Monday, May 18, 2015

On Being A Natural History Curator

I’ve wanted to be a curator ever since I learned that it was a real job. What I’ve learned since is that “curator” can mean many things depending on where it is being applied. At the Natural History Museum in London for instance the people called “curators” are what most people at a U.S. museum would call “collection’s managers” while they call “researchers” those who we would call “curators.” (Don’t worry it will get more confusing.) Most people in the academic museum community (I include in “museum” things like herbariums, etc.) view curatorial positions as generally doing some or all of the following: (1) managing (overseeing) a collection, (2) doing collections-based research (3) building a collection via fieldwork, (4) managing loans and gifts from these collections, (5) maintaining these collections (everything from replacing old jars and labels to upgrading the data-basing software). Most curators do some but not all these things because some of these duties fall on the collection’s staff including collection’s managers and graduate curatorial assistants (if they have the luxury of having such help). Most curators are doing collections-based research, which can include everything from range expansion documentation, to taxonomy (descriptions of new species, revisionary systematics), to cutting-edge evolutionary or ecological studies.
            Curatorial positions are often highly sought after because, as oppose to many other academic positions, they can require little or no teaching, can include time for fieldwork, and are often viewed as more fun than your typical arm-chair or strictly lab-based science. It should be noted that many people do fieldwork that aren’t curators, and some curators do little fieldwork (shame on them). Also some curatorial positions have the same teaching load as “regular” professors, but most have a reduced load. We curators sometimes joke that our duties include 50% research, 50% teaching and 50% curation. It is true that we receive little credit for good curation, but the same may be said about teaching well. It is really nearly 100% research that is being evaluated for someone on the tenure-track; however, rather than being a burden, a collection for a curator is a major research tool. A curator can use the products of fieldwork and past collections to investigate deep Earth history or broad biological questions. When stable isotope researchers investigating pollution in the Great Lakes need samples of whitefish from the past 150 years, they can do so knowing that the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology has many such specimens. When someone thinks they may have a new species of woodpecker they can visit the many museums that have closely related species to their putative new taxon for comparison. The geographic variation, color morphs, sexual dimorphism, ontogenetic variation, etc., present in many of the species on Earth are housed in collections somewhere. Not to mention that much of the DNA and RNA based work being done on animal, plant, fungal and microbial life is based on collections. Because curators are the experts on a particular taxon, they are often insuring that the correct scientific identification is connected to the specimen. Without collections and curators a lab tech that doesn’t know a coelacanth from a goldfish might report scientific findings from the wrong species. (This happens more often that you think as tissue samples from specimens that are not vouchered in a collection get used more and more often – see more on that HERE]
            Some curators at university-based museums (like LSU, Michigan, Berkeley, Yale, Harvard to name a few) are professors in academic departments at those universities. These can be 100% academic appointments where the curator is seen as a full time member of both the museum and the department, or part time appointments (e.g., 50%). These appointments typically mean part or all of the pay, teaching and service obligations rest within the larger academic department. Some university-based museums are completely autonomous and are their own separate unit (usually with some adjunct status with another academic department). Some museums are completely public without any official connection to a university (e.g., Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History). The role curators are playing at each of these institutions can be highly variable but generally include the five duties described above.
            I’m still not exactly sure how I lucked out at getting a curatorial position. I suppose if I were to give advice to someone wanting to become a curator that I would say a few things I did might have put me on the right track. Training at a museum as an undergrad, grad student or postdoc will put you in touch with the relatively small museum community. There aren’t that many jobs in museums, but there are fewer people qualified and competing for a position like “curator of amphibians and reptiles” than say “ecologist.” The latter may get hundreds of applications at a typical university, curatorial positions typically have less than 50 applicants, and of those maybe 10 have the collections-based research experience to be considered. Doing fieldwork, publishing work based on collections, and being a curatorial assistant as a grad student can help you get that collections-based experience. As with applying for any job publishing lots of good papers, speaking at conferences and getting grants will certainly get you on the fast track to a job. However, papers alone won’t get you a curatorial position unless you also have a collections-based research program to promote.

I was lucky enough to give a TEDx talk about natural history collections recently, view it here Also is you want to learn more about curation or collections, please feel free to contact me for advice, I will try my give you a frank answer or point you in the direction of a real expert.