Curator of the Month: Deborah Fox, Museums Worcestershire

This month's curator explains how her love of natural history and archaeology began in childhood, and offers insight into the process of curating an exhibition exploring politics and power.

How did you start out as a curator?

I have always loved archaeology and natural history. My earliest memories are of the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt and its whale skeleton, shrunken heads and dinosaur skeletons. As a child, I collected and dried toadstools and mushrooms so I could keep them in labelled jars. I was never really in any doubt about what career I wanted to pursue, it was always going to be this way.

I studied Archaeology and Classics at the University of Nottingham and took a Masters degree in Heritage Management at the Ironbridge Institute the following year. Gaining voluntary experience on excavations and at heritage sites was incredibly useful, but so is learning as much as you can from any job. For instance, my retail training in window displays when I was a teenager comes in handy every time I dress a display case.

What was your first job in the museum world, and what did you learn from your role that helped you secure your next one?

My first job was at Avoncroft Museum of Buildings in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire. Much of the role was commercial, managing the business elements of the museum. It was this commercial experience that was most useful in my second job as general manager at Holt Castle. I’ve always loved both the commercial and curatorial aspects of museums, and for years felt I needed to choose between the two but in recent years the mix has felt more relevant and useful than ever.

What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?

I think curators must be passionate about their collections, and about communicating the stories and significance of the objects they work with. Equally, I think the current funding environment has made commercial understanding and flexibility more essential than ever. Most often, our ideas and passion are bigger than our budget which means thinking more creatively about funding and resources.

Can you tell us about a highlight of your career?

The Heritage Lottery Fund Lost Landscapes project, in partnership with Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, which is just coming to an end, has been a real high point for me. It’s been an 18-month long project which has focused on the story of the Ice Age in Worcestershire from the time of our earliest ancestors to the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago. Not only has the project been a labour of love but it has focused on the most wonderful objects, and it’s been a privilege to work with passionate and knowledgeable partners at WAAS.

The project began with a Historic England-funded planning document called ‘Putting the Palaeolithic into Worcestershire’s HER’. It’s not the kind of document that most people will ever read but within its pages were stories of lions, mammoths and Neanderthals walking the hills and plains of Worcestershire. To take stories from a planning document and transform them into exhibitions, talks, workshops, school sessions and trails has been an absolute pleasure.

Have there been any particularly challenging moments as a curator, and what would you say are the challenges that a museum curator faces more generally?

I would say that the biggest challenge is to develop and improve our collections and museum sites against a backdrop of funding cuts and lessening resources. Our ambitions are no smaller or meeker than they were 10 years ago, we have big plans for the future but the realities of finding funding and resources to realise our ambitions are considerable.

Can you tell us about the process of putting together the current exhibition at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, What Do We Want?

What Do We Want? was very much a team effort, begun by a colleague who, in 2016, had the foresight to imagine that two years on from the 2016 referendum there may well be sections of our community that were struggling to find their voice.

The premise for the exhibition lies in the recognition that mainstream media outlets and social media companies are not only fighting hard for our attention but may also be manipulating our views and opinions. What Do We Want? explores how text, print, voice and signs can be used to control, confuse, influence and empower us as individuals. The exhibition brings together Museums Worcestershire’s collection of historic political prints and works by Gillian Wearing and Mark Titchner on loan from the Arts Council Collection.

Our curatorial and outreach teams have worked together with Mark Titchner to create new artworks for the City of Worcester. Titchner worked with community groups over the summer and asked them what they want. The thoughts and ideas from these communities shaped five new artworks for the city and a new piece for the Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum exhibition.

The exhibition and the wider project were made possible with a grant from the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund and we are so grateful for this support.

What’s special about working at your museum?

I think the collections and the staff that make those collections and our buildings ‘speak’ to our visitors are the most special thing about Museums Worcestershire in my view.

We have a large and broad range of collections in Worcester. Worcester City Museum is the eighth oldest museum in the country and collected objects from across the world. Our collections range from the first illustrated fossils of an Ice Age giant wombat to a Tahitian bark cloth acquired from Pitcairn Island, presumably having been made by one of the Tahitians captured by the Bounty mutineers. The stories that our collections can tell are endlessly inspiring.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

My favourite objects are the Palaeolithic hand axes in the Museums Worcestershire collections, the oldest of which is over 300,000 years old and is the earliest manmade object the museum cares for. There are very few objects that can connect us with our oldest ancestors, and to be able to handle such an object that is as beautiful as it is useful, and that was made by someone who wasn’t even of the same species as ourselves, is a huge privilege.

Deborah Fox is senior curator at Museums Worcestershire.

What Do We Want? runs until 24 November at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, free to all.

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