Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

I’m curatorial associate in the curatorial division of the National Gallery of Art.

And how long has it been since you’ve graduated from undergrad? 

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

Okay, and how long have you been in your current field?

I’ve been in my current field for about 17 years.

Great. Could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

The curatorial department is responsible for three main things: preserving and researching our collection, researching and acquiring works of art to add to the collection, and organizing exhibitions. 

Excellent. Could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your work requires writing? I would say, every single day, so probably about 80%. 


It’s a pretty positive thing, different types of writing. 

Excellent. Could you talk a little bit about those types of writing–the kinds of documents or the types of genres that you–that you most often create?

The bulk of it is email, both informally to internal colleagues, or formally to colleagues and other institutions. We write lots of formal letters to donors to thank them or solicit support. We write formal letters requesting loans of art for exhibitions. We write catalogue essays about the career of an artist or short catalog entries engaging with a single work of art. We write persuasively when we have to submit proposals for say, reinterpreting the authorship of a work of art, to reflect new research or thinking, or maybe a justification for why we should accept a work of art offered as a gift or for sale. We write short texts about individual works of art for visitors to read and brief guides, and longer texts about art for our website. We write scholarly footnoted articles for our academic peers, and then less serious articles for a general audience, like say a newsletter. We write lots and lots of proposals, for exhibitions, and for other projects. 

Wow, you are really shifting between different types of documents all the time. That’s so interesting. So can you talk a little bit–I can guess about the audience and purpose of some of those–but could you talk a little bit about maybe two or three of those types of genres, and tell us about the audience and the purposes?

I think, with the formal letters, that was, that’s a new kind of writing from coming out of undergraduate. Because there’s a tone that I’d never had to write in before, because you’re writing to either people you don’t know well, and are asking a favor of, or maybe someone who is socially prominent. We’ve had to write letters to members of the aristocracy, Vatican officials, and so forth, presidents of governments, that kind of thing when you’re asking for diplomatic help with projects. So formal letters are kind of their own thing. You have to have a very deferential tone, be very clear and concise. But then clearness and concision is useful in all your messages, too. So when you’re dashing off a quick message to a colleague, asking him to get something done really quickly. Our audience is really, really broad, because it’s anyone who walks off the street to see our museum. And then it’s the officials and people I’ve mentioned before that you’re trying to deal with on a very different level. So there’s a lot of planned out correspondence or writing, the sort of long-form editing things for texts for things that we publish. They’re shorter, quick things, if you’re doing say, an interview with someone, or just talking informally with people.

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

A lot–all of it, I would say, actually, because even these letters that we’re writing to people, you’re getting your colleagues to edit them and add bits or help you adjust the tone to make it right. Anything we publish goes through our editors’ office, which is just here for that. If we’re doing a guide, we’ll sit down and kick around some ideas, but there are more detailed drafts as well. So I would say almost all of it except for personal emails.

Great. And could you walk–you talked about review just then a little bit–could you walk us through the process, sort of start to finish, of maybe one of the more complex writing projects that you’ve done recently, starting from how that project sort of lands on your desk all the way through to completion?

So maybe we’ll take like a catalog entry in our Visitors Guide, which is a guide that’s meant for anybody who comes into a museum. And so it’s pitched for a general audience of people who are interested enough to pick up this book. For that, it’s a short text. So you’re writing, you’re trying to get across the most important points about this one work of art in a very, very limited word count. And so we might divvy up the objects among our specialisms. And so if you’re interested in tapestries, and you might write about a tapestry, and then whoever’s doing the research, you might go–go and see what’s been done on it before. What was good about that, what would we like to do now, what kind of new research is out there? So you do a lot of research to figure out what it is you want to say, what are the main points? How does it fit with other things going on to this guide? And then you draft something and then you start passing it around your department. And once you’re happy with that, and your colleagues are, then it might go to the editor’s office, who are editing it for, for clarity for overall tone, because they know what the rest of the book looks like, to make sure that you haven’t used any over specialized terms that [readers] aren’t going to recognize right away. And then at that point the text can get back to you to make sure that their edits haven’t changed the meaning too much. And then after a few sign off rounds, it’s good to go. So there’s a lot of work for maybe 500 words. 

Interesting, that’s about the average length of one of those descriptions? 

For example. 

For example, wonderful, okay. This is a little bit broad, but how did you know how to perform these types of writing?

Some of it is just having good examples to look at. So my senior colleagues in the department all have a lot of experience doing that. And so I would look at what they’ve done before, or I would really listen to the guidance they give me, the feedback, on my writing. And so a lot of it’s just learning, sort of on the hoof as you go.

Some of it’s just being a reader, when you go around reading a museum label on the wall or a text and seeing, Oh, they didn’t say this thing I wanted to find out, maybe they should have said something more about XYZ. And trying to remember that, I think the questions you have when you go and put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s going to be reading whatever it is you’re writing, and trying to anticipate those questions and address them.

Great. You talked about getting a little bit of feedback or advice from your senior colleagues. What does that feedback usually look like? Is it direct feedback on your writing? Or is it more of a general sort of way of thinking that points you toward writing improvement?

A bit of both–often very concrete feedback. So I’ll give a piece of paper as a draft, and it’ll come back with some red marks on it and some rewrites. One of our colleagues is a wonderful writer. And so she will often hit on just the right way of saying something that I hadn’t quite gotten to. And that’s a really nice thing to have. Um, but often, it’s just kind of a general approach to say, think more about how this object was made, or think more about how it was used, or whatever angle that we might want to play up a little more. It could be a little more general that way, or it could be something as specific  as changing a word. 

