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A Curator in the New Millenium


For as long as I can recall, I have wanted to be a museum curator. Blessed or cursed, I have the "collecting gene." After I completed my B.A., I interviewed with a potential graduate adviser, Alan Leviton, a renowned herpetology curator at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. He asked when I expected to graduate with a planned Ph.D. "About 1980, sir," I replied. Next, he asked me to name every major North American natural history museum. This was easy. He seemed to be impressed. Then he asked the names and approximate ages of all herpetology curators. The names were easy, but the ages presented some problems. He then noted, "So you see, young man, you don't stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting a job in a museum, because no one will retire when you graduate!" To this I responded, "But wasn't the same true for you?" I became his student and 10 years later a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Museum curatorial positions are very rare. In North America, there are only about 20 herpetological curator positions in what can be termed major museums, and yet there are far more than 600 herpetologists in academic positions. When a new position is offered, it's news that everyone watches. Competition tends to be fierce. After all, what other academic position requires fieldwork and usually provides some or all of the funding to accomplish the task? Major museums with herpetological curatorial positions linked to faculty slots at leading universities are even more rare: the University of California, Berkeley; Harvard University; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; University of Kansas, Lawrence; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; and the Royal Ontario Museum with the University of Toronto, Canada. In contrast, the other major natural history museums do not have direct faculty ties: the Field Museum in Chicago, California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles County Museum, although many curators have adjunct faculty appointments. For a curator, both direct academic ties and graduate student supervision are critical. As Al Leviton once aptly commented, "You won't stay current if you don't have students to teach you new tricks."

Getting a curatorial job is tough. It takes a combination of self-marketing, academic training, interview skills, politics, and a whole lot of pure luck. Applicants must market themselves by publishing in the appropriate, leading journals and in traditional museum publications. Publications need to have a systematics and evolution orientation and be novel or environmentally relevant or both. Visibility is almost as important as academic pedigree; the chosen topic must have intrinsic appeal and should have demonstrable innovation. Students with a background in museum-based research and collection management have a distinct advantage over those who do not, but essential experience also can be gained through part-time employment or volunteering. Interview skills are no less important. Regarding pure luck, usually someone must retire just as you graduate, and your research organisms may need to be from a particular geographic region. Collections tend to have geographic orientations, and many positions are tied to the strengths in the museum's holdings, whether in Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean.

Perhaps politics is most important of all, and from this no one ever escapes-ever. It can range from committee meetings, confidential telephone calls, and e-mails to pure, unadulterated, uncensored gossip and spiteful power struggles. The curators of the major museums know each other well, and they rely on each other for research, exchanges, loans, assistance, and information, even about one another. Politics can make you, break you, promote or fail you, fund you, or leave you selling used cars, regardless of your qualifications or the tenure of the incumbent. It's just like poker if you've got the ante to play: You are rarely dealt a royal flush, but you don't need one to win. Winning, and the amount you win, depends as much on the cards you hold as on how well you play them.

Academically successful curators spend the most time on research-related endeavors, including acquiring research funding. The mere description of new species is no longer viewed as indicating original research. Today's life science curators are expected to reconstruct the phylogenetic relationships of organisms and interpret the evolution of particular features based on their history, apply their phylogenies to conservation issues, and be involved in bioinformatics. The description of new species is secondary. Research is quickly shifting toward applied conservation issues--not only the documentation of species diversity, but also fine-grained DNA analyses of geographic variation for species management and status assessment. Research has become very molecular and, unfortunately, traditional anatomical studies have become rather passé. The most productive research programs invariably involve graduate student training, and for me, work with visiting colleagues from developing countries, such as Mexico and China. The traditional requirements of fieldwork and collection acquisition continue today, consuming 2 or more months per year. To this add a proverbial mountain of manuscripts and grant proposals to review. There is considerable variation among individual curators in terms of research, exhibits, and administration, and no two are alike. Some curators do not have academic appointments, and thus have neither a cohort of graduate students, external research funding, nor active research programs.

The future of museums is uncertain, certainly far more so than equivalent university professorial positions. For example, the Smithsonian Institution just announced plans to reduce its research staff by 350 positions. We are in a biodiversity crisis, and highly qualified systematists and museums are desperately needed to study and evaluate environmental trends and to help document priorities for conservation. Yet, there has been no significant expansion of museum positions. Many museums are suffering from frozen or reduced budgets and vacant or terminated curatorial and support positions. The number of curatorial positions has dwindled recently in many countries, including in Canada and the United Kingdom, and yet globally the human population, potential resources, and environmental needs have all grown at an alarming rate. There is a paradox between granting agencies putting large amounts of additional financial resources into biodiversity and conservation research, and the trend for stagnation or cutbacks at museums. For the optimist, this presents a great challenge to excel in research relevant to all of society. Although I sometimes wonder about the future of museums, the positive aspects of being a museum curator far outweigh such concerns.

Dr. Robert Murphy is a senior curator of herpetology at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Biology, Royal Ontario Museum, and a professor of zoology at the University of Toronto.