At the start of my career, in fact as soon as I started graduate school, I wanted nothing more than to work in a museum. The direct contact with antiquities, the chance to create displays for the public, the swanky receptions that I was sure accompanied exhibition openings: perfect. And I did wind up working in many museums, as a volunteer, as a paid student intern, on short-term contracts, and finally, a permanent contract. From my first behind-the-scenes experience at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 1995, to the day I left my post as curator of the Manchester Museum Egyptian collection, with more relief than regret, I spent more than 11 years working in museums. In all that time, though, I never curated a temporary exhibition. I worked on major gallery overhauls, and I made a few minor tweaks here and there to individual displays. But coming up with a single idea to develop as a temporary show, with the aim of drawing in visitors just for that – nope, never had the chance and never learned the specific skills that it requires. Most of my museum work involved caring for large collections, which meant dealing with day-to-day inquiries, improving storage and cataloguing, and processing loans to other museums that were organizing exhibitions.
Applying for a Mid-Career Fellowship from the British Academy back in 2013 gave me the chance to revisit my curatorial past. To fulfill the public dissemination aspect of the fellowship – that is, how was I going to share my research beyond academia? – I came up with the idea of creating a relatively low-cost, high-quality, photography-based exhibition that could travel to small venues, or to small spaces within larger venues. Because my research is based on the premise that photography was a working tool in archaeology, and was not at all considered some kind of art form, I wanted to get away from the conventional manner of displaying photographs in frames on gallery walls, as I’ve discussed. I also wanted to serve local and regional museums near me – something which seemed a natural fit given that photographer Harry Burton grew up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, while lead excavator Howard Carter grew up in Swaffham, Norfolk. Continue reading “Curating as an ex-curator”