What is a Full Curator? Or a "Not Full" Curator (or a Curatrix?) for that matter?

October 13, 2015

This past spring, I received the happy news that I had been recommended for promotion to Full Curator.   It was a moment of immense relief and joy and yes, some satisfaction on having reached an important milestone after my ten years of working at the AMNH.  I received dozens and dozens of congratulatory remarks from my colleagues, from friends, and across Facebook and Twitter.  But then, a few confusing - though equally well-wishing, let me be quick to point out - remarks began to show up. These were things like, "Congratulations on your new job," and "This is great - now you're a real curator!"  I often tried to explain that nothing had really changed and that I had been a curator from the time I'd signed my contract to begin work at the Museum, but it made me realize that a lot of folks out there don't really understand what my colleagues and I do. And maybe that's not surprising for two reasons.  One is that our jobs are highly diverse and encompass a lot more than what curators are generally thought to do.  (The second is is that the term "curator" is becoming one of the most overused descriptors of our time... maybe we can talk about that in a future blog post.)


At the AMNH, we have over 200 scientists who manage the collections, do research, conduct scientific expeditions, and participate in educational endeavors.  Forty-two of these scientists are the curators.  Traditionally the guardians of all of the collections, the position has morphed over time into an extremely multi-dimensional job description.  Though almost every one of us does still work with the collections, our primary responsibility is to conduct original scientific research.  We are expected (that might be a understatement) to procure funding to support our research and we are required (that's more like it) to publish our findings in scientific journals.  Neglect those two things and you won't be sticking around AMNH very long. 


Our second major responsibility is multifaceted service to the institution.  Here is where the care and oversight of the collections comes in.  Curators are ultimately responsible for making sure that the collections are organized, well-maintained, safe, and, increasingly, databased.  They are also responsible for any loans of items or specimens in the collections that go out and so we review the requests carefully.  (We are lucky to have a set of dedicated staff that assist in these tasks as hundreds of these loans go out and come back every year.)  The second popular use of "curate" also comes into this category - curating exhibits.  At the Museum, we have both permanent and temporary exhibits and every single one of them has one or more curators who are responsible for it.  I am lucky to recently have been involved in a temporary exhibition on the human microbiome, set to open next month.  (You can read more about that process here.) Also within this service is a whole laundry list of various committees and events that we are expected to participate in to keep the institution running well.  And, we are also expected to be leaders in the field of our expertise and to broaden that outreach through writings, lectures, service to professional societies, and media.


I've skipped over one big chunk of what my job is, though - an educator.  For decades, the AMNH curators supervised graduate students who were enrolled at one of our neighboring campuses such as CUNY, Columbia, or Stony Brook.  Many of the curators did more than just mentor, though - they also taught grad classes through those schools' degree programs.  In 2008, the Richard Gilder Graduate School was established, and the AMNH became the only degree-granting museum in the western hemisphere (the only other one in the world, as far as I know, is the Paris Museum).  We began by offering a Ph.D. in Comparative Biology.  It's a small program, with only four or five students accepted every year, and challenging as it's meant to be an accelerated four-year program.  However, it's an accredited program by the New York State Board of Regents and so must have the same requirements in terms of coursework as any other PhD program. This has meant that I wear an additional hat - professor.  Many of the "zoological" curators like me teach courses in the CompBio PhD program.  I've taught in both of our core classes (Systematics and Evolution) and I've also taught several electives.   I've now advised three students in this program and served on 11 other students' committees. Our mentorship of students in the affiliated programs hasn't stopped, though - I have also advised two PhD students and one Masters student from CUNY.  Just this past year, we added a new program to the RGGS - a Masters of Arts in Teaching in Earth Sciences and Astrophysics.  Many of my colleagues in both the Divisions of Physical Sciences and Paleontology teach in that program when the students spend time at the Museum before and after they head out for real life experience in the classroom. 


So where does the "Full" come in?  At the AMNH, we are lucky to also have a tenure system, like most universities do.  Most curators are hired as Assistant Curators and spend five years building their labs, research programs and CV's and are then reviewed for promotion by both their divisions and by a museum-wide committee of both elected and appointed curatorial members, as well as the Provost.  If that is successful, the person is promoted to an Associate Curator with tenure.  Though this does not mean a "permanent" job, it affords a certain security that engenders freedom of expression as well as an increase in responsibility.  Five years later, the person is reviewed once more and, should that have a favorable outcome, they are promoted to Full Curator, or simply just Curator. Faculty at universities generally go through a parallel process: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor or Professor.  We academics like pomp and circumstance and ritual and tradition and these are some of the ways that we maintain high standards amongst our ranks and mark those milestones.


So, there you have it.  The job that I've described above has essentially been the same the whole time I've been at the Museum, though now I have reached the upper echelon of the ranks and can kick back and become dead wood.  Just kidding - seniority has its privileges but also its responsibilities and I know I'll be taking on more of those in the coming years.


Oh, I almost forgot!  If you follow me on Twitter, you know that my "handle" is @NYCuratrix.  All that that word means is "female curator," and though it's not commonly used these days, I liked the ring of it when I was setting up my account.

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