Inside the Collection

National Science Week: A day in the life of a science curator

Tilly Boleyn in 'This is Before We Disappear from View'
Me in This is Before We Disappear from View by Sonia Leber and David Chesworth during the install.

Happy National Science Week and Sydney Science Festival everyone! This week my science colleagues have taken over the blog to give you a bit more of an understanding about who we are and what we do. 

When people find out that I’m a science curator their next question is usually “so, what do you actually do?”. One thing is certain – every day is different. There are always multiple projects on the go at any one time.

The simplest answer is: Lots of things! These are the sorts of things I get to do:

  • propose things for the Museum to keep in the collection forever,
  • take people on tours through our collection stores, finding delightful things in every nook and cranny,
  • research objects in the collection for books, catalogues, exhibitions and our database,
  • run a crack team of volunteers and interns delving into the museum’s collection.

On top of all that one large part of a curator’s role is to develop and deliver exhibitions. To use our objects to reveal connections: between ideas, objects, people and culture. Inviting visitors to think about who we are, what we make and how we live. At MAAS we especially like to explore human curiosity and creativity and all the endeavours that result from combining them.

I think the latest exhibition I’ve been working on with my colleague Katie Dyer really captures that spirit. This is a Voice is a collision of art, science and technology. The show is a collaboration between MAAS and the Wellcome Collection in London.

To help illustrate the range of things a curator does in a day I have outlined what happened on one of the days during the final week before the launch.

A day in the life of a science curator

8:50am: Listen to a sound test of Utterance by Lawrence English with Katie (Contemporary Curator) and Helen Johnson (Exhibition Coordinator). This is one of the installations commissioned for the exhibition and incorporates gramophones from the Museum’s collection.

Utterance display by Lawrence English
Utterance by Lawrence English. On display at the Powerhouse Museum until January 28, 2018.

9am: Open up my emails. Agh! Because I’m installing This is a Voice I’m not at my desk much. So my inbox is growing at an alarming rate. I check there isn’t anything urgent and respond to the Volunteer Coordinator about setting up tours of the exhibition after opening for our legion of dedicated volunteers.

9.20am: Prepare notes on the exhibition for the Visitor Services Team so they have extra information on some key objects in the show, where they might need to help visitors, and which showcases hold fragile items.

9.40am: Katie and I head over to the exhibition install to meet Robbie Buck, ABC Breakfast presenter, to prerecord an interview in the exhibition.

10.10am: Still in the exhibition install, Conservators Rebecca Main (MAAS) and Kath Knowles (Wellcome Collection) are unpacking objects on loan from the Wellcome Library, London. Each object has to be thoroughly inspected for any damage from travel, photographed and then prepared for display.

Crates with loan objects. Rebecca Main (MAAS) and Kath Knowles (Wellcome Collection) having a delightful time unpacking objects on loan from the Wellcome Library, London
Crates with loan objects. Rebecca and Kath having a delightful time unpacking objects on loan from the Wellcome Library, London. Photo by Tilly Boleyn.

10.30am: Consult with the Media Production team about the location of the ipads in the show. Measure the space and mark with tape where the ipads should be attached.

10.45am: Discuss an increase in the size of some wall text. Remove the current wall text in preparation for the update.

Helen and Katie placing signage for exhibition
Helen and Katie taking great pleasure peeling off the vinyl lettering on the wall.

11.15am: Lucy Clark (Registrar), Katie and I carefully measure and decide where the objects will be placed inside this showcase. This case displays an 1825 coloured etching from the Wellcome Library showing finger spelling in British Sign Language and a graphic of Auslan signing chart. It’s a lovely way of showing how sign language has subtly evolved through use over time.

Lucy Clarke with objects for exhibition install
Lucy, Registrar Extraordinaire, wielding her tape to securely mark the placement of the Auslan graphic, developed by Filip Bartkowiak and Lucy McGinley in our Design Team in collaboration with the Deaf Society of NSW.

11.50am: Installing more objects in showcases. The inside of the acrylic lids have to be cleaned of fingerprints, marks and dust before we put them over the objects. When they are this big the only way is to get inside.

Lucy Clarke in exhibition install
Lucy trying to become one with the exhibit. Total pro.

12.30pm: In a Museum there is no way to avoid meetings. Even during an exhibition install. This is a moving meeting. It’s an exhibition progress walk-through, where the curators and exhibition coordinator take Directors and other members of the install team through the exhibition, discussing the progress, any problems and how to solve them.

Moving meeting in This is a Voice.
Moving meeting in This is a Voice.

1pm: Label emergency! I just noticed that one of the showcases has space for one label rather than two. We will need to print a new long label rather than two shorter ones. Call the Editor, Jo Lyons, to discuss and get the new label into production.

1.30pm: Eat my lunch at my desk and reply to some people offering to donate objects to the collection. No time to research them today but I ask for some photos and any background information they have on the items so I can get back to them once the install is over.

2pm: Museum administration and research on the collection never stops. While I’m installing This is a Voice my team of incredible volunteers and interns continue their projects researching and documenting the collection.

Sharon Mee, Curatorial Volunteer Extraordinaire, and I go on a quick trip to the Collection Store under the Museum at Ultimo. Sharon is researching, documenting and cataloguing a Metrology collection of standard weights and measures. She’s using all her detective skills to finalise the acquisition of this incredible group of about 100 objects into the Museum’s collection.

Photograph of Sharon Mee with objects in basement
Ta-Dah! Sharon and some objects from her most recent project behind-the-scenes in the museum.

2.20pm: Back to the exhibition install. Skye Mitchell and Tim Morris (Conservators) are hanging this glorious Museum object, a chart the education team used to teach visiting school groups in the 1980s.

Staff installing Denoyer-Geppert anatomy charts

2.40pm: Meet with an artist developing a sculpture that will be displayed at the Museum later this year as part of The Big Anxiety, the upcoming festival of art, science and people. We discuss the possible location of her sculpture and some of the potential challenges and risks associated with displaying it without barriers.

3pm: It’s all hands on deck during an install. I rope in Joanne Delzoppo, Head of Production, to help me clean this brass instruction panel for Matthew Herbert’s interactive work, Chorus.

Photograph of Joanne Delzopo and Tilly Boleyn
Proof that every day working in a museum is sprinkled with glamour.

4pm: It’s almost Museum closing time so I pop down to another exhibition I worked on Recollect: Health & Medicine. It’s time for the leeches on display to be replaced with new leeches and I add some extra aquatic plants for our new guests.

Leeches on display at the Museum.
Leeches on display at the Museum. They were my idea so I had to feed them myself when we opened the exhibition.

4.30pm: I head back to my desk and check my emails.

4.50pm: Call Karen Johnson, the Museum’s Research Library Manager to check in about a book we purchased that has gone missing in the post. It’s still missing. Karen is organising an inter-library loan to put in the exhibition until the book arrives.

5.10pm Another day is over. Katie and I relish the anechoic chamber at the entrance to the exhibition. This is a Voice is on at the Powerhouse Museum until January 28, 2018.

Photograph of Katie Dyer and Tilly Boleyn
Scientific fact: Contemporary Curator and Science Curator both love sound proofing.

One response to “National Science Week: A day in the life of a science curator

  • Wonderful! Thank you for your energy and devotion! This is inspiring!
    It will be great to see this labelling and presentation expertise applied to the traditional areas of the museum which badly need attention!

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