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Would You Pass This 1910 Museum Curator Test?

Don’t know how to steer a canoe? Instant fail

Loren P. Woods, curator of fish at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago in 1968. But could he handle a horse? (Bettmann/CORBIS)
smithsonian.com

Becoming an archivist, curator or other museum worker is an increasingly popular career choice, and more specialized programs are popping up around the world to serve that desire. But can those modern-day museum moguls steer a canoe or handle a horse? After all, those skills were essential to museum curators of a century ago — as a look at a century-old curator test in the 1910 Proceedings of the American Association of Museums reveals.

"In no profession is a greater variety of accomplishments and capabilities required," wrote Alja Crook in 1910. He assembled a typical (and extensive) list of questions that might be posed to the prospective museum curator, noting that "The questions are fair. They cover the ground."

The first group of questions are pretty standard: educational credentials, languages spoken, positions served. But then things get a bit more...intense. The list includes questions like: 

  • Name ten of the leading natural history museums of the world and state the essential character of each.​
  • Give titles of the scientific publications issued by three leading museums in America and by three foreign museums.
  • Explain the principles of proper labeling, giving an outline of a suitable label for Amphelis cedrorum, Cedar Waxwing; for an army field writing desk used by General Grant during the civil war; for a fossil plant; for a mineral.
  • Explain in detail the age, intelligence, and occupation of the people to whom a museum should appeal and how it best can benefit them.

Finally, Rea suggests that search committees ask for a 3,000-word essay on the proper organization of a natural history museum — and includes perhaps the most telling detail of the rigorous test. Rea writes:

After the candidate has safely negotiated the above questions he is supposed to be able to pass muster in the following regard. He should have good health, ability to handle a horse and canoe, and be inured to the hardships of camp life and the work of exploration.

Frederic A. Lucas, of the Museums of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts chimes in with, "I believe a curator is born and not made… It is not so much what a man knows, where he has been graduated, as what he can do; that is, what he can do to make the knowledge of others available and understandable by the public."

This may be why, as Lucas confirms, "such a man is difficult to find."

(h/t Steven Lubar)

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