Curator of the Month: Karen Adhémar, Kettering Museum and Art Gallery
Museum officer Karen Adhémar talks about bringing local treasures home to Kettering with the help of the Weston Loan Programme, and how she got her start in museums.
How did you start out curating?
I took a very unconventional route to get where I am today. Originally studying to be an illustrator, I later retrained as a veterinary nurse and finally came to the museum world after applying for a job at my local museum and gallery.
It has always been important to me to find work which I am passionate about and find rewarding. I really enjoy the unique way museums can engage with people and create room for discussion.
Curating also gives me the opportunity to combine my creative background with a surprising crossover between object and animal handling!
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 role was as a museum and gallery assistant, which involved covering the front desk and working as part of an exhibition install team. Of course this gave me invaluable experience in the basics such as working with collections and different curators, assisting with delivering events and exhibitions and developing a keen understanding of what a visitor enjoys.
I was also fortunate enough to be given the chance to create my own projects, which included developing the museum shop and a programme of children’s activities. Looking back, I am most grateful for those opportunities as they really helped to improve my knowledge and confidence and gave me the drive to keep moving forwards.
What is a typical working day like for you?
As I am sure anyone who works in a small museum knows, everyone does a bit of everything. This can mean anything from covering the front desk, answering enquiries and dealing with a leaky roof to tasks more in line with my role as an officer such as collection care, developing projects, curating, partnership working, writing interpretation and documentation.
My days are always varied and interesting but sadly are usually nowhere near long enough to get everything done.
What do you think are the most important skills a curator needs to have?
Creativity, innovation and the ability to compromise.
It is also crucial to listen to your team, to utilise their skills and keep them motivated. Undoubtedly a sense of humour also goes a long way in making it to those challenging deadlines.
Can you tell us about a highlight in your career?
Well, that is an easy one – it has to be our last exhibition, Local Treasures.
As part of this project we borrowed objects from the British Museum collection which had initially been found in the local area. This was an ambitious exhibition which began with the Ready to Borrow scheme and worked alongside the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.
Bringing the museum up to national collection standard was a huge undertaking and even included the addition of steel joists to our first floor, in order to support new cases. Being able to display world-class objects, which had not returned home since they had been discovered, was absolutely inspiring and the enthusiasm from our visitors has got me thinking about where we go next.
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?
The biggest challenge I face is a lack of capacity. Limited resources and overstretched staffing can make it difficult to find time for funding proposals or specialist training or even just simply seeing a project meet its full potential.
Creating a programme of exhibitions and events which delivers under these constraints is extremely problematic and doesn't leave as much opportunity as I would like for the development of the museum or staff.
Unfortunately I don’t think this is an unusual story in the museum world and is probably one of the most common challenges faced by curators at this time.
What’s special about working at your museum?
The team at Kettering Museum and Gallery are exceptional. I count myself as very lucky to work with a group of people who are so enthusiastic about the collection and sharing it with the community.
They are great at supporting each other and are always full of ideas, solutions and banter.
What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?
My current favourite is a Roman brooch in the shape of a small dog. Recently discovered in our stores, the face of the brooch is completely intact and depicts a little running dog with remnants of bright blue enamel.
The outline of the dog gives it such energy and character that you can sense the joy the artist must have felt in creating it and their love and understanding of our canine companions. Illustrative, old and animal themed – right up my street.
Karen Adhémar is museum officer at Kettering Museum and Art Gallery.
The Local Treasures exhibition, which ran at Kettering's Manor House Museum from September 2018 to January 2019, was supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund.