Curator of the month: Helen Mears, Royal Pavilion & Museums
- Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
- 3 May 2016
With colleague and curator of fashion & textiles Martin Pel, Helen Mears is co-curator of the exhibition Fashion Cities Africa. She talks about the difficulties in curating ethnographic collections and channeling her love of fashion into her work.
Name and job title:
Helen Mears, keeper of world art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.
What inspired you to become a curator?
During my degree course at Goldsmiths College I took a module on Art and its Institutions, a kind of introduction to Museum Studies, and was hooked. I found debates around the curation of ethnographic or non-western museum collections especially compelling – as I still do.
What was your first job in the museum world – and how did you get to where you are now?
I went on to do a postgraduate course in Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, which involved a placement of several months within a museum or heritage organisation. I’d run out of money by that point so came back to Brighton and undertook voluntary work within the World Art section at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. I absolutely loved it and stayed on for a year, volunteering by day and working in bars and restaurants by night. My first paid job was as an outreach officer – issues around community engagement and participation remain key to my understanding of what it is to be a curator. I later travelled for a couple of years and, on the evening of my return to the UK, learned that a curator of world art post had come up at Brighton Museum. I jumped at the chance. That was 2005 and, bar a two-year spell in the V&A’s research department, I’ve remained here.
What has been the highlight of your career – and the biggest challenge?
In May 2015, thanks to the support of the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants programme and the James Henry Green Charitable Trust, I visited Nairobi, Kenya, as part of the research for our forthcoming exhibition, Fashion Cities Africa. I had the most fantastic time, getting to meet stylists, designers, fashion PRs and artists. I’m in touch with many of the people I met on a daily basis as we work towards the exhibition opening.
The biggest challenge? Ethnographic museum collections provoke all kinds of cultural sensitivities and issues around representation. You can’t just put a pot on a shelf. Some of the same issues have arisen in the course of curating an exhibition on contemporary African fashion, whether it’s who constitutes an African designer or the appearance of the mannequins we use. But these are the things that make my job so absorbing.
If you had one piece of advice for aspiring curators, what would it be?
The breadth of museum work is massive. Find helpful, knowledgeable people to support you. Develop a network of critical friends, involve them in what you do and get their feedback and advice. The best thing about working in the sector is how willing other people and organisations are to help those who work in museums. Exploit the opportunities this brings to ensure that what you do is of value and meets a genuine need.
What’s special about working at Royal Pavilion & Museums?
Brighton & Hove is such a fun, creative place to be, with a streak of eccentricity and an appetite for doing things differently. Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, where I’m based, looks into the Pavilion Gardens, a lovely place to sit, eat your lunch and admire the view. The Royal Pavilion, which is one of our five sites, is the only royal palace in public ownership and characterises everything that is fabulous about our city, including its fascination with non-western design forms. I get to work in a brilliant location, with inspired and inspiring colleagues and a designated collection. Despite having worked with the collection for more than ten years, there’s still so much to learn.
What is your favourite object in your Fashion Cities Africa and why?
Working on Fashion Cities Africa I’ve learned so much about fashion and the different ways that people engage with it. I love the work of Velma Rossa and Papa Petit, who run the Tumblr 2ManySiblings and are using fashion, art and photography to create new fashion narratives and identities. Velma and Papa are coming to Brighton to host a Thrift Social in June 2016. I also have a deep respect for the work of the Sartists, a Jo’burg-based collective. The exhibition includes images and garments from their Sport Series which interrogates the impact of colonialism and apartheid on black athletes.
Away from work, how do you spend your free time?
I’m a part-time AHRC-funded doctoral student at the University of Brighton, exploring how diaspora communities’ engagement with cultural heritage could transform museum practice. My focus is on an ethnic minority community from northern Burma (Myanmar). So that – and associated training and conferences – takes up much of my time. I also like doing active stuff with my kids: walking, cycling, bouldering and roller-skating.
What is the best exhibition that you have been to recently?
I enjoyed West Africa: Word, Image, Song at the British Library. Vast in scope and in terms of the materials employed – texts, textiles, sound and images – but which told a hugely engaging story about the rich heritage of this part of the continent. Apparently the British Library team are planning further shows on central, east and sub-Saharan Africa – I can’t wait.
Fashion Cities Africa is at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until 8 January 2017.
Find out how to apply for a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant.