Museum curators are (unfortunately) not Indiana Jones


Jan Freedman is Curator of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum & Art Gallery

DSCF4045-2One of the most common questions when one person meets another person, is ‘what do you do?’ It is a wonderful conversational starter (or stopper, depending on the answer). It is a question that is sometimes asked with genuine interest, and, as we all know, has also been asked when there has been that awkward silence when standing in a queue somewhere.

When I have said I am a museum curator, a response has been ‘Cool! Just like Indiana Jones!’ After a few seconds (maybe a little longer) of basking in this compliment, thinking ‘Yes, I am like Indiana Jones’, and making a quick quip about my whip under my bed, I come clean. No, museum curators are not like Indiana Jones at all.

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One of these chaps is Indiana Jones, the other is a museum curator. I know, it is extremely difficult to tell the two apart

It is flattering. Of course it is. (I remember the four times I was called Indiana Jones. I always will; at a friends dinner party, a second at a wedding, once meeting some people on holiday, and meeting friends of a friend. Good times. I won’t forget them. Ever.) One day I may go along with it and talk about my recent adventure in Peru, and those pesky booby traps. But, alas, it is not true.

Here is why I have to admit that I am not like Indiana Jones. Outside of work, now that’s a different tale.

The clue’s in the job
Indiana Jones was a lecturer at a University, not a curator in a museum. This is a pretty obvious difference, but one which seems to have been overlooked by many. Some Universities do hold a museum, but they are looked after by professional museum curators, not professors of archaeology. Curators may support University courses by giving lectures; I really enjoy them and it’s a great way to let the students know about the collections and the museum. Perhaps this should really be the only reason to say why museum curators are not like Indy. But then this post would be pretty boring.

Times of old
The quadrilogy of Indy films (yes, there are four) are set in the late 1930s, the early 1940s and then 1957. Indiana Jones, his cars, the offices, books and everything else are all from this time. The year today is 2014. Museum curators have not been stuck in some weird (but possibly cool) time warp, where they step through the back door and are taken back 60 years. Many museum offices may look like they have been frozen in time, but the curators working there haven’t.

This is one area where there should be a lovely crossover. Museum curators carry out research with their collections, and work with other specialists to find out more. Adding much more in-depth information and background to that vase, or tooth, research gives exciting information to the visitors. Writing up research in journals raises the awareness of the work to people in similar fields, and encourages research with the museum collections. A quick search on the Archaeological Journal Online brings up no publications for Dr Henry Jones Jr. A detailed search on Google Scholar brings up no publications either. As far as I am aware, Indiana Jones didn’t publish anything.

Objects for the collections
Looting gold idols from small lost villages in the middle of the jungle, whilst thwarting booby traps, bad guys, and being chased by the local people, is not the way we acquire objects in museums. Looting is taking things with force, without permission and with a disregard for the local culture. In museums, our collections are obtained through very generous donations or by purchases at auctions.

The best opening sequence to any film ever. Unfortunately the looting of an old gold idol (still worshipped by the local tribes people) is brushed over
The best opening sequence to any film ever. Unfortunately the looting of an old gold idol (still worshipped by the local tribes people) is brushed over

A taste for danger
Indiana Jones seems to attract danger, from motorbike chases and jumping out of moving vehicles, to booby trapped tunnels and rooms filled with snakes. I know a lot of curators around the UK, and in all honesty, I know that none of them could do any of these things. The main reason, is that we have excellent Risk Assessments in place, which prevents any potential danger getting to close to a museum curator. Good job, otherwise we would all be out there jumping from trucks and doing roly polys in dark tunnels. Even so, we still face danger on a daily basis: once when I was putting away an old wooden insect drawer, gently into its cupboard, my hand moved too quickly, and I got a splinter. It did need a plaster.

Pretty fit
Museum curators are fairly fit people. When we are not sat at our desks on the database, we are on our feet in the store rooms, or at events. Again, no offense to any of my colleagues, but I highly doubt that any of them has the stamina of Indiana Jones. He has outrun giant boulders, been chased by lost tribes, and ran through a plethora of booby traps. That isn’t to say that we are not fit. Far from it. At one moth and bat event, as the sun was setting, there was a rustling in the bushes, and something ferocious leapt out and chased me. Goodness me did I run (and may have let out a small high pitched scream). But I did out run this hairy, vicious Dachshund. Only just.

Field work
South America, India, Egypt and countless other places around the world, Indiana Jones has been very lucky to go on such a large amount of field work. Curators in National museums do go on field work once a year, which is an excellent opportunity to add to the collections and fill gaps. Field work in Local Authority museums is much rarer. A few years ago, I was extremely lucky to travel (20 minutes) out of Plymouth to visit some caves; the source of an important collection. I was shown round by a local guide (an ex-navy Plymouthian), and we wandered through the caverns. It was pretty adventurous: my pants got muddy round the ankles, and the walls were covered in cave spiders.

Whips and weapons
Indy’s classic whip and Smith and Western Revolver are his companions for his adventures. Although the whip is rather tempting, I prefer a pooter, a pot, a compact hand lens, and my geological hammer. That is all I need to over come any eventuality.

In reality, Indiana Jones and museums curators are very different. They do share one extremely important feature: Indiana Jones is effortlessly cool and has a passion that is unmatched by all but the museum curator. We may not carry a whip, but we do have a pooter. We may very likely scream in the face of a room full of snakes, but boy, do we know how o pickle a jellyfish. Throw us out of a plane with an inflatable lifeboat, and that would be the end of us, but throw us in the middle of a city with some of our collections, and we shine. Museum curators overcome all sorts of obstacles (procurement, displaying specimens, matching numbers) which are just as exciting as any of Indy’s adventures. Our thirst for adventure is quenched by our collections.

Footnote: One of Indy’s worst ever quotes is actually from my favourite Indy film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (Yes, that’s right, Temple of Doom is my favourite.) After the sacred Sivalinga stone was stolen from a villagers, Indiana returns the stone. When asked why he gave it back, Indy replies “They’d just put it in the museum, it’d be another rock collecting dust.” Oh Henry Jones Junior. Luckily, he redeems himself. And boy does he. Whilst held by two baddies on the top deck of a boat in stormy seas, and being beaten, he stands his ground and says ‘That belongs in a museum.’ Yes!

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