Curators with a touch of tedium

24th June 2005 at 01:00
Pupils see workers in museums as dowdy and nerdy. Adi Bloom reports

There are no curator-adventurers and no glamorous sit-coms in which Egyptologists play a major role. In fact, the only high-profile television character to work in a museum is geeky Ross, from Friends, whose long-winded anecdotes send his friends to sleep.

This lack of a glamorous role model is one of the main reasons why pupils do not see museum work as a viable career, new research has revealed. They are unaware of the opportunities for travel and adventure.

Asked whether he would like to work in a museum, one boy in Year 12 said:

"Oh, no. My mum would kill me... I'd just be sweeping the floor or guarding the pictures or something."

Virtually all girls echoed one who said: "It's like Ross from Friends - he's the nerdy, boring one. No one wants to listen to him when he goes off."

Year 12 boys agreed. "They're the people who get stitched up in movies where they rob the museums of their treasures," said one. "They're so bright, they're stupid."

Eighty-eight gifted and talented pupils, aged between 15 and 18, were questioned for the study, commissioned by the education company Global Graduates.

Despite taking part in learning programmes that involve trips to museums, few pupils saw them as places to visit in their own time.

Researchers also interviewed 43 parents, teachers and careers advisers, many of whom shared the teenagers' doubts about the value of a museum-based career.

One parent said: "I see it as a low-level career. It's not premier league, or even first or second division."

Even careers advisers were rarely able to offer much insight into the job.

One adviser from Aim Higher, the Government's careers advisory service said: "I have great respect for curators. It's a highly-skilled, specialist role. But I couldn't detail precisely what one does."

Carol Butterfield, joint author of the report, Bridging the Perception and Reality Gap, believes it is a lack of information rather than a lack of glamour that influences pupils' attitudes.

"The job is for museums to say, 'You can stage and manage an exhibition,'"

she said. "Once it becomes comparable to performing arts, fashion or interior design, there's potential for interest."

But curators insist that television undersells their profession.

Richard Sabin, zoology curator at the Natural History Museum, in London, said: "Museums in films tend to be big rooms with a warder asleep in the corner and a dinosaur skeleton covered in dust. So people expect curators to be over 70 and covered in dandruff.

"But if I say I work with whales and dolphins, I grab kids' attention. They need to go behind the scenes and see what curators do."

His view is echoed by Justin Morris. During his time as Asian curator at the British Museum, Mr Morris travelled to north-western Pakistan, where he met armed Afghan nomads, and was stranded in bandit-infested villages.

"There's a travel and adventure side to the job people don't realise exists," he said. "Yes, there are collections of objects. But it's the research around the collections that is the interesting bit."

The study, Bridging the Perception and Reality Gap, is available from: museums@globalgraduates.com

* adi.bloom@tes.co.uk

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