Curator of the Month: Jan Freedman, Plymouth Museum

  • 25 June 2018

This month’s curator was recently the recipient of a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant. Here he explains how a childhood love of dinosaurs and a chance meeting with a curator inspired him to work with museum collections.

Jan Freedman with an ammonite at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

How did you start out as a curator?

I’ve always been fascinated by dinosaurs and fossils. At an early age I would often escape with my dinosaur toys and dinosaur films. But it was the TV comedy series Friends that made me consider museums as a career option. I related to David Schwimmer's character Ross: his geeky mannerisms, his love of dinosaurs, and his obvious awkwardness.

During my Geology Degree at Cardiff University, I studied at the National Museum of Wales. I remember the displays being inspiring and full of incredible creatures. I wanted to work in a museum, but I knew there weren’t many jobs around, so I went on to do a Masters in Environmental Geology. Towards the end of this rather dry course, I volunteered at a science day, talking to families about dinosaurs and fossils.

After an incredibly enjoyable day, I saw a man attempting to carry a huge skull and open a door at the same time, and I gave him a hand. The man was Andy Currant, Curator of Fossil Mammals at the Natural History Museum, and we started talking about his work. He gave me his card and told me to get in touch so I could volunteer with him. Three weeks later, he was showing me the incredible Quaternary mammals collections.

What was your first job in the museum world?

My first job was at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, and I have been here for almost 12 years now. I had volunteered in two museums before that. For just over a year, I volunteered at the Natural History Museum, while I worked all my spare hours in a bar to support myself. Then I volunteered for the biology and geology departments at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery while working on an IT helpdesk to earn cash.

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

Curators will need the subject specialism to understand and care for their collection in the best way. Perhaps the greatest skill for a curator in the 21st century is the ability to talk about our collections. Each museum curator has thousands of objects that they work with every day behind the scenes. We know about these collections. Perhaps a handful of geeky researchers might know about them. One huge part of our job – that is often overlooked – is promoting the collections, so that more people know about them and use them. Curators are the voice of the collections they look after: without them, these objects and specimens would remain silent, hidden, unknown to so many people.

What’s special about working at your museum?

Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery has undergone an enormous change in the last two years. We are in the middle of a major redevelopment, which involves transforming into a new cultural and heritage venue called The Box, Plymouth. The development includes a large extension that will almost triple the size of the old museum site.

This is an exciting time to be working here, and to be a part of this large-scale, multi-million pound redevelopment. As well as the ongoing curatorial work, I am redeveloping our natural history gallery. I can’t give away too much, but there will be more specimens on display than ever before.

You recently undertook a trip supported by a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant researching digital interpretation in natural history galleries. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?

There are not really any grants for curatorial CPD, so I was extremely excited to secure a Ruffer grant to visit three museums in America. At the end of March 2018, I visited the Charleston Museum, the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, and the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian. I wanted to see how these different sized museums worked with researchers to allow their collections to be used more. I was also interested to see how they had developed digital interactive displays for their galleries. This would help me in preparing the work I need to do for the development of my gallery in Plymouth.

All three museums had lots of space close to their collections where researchers could work. This highlighted simple and obvious best practice in collections management: specimens are not moved far from the stores to be worked on by researchers, students, and artists.

Having never developed digital interactives before, the grant allowed me to see some in one smaller museum in Charleston and in a much larger museum in Washington, D.C. – talking to a huge number of staff at these museums really helped me understand the detailed work needed to create these kind of displays.

The most wonderful part of the visit was meeting colleagues. There is an automatic, instant connection between museum curators. A special connection that comes from familiar stories, familiar frustrations and a general appreciation for each other’s jobs.

What are the challenges of a role like yours?

I think the biggest challenge that museum curators face is that funding bodies, the public, and external organisations often fail to understand the importance of the specialist curator in museums.

With many budget cuts in the last decade, some regional museums have amalgamated curator roles where one curator may care for two very different collections. This can be dangerous for the collections because they need that specialist knowledge to make sure they are cared for in the best way. For example, in natural history, there are numerous hazardous and toxic chemicals associated with specimens, safe handling requirements of fragile specimens, legal issues, and environmental storage conditions – the list goes on.

There is also the challenge within the sector itself, which is advocating that all collection areas are of equal importance. With many external grants currently only available in a specific collection area for acquisition and conservation work, this gives a wrong sense of greater importance of one collection type over others. I do think that departments working closer together can help change this, but those grant-giving bodies need to be made accessible and available for all collection areas.

What are your favourite objects in the collection and why?

Pickled cuttlefish from the collections at Plymouth Museums, Galleries, Archives

We have some quite beautiful hyena jaws in the collections, from hyenas that were living just outside Plymouth around 35,000 years ago. They are beautiful, and show that these amazing animals were once native here. Fossils show that there were plenty of other beasts roaming, stomping, and galloping, including woolly rhinoceros, woolly mammoths, wolves, reindeer and horses. I really like these collections because people normally think of extinct animals being tens of millions of years ago. But here we have animals that were walking around just a few ten thousand years ago. In the grand scheme of geological time (measuring 4.5 billion years), that is nothing.

As well as the recent fossils, I would say the ‘pickle’ collection is equally as wonderful. I have around 5000 jars full of spirit preserved marine animals, dating back to the late 1800s. Over the years working on this collection, and with incredible marine biology volunteers, I have learnt a lot about marine life. Each jar provides a magical glimpse into an otherwise unseen world. As a city by the sea, these collections cause so much awe and wonderment for the public.

Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants provide funding for travel and other practical costs to help curators undertake collection and exhibition research projects in the UK or abroad.

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