Working as a museum curator: ‘I once had to count 22,888 Roman coins

THE SHIFT: Tom Cadbury, 55, an assistant curator of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, talks about the highs and lows of his job.

How and why did you become a curator and how long have you done it for ?

My dad was a keen bird watcher and took me out on Sunday morning walks to watch birds. I spent my time digging around in the mud and came out with strange bits of stone, and that first led to me wanting to be an archeologist. I studied archeology at university and I volunteered for a time at the Cambridge University museum of archeology and anthropology and after university I was paid to do some work in that museum.

I was a volunteer followed by some lowly jobs in that museum. Then I did a professional qualification and came back to my roots in Devon, and have been here ever since. I’ve been a curator for 30 years now, and in 2005 I joined RAMM.

Talk us through your average day

One of the best things about the job is that there is no average day. Some days I’m working at home but my preference is to come into work. I get off the train, come into the museum and then I try to concentrate on one of the projects I’m working on. Most of the work is project orientated, whether that’s a new exhibition or a long term research project with a university or a community group or an artist.

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I make sure that the content is as gripping as it can be, that we show good objects and look after them with good storage, and that we’re communicating what it is to visitors in the right way. I might spend some time talking to other institutions. At the moment I’m working with the Bodleian Library. We’re hoping to loan back some amazing Medieval manuscripts from Devon, so I’m looking at taking that manuscript and making it come alive for people today.

They will want to make sure that if we hold these precious objects that we can look after them – that our rooms have the right temperature and humidity, that we have the right security. I may go to some meetings, or take some time to look at our collections and do a bit of research on them, or update our social media or website with new pictures. I might clock off at 3pm to do the school run and clock back on again in the evening.

What’s been the best thing that’s happened to you as a curator?

The thing I’m most proud about is the work I did when RAMM was being redeveloped in the mid 2000s. It reopened at the end of 2011 and in 2012 we won ‘national museum of the year and there were some lovely things said about the work we’d done.

Tom says the most terrifying thing was when the museum acquired a huge hoard of Roman coins.

And what’s the worst?

The most terrifying thing was when we acquired a huge hoard of Roman coins. There were 22,888. I know because I had to count them. I tried to do it so many times. I had them on three tables, and I kept getting a different number. The room I was working in was our store and it has a mesh floor to allow air to circulate. I had this constant fear that one would roll along the table, drop off and disappear down this mesh floor. Luckily I got to the end and I got to the same number a few times and eventually stopped: 22,888 was my best guess.

What makes you laugh most when you’re doing your job?

My colleagues. I am so lucky to work with amazing people. They’re clever, they’re annoying, they’re thoughtful, they’re caring – but they’re also very funny. There has been a core team at the museum for a long time so we do know each other very well, and we do set each other off. It may also be something to do with the sorts of people who work in museums, but invariably you do end up falling about laughing at the things we talk about.

What’s the most common misconception about your job?

It is amazing how the stereotype of a curator dusting objects with a tweed jacket with arm patches holds on. It’s obviously taken hold in the public imagination. In a way I secretly hanker after a tweed jacket, but it’s not like that. We do keep our stores and our objects clean, but it’s definitely not about going around with a feather duster.

Tom says: ‘I think if curators did all disappear then there would be that loss of collective memory’

What would happen if all curators disappeared tomorrow?

I think if curators did all disappear then there would be that loss of collective memory. There’s something about the role of the museum and the objects that it brings together that is important. It’s about that sense of place. Heritage and history is a contested thing, we’re seeing that now in Ukraine. If it’s done in a very political way, through very biased views on YouTube, then history can be a very dangerous subject. One can lose track of one’s roots and heritage and mentally that can be a very damaging thing.

Objects and history are power political tools and if you can control that history it’s a very effective tool for getting people to think the way you want them to think. So I think a community’s history needs preserving and it needs to be accessible by as many people as possible. It needs to be interpreted by as many people as possible. It is trying to enable all elements of the community to tell their stories.

What advice would you give to yourself if you met yourself on your first day as a curator?

For me, moving from a shy gawky teenager to someone with a bit more confidence was all down to an amazing cast of characters at that museum in Cambridge who were extraordinary and eccentric, and who allowed me to talk to them and question them. I would say make sure you meet all those interesting people. Value those conversations, and listen to what people are saying. Take a bit of time for people.

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