The author of this article co-planned and participated in a panel presentation and debate on this topic in August 2017, and now in spring 2019, it seems an excellent opportunity to look back at the professional climate as it was 18 months ago and how professional activities in this area have progressed since then.

‘Everybody is a Heritage Professional Nowadays: Should Archivist and Curator Remain as Separate Professions?’ – this was the title of the panel session which took place at the ARA’s annual conference in London, chaired by Adrian Steel (then Director of the Postal Museum), with Charlotte Berry (then Hereford Cathedral Archivist) and Iain Watson (Director of Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums) as co-panelists.

Each of the three panellists presented their response to the question of whether archivists and curators should remain separate professions or not. Suggested topics included whether:

  • each profession had skills that were unique
  • the job titles of archivist and curator empower or stifle professionals
  • it is just the professionals who retain this distinction, whereas the public see archivists and curators as much the same thing
  • two very similar and overlapping professional roles are necessary in times of increasing economic pressures
  • there is a need now for the ‘super’ heritage professional who can do both roles archivists and curators are managers of resources or producers/editors of content?

The viewpoints of the three panellists were diverse and wide-ranging, reflecting their own varied individual professional experiences – two as qualified archivists who now work widely with object collections and museum professional colleagues, and the third as a widely experienced museum professional who now manages a joint service employing museum and archive professionals in tandem.

Charlotte’s slot focused on the very many areas of professional overlap – the importance of collection expertise, understanding provenance and interconnectivity, and cross-sectoral standards of best practice and excellence. Technology and digitisation offer increasing opportunities for public access but also potentially can erode the unique skillset of the archivist – where thorough training in and understanding of legal history, palaeography/diplomatic, administrative history, original order and record types come under pressure as budgets buckle and services shrink. There are also fundamental differences between the two sectors, partly reflecting differences in the development of museums and archives, governance at a national level following the split of MLA and also in different routes for education, qualification and entry to the sectors. Charlotte feels strongly that ongoing workforce and professional development should celebrate the key differences and core skills within our two sectors, whilst encouraging archive professionals to learn from their museum colleagues in areas such as sustainability and resilience, engagement and advocacy. “The same but different” is a useful catchphrase embracing the numerous synergies, encouraging expertise within each profession and recognising the overly generic and homogenous nature of the ‘heritage professional’. With two feet placed firmly within both textual and material culture, archives are well placed to bridge the gaps between the two and to act as a conduit between the museum and library sectors.

Adrian’s viewpoint developed from a wealth of experience working in a trailblazing joint heritage organisation navigating complex governance and legal requirements, where curators and archivists use one Collections Management system which enables one single public access catalogue – a huge benefit to both staff and the public alike. Definitions of the material being cared for can create both synergies and problems – paper material increasingly appears in both archive and museum collections, but is catalogued differently according to existing best practice – for example, a greetings card would be catalogued by colour, dimension, weight etc by curators, but only by recipient/sender by archivists. Handling the original collections is another area of different professional practice – although handling collections enable some museum object duplicates to be handled by the public, most items are accessed via exhibitions or viewing digital surrogates online and it remains the curators who can handle the originals. Conversely, archivists will typically encourage readers to come to the archive and do their own research, or to use digital surrogates and do their research from the comfort of their own desk at home. Professional approaches also differ within interpretation – Adrian suggested that archivists are trained to be more neutral and detached from the narratives held in their collections, and opt to leave the user to take what they will from their archival research and to put it into a wider historical or social context. Curators often have a stronger sense of duty to interpret on behalf of an object, to engage with wider campaigns which increase the social impact of the sector’s work and to engage in museum activism. Although often co-existing happily in mutual contradiction, these distinct aspects of the two professions should not be ironed out but should be facilitated and embraced through increasing collaboration and cross-sectoral working.

Iain explored how using physical definitions to create professional distinctions between curators (objects), libraries (published material) and archives (documentary materials) can be problematic in practice. The dividing lines between all three sectors are becoming increasingly blurred and indistinct at institutional levels, but the fact remains that archivists and curators’ shared responsibility is to make evidence available – “bad archivists write hiding aids”, not finding aids. Iain advocated strongly for introducing broad generic roles in a professional context where specialist skills, knowledge and experience can co-exist and be valued. Three roles would cover the principal functions – information/knowledge manager (holding knowledge about what the item is, what it contains and its significance), the conservator (responsible for physical care and preservation of the item) and the interpreter/learning officer/producer (interpreting and engaging with the item). He urged the archive sector to embrace a more proactive user-based and user-generated approach, where the recordkeeping professionals renounce their expert role and hand some of their power to the public. Archivist and curator are inherently inward-looking terms – instead, the key concern for us all is the user and now to find new ways and means of creative engagement within museums and archives.

Since summer 2017, archivists continue to develop professional and academic interests in managing museum collections. The spring 2018 issue of the ARA’s journal Archives and Records was widely oversubscribed and featured a wide range of international articles looking at sharing best practice and theory across archives and museums. Sessions on museums continue to appear at the 2018 and 2019 ARA annual conferences. A special issue of the ARA’s monthly membership magazine Arc celebrated object-centred engagement and projects in January 2019, and in the magazine, a call went out to assess membership need for training in managing object collections and to set up a new ARA Section. The first training day will take place in May 2019 and Charlotte is currently setting up a new Section for Archives and Museums for the Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland).

Please contact Charlotte for further information if you’d like to find out more on what is proving to be an area of developing professional interest:


Banner image: MC: MP/1/24 Map of Romney Estates, Kent, 1614. With kind permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford. ©Magdalen College Oxford

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