical skills specific to exhibiting dress. At the same time I was lucky enough to undertake a number of placements which included an extended period at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I was able to work alongside the likes of Claire Wilcox, curator of the hit exhibition, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty.

What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?

I was extremely lucky in that I jumped straight from my MA into full time employment at The Fan Museum. I started out as deputy curator, learning the ropes from the museum’s founder and director, Helene Alexander. She has been collecting fans for several decades and it’s on her collection that the museum was initially based. The learning curve was incredibly steep at first. I knew very little about fans and spent much of my time reading in the museum’s library and familiarising myself with our over 5000-strong collection of fans and associated objects. Five years ago I was promoted to the position of curator and have continued to develop my knowledge of fans and the craft of fan-making ever since.

What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?

Curating my first show – a display of 20th-century advertising fans – was a significant milestone. In 2015 I travelled to New York to give a lecture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. More recently, I was able to travel to China to oversee the loan of several of The Fan Museum’s fans to a wonderful exhibition at the Guangdong Folk Arts Museum in the city of Guangzhou. Travelling far and wide and collaborating with other museums is undoubtedly one of the perks of my job.

Working in a small museum brings all sorts of challenges. I combine several areas of responsibility which move beyond the remit of museum curator, including marketing and communications. Aside from the usual capacity issues, coordinating the museum’s recent Street Fans project has to be the biggest challenge of my career to date. Managing 29 street artists and ensuring delivery of 54 contemporary fans in time for the exhibition launch was just one aspect of this multifaceted project. Crowdfunding and planning the project at the same time was a real test, but I’m relieved – no, delighted – to report both campaign and project were a great success.

What’s special about working at The Fan Museum?

It’s a museum with such a special and characterful identity; a true reflection of the founder’s deep passion for her subject and craft. I absolutely love working in such beautiful historic buildings and alongside such a diverse and multigenerational group of people. I’ve seen so many positive improvements since joining the museum: our visitor numbers are up; we’ve redesigned our permanent displays to include a new audio tour, and we’re staging an increasing number of fan-making workshops.

Last year you curated the Street Fans exhibition at the museum, which helped to put fan-making back on the map. How do you plan to continue the work of championing fan-making in contemporary society?

Street Fans shone a light on the craft of fan-making, which is at serious risk of no longer being practiced here in the UK. The museum is mindful of ensuring the craft’s future survival and is exploring ways in which we can best achieve this. We’ll be aiming to work alongside the existing few actively involved in fan-making, promoting and encouraging their practice, while also looking at ways to recruit newcomers to the craft. It’s a tall order, but if we can identify, invest in and nurture new talent, perhaps there’s a chance of reversing the decline.

What are your favourite objects in your collection and why?

It's difficult to pick one or two favourites only. However, we have a Brussels lace fan, mounted on sculpted ivory sticks which is quite breathtaking. The lace is worked into the most amazing, intricate seascape dotted with seagulls and fishing boats. Some of the museum’s early Chinese fans are quite wonderful, too. Especially those which depict Western merchants and their families, as seen through the eyes of Chinese craftspeople. One fan in particular, dating from the beginning of the 18th century, has always fascinated me. The ivory blades are decorated with a merchant on horseback and his attendants. Other Chinese figures appear to throw their hands up in fear of this so-called ‘white devil’. It’s all the more interesting to me, given our current political situation and upsurge of xenophobia.

If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?

Be prepared to put aside your preconceptions of what curating is. Invariably the reality of being a museum curator will be totally different from the notions you develop during study programmes and internships. Be open minded and respectful of your colleagues, who may have contrasting ideas about what curating is or should be. Ultimately, try to be flexible in your approach to learning your craft, and when the going gets tough, take a moment to remind yourself of why you came into the field in the first place.

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