A Curator Speaks

Most of us have interacted with curators, either as collectors, artists, art lovers, or museum-goers. It is doubtful if we realize the enormous responsibilities that curators carry on their shoulders as they pursue their love of art.

One of the foremost curators in the world is Dr. Pratapaditya Pal, for twenty-five years the distinguished Senior Curator of Indian and Islamic Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California. Prior to his leadership at LACMA, Dr. Pal had succeeded the great Ananda K. Coomaraswamy as the Keeper of the Indian Collections at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. With two Ph.D. degrees in Art and Architecture, Dr. Pal's curriculum vitae is astonishing, as is his output of books and catalogs, his enormously popular exhibitions, and his list of distinctions. We are privileged to present here his brief description of the life of a curator, part of a speech given as he presided over the 18th Annual Session of the Indian Art History Congress held in Benares, India, in 2009. The full text of his presentation is available as well for those of you who are intrigued by the history of the art of India and Dr. Pal's knowledgable and often witty participation in it. It has been my great privilege and honor to know him as a mentor, teacher and friend.

“When I joined the Boston Museum in 1967, I wasn’t really prepared for a museum career. I had little prior experience in museums, mostly as a visitor. I had not studied museology, which had just been introduced in Calcutta University in the ’60s. (Now that I have spent my entire life with museums, I must admit that in my opinion art history is better preparation for a curatorial career than museology.) My experience of museums was confined largely to the Calcutta University classes that I had to take at the Indian Museum with Professor S.K. Saraswati and Dr Kalyan Kumar Ganguly on Hindu iconography and Indian sculpture respectively, and frequent visits to the Ashutosh Museum of the University. While the experience of the Indian Museum classes every Friday was rich and rewarding, at the Ashutosh Museum Professor Devaprasad Ghosh – dear man – taught us the art of Southeast Asia alas without any objects or even slides, but using poor reproductions in books. Indeed, that’s how most other teachers taught us in most classes. So in a sense we learnt about art in the abstract. Something that was a rich and sensuous visual experience was reduced to a verbal one, completely negating the adage that “seeing comes before words”. I don’t suppose things have changed much in Indian universities today, though of course, present generations of students have enormous advantages thanks to the computer through which they can access photo archives and monuments both visually and virtually. But while that is better than our experience as students, it is still not as good as visiting the monuments and engaging directly with the objects themselves in the museums. The difference is that of reading a drama and watching it on stage, or as it is said in my native Bengali, dudher svad ghole metano, which means tasting milk by drinking buttermilk.

One of the most exciting aspects of a museum job is the opportunity it affords to do exhibitions, which is an excellent learning experience both for the organizer and for visitors. Doing exhibitions of Indian art in India is neither too difficult nor as expensive as it is in the States or Europe where no single institution is rich enough in material to go it alone and, even when state funds support the museum, as in Europe, they rarely ever fund exhibitions. Thus, apart from raising funds from private sources, curators have also to borrow from different institutions over vast distances which becomes expensive. As the funding sources have dried up in the States and most museums are privately funded, major exhibitions of Indian art have diminished drastically. European museums, however, are still active and are constantly borrowing material for exhibitions from India.

One of the primary duties of a curator in an American museum is to recommend objects for acquisition, which may be a purchase or a gift. Either way it is the curator’s duty to make certain that the object is authentic, to determine its importance for the collection, if a purchase to determine that the price is right, to do preliminary research and write a report for the director which must incorporate and evaluate a technical examination report by the conservation department, to do a provenance search to make certain it is not a stolen object or illegally removed from a monument in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, or Southeast Asia. All of this came under my curatorial jurisdiction. I might tell you that while the art of Java and Cambodia were taught in Calcutta University, I had never taken any courses in the art of Nepal, Tibet, or Sri Lanka, nor for that matter, in any area of Indian art after 1000 ce. I don’t think my university, even if I had additionally studied museology or archaeology, could have trained me for the job I was expected to do as curator. But, if you must know, all this good preparatory work for acquisition was in fact solid research that, with a little additional analysis, could be converted into publishable articles.

All major acquisitions have to be presented by the curator concerned to the full Board of Trustees of the museum, which is the ultimate acquisition authority. This is quite a challenge as most of them do not know the difference between Indian and Chinese sculpture and yet in less than ten minutes one has to explain to this bunch of rich influential and powerful leaders of commerce and industry, mostly, why the museum should acquire the object. But that is not the end. There is still another group who must be educated and they are known as docents. These are volunteers – mostly women – who take groups of school children as well as adult visitors around the collections daily. It is the curator’s duty to teach them about the object, its context, its historical importance, its religious symbolism, etc. Finally, there is the publicity for which information must be provided to the press or media. Thus, the curator does not have the luxury of living in an ivory tower and educating, either by the spoken or written word, only fellow art historians. The curator must be able to educate the specialists as well as the general public. For this very significant mode of education, I am afraid, no potential curator is trained in any university either in India or in the West. Educating the public is a very integral and important aspect of a museum, especially in America, but it is a neglected subject in universities. The idea of educating with art in museums is I think a distinctive contribution of America."

c. Corinne Whitaker 2010