Okay. Um, could you describe a time–has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

Generally, I think when you’re trying to write a hard email or a hard letter, if, if there’s some sort of conflict, if there’s a loan request you’re not getting and you’re trying to persuade someone, and it is maybe the first time you’re having to write that, that can be difficult. I think writing things like job applications are very difficult, and you might feel unprepared for that. And again, I think anytime I’ve run into feeling unprepared, what I tried to do is talk to people about it, and get some advice and another perspective. And sometimes people can see something, they can see the problem more clearly than I can being in the middle of it. Unprepared more generally, I think coming out of school, I didn’t know how to write sort of very short, brief letter to someone I wanted advice from, or an internship with, or something like that. And so I think learning to have done that would have been a useful thing to help me kind of get kick started.

Interesting. That’s really useful. Yeah. And are there other things that–you talked about looking at models and asking other people for feedback–are there other strategies you’ve used when you felt unprepared or unsure about a type of new writing?

Sometimes looking at writing guides–I don’t usually find those as helpful as talking to people who’ve actually done what it is I’m trying to do. Especially with graduate school, as a graduate student, I would talk to friends and colleagues who were recent graduate students, or very successful ones, either look at their their thesis or talk to them about, how did you handle the introduction. So in most cases, I think people have been more helpful in writing guides. But every once in a while, it’s helpful to look at some of the published guides out there on how to write about art, just to remind yourself of the basic principles, those are fundamental things you want to get across. 

That raises the question, when we think about sort of writing, both writing for museums or writing about art, are there certain sort of tenants or overarching ways of thinking that feel very specific to those disciplines or not necessarily?

I’m sure that that is the case. I’m not totally able to articulate all of it, because I’m only ever worked in this field. But you’re writing about something that’s inherently visual. And so you’re trying not to compete with the visual, but you’re trying to make people engage with the object. Ultimately, all the writing we do, whether it’s an exhibition catalog, or a wall label, or even an email, ultimately, the goal, end goal of that is to get people to really engage with a work of art and have an experience out of that. So I’m not sure–

That’s okay. No, that’s very useful are there–the answer to this may be that it’s sort of not a, an explicit process that you’re thinking about as you’re doing it–but as you are working to have viewers engage with the art based on the text that you’re writing, are there certain ways that you think about language? Or your writing that that prompts that? Or is it more just the ways in which you’re thinking about description and context that you’re offering? I don’t know if that makes sense.

It does make sense. I think, I think try and keep things very clear. If you’re going to use a specialized term, to be really clear in your own mind about why are you using it. For example, if you’re talking about a painter, such as Van Gogh, who uses really thick, thick paint, you might talk about impasto. Because that’s important, that thick application of paint. And so you might explain a little bit about that term, in case they don’t know it. If we’re talking about sculpture, sometimes we’re using foreign terms, there’s a term sketch octo, for really, really delicate, low relief, almost like a cloud form. And so you might introduce a weird term like that, to get them to look at how the carver has worked very delicately over the surface of a hard marble, to make them appreciate it and see what that artist has achieved. But in general, I think trying to be very clear, when possible, drawing their attention to something that they might overlook, or maybe explaining something, you can’t assume knowledge. So maybe explaining what this particular iconography is, if it’s a religious object, explain what that is for someone who might not be of that religion. If it’s something that’s old fashioned that we don’t use in daily life, trying to draw their attention to a point that will make them understand what’s going on, so they can be more engaged. 

Right, right. It must be especially difficult because as you said, your audience is anyone who walks in the museum. Right, exactly. Are there other conversations that you have with your colleagues about–you’re not assuming any knowledge–and yet, you’re really limited in the amount of information you can provide. Is that a sort of ongoing struggle? Or is it something that after you’ve been writing this way, for a while, becomes natural?

I think you get used to it after a while you find your pitch, and you find the sort of tone that you want to hit. But it is definitely an ongoing conversation. And it’s been interesting talking to our colleagues in education, who have to do this kind of writing, very much directed to different audiences–they work with children, they were students, they work with adults, they work with people special needs, they’ve recently begun working with people, for example, who have Alzheimer’s. So trying to work for myriad different audiences, I think they are a little bit more precision–they have the precision of a scalpel when they’re ready for their audiences. We try to do the same thing. But when you are writing an exhibition catalog, you’re assuming a certain level of interest, you’re assuming a certain level of background or willingness to to do the reading to understand what it is you’re writing about.

Excellent. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Does anyone oversee your writing? You talked about the review process. But is there a direct person who sort of views most of your formal writing and signs off on it?

Here at this museum, our editors department will look at everything that goes out. So if it’s something on the website, if it’s a brochure, anything, even the language for wall labels, where it’s not, it’s not under contention, you know, the artist name, the date all that, they still are reviewing it for style, for accuracy, for spelling. So everything will go out, having been edited formally by their office. And then informally, as I mentioned before, my colleagues.

Perfect. And this is going back a few questions, but I’m thinking about all the different genres that you write in. And the sort of complicated mental shifts that I assume are happening as you move from writing a wall label to a persuasive letter to a another museum, or I mean, from one to the next. There are extremely different types of writing. Are there–could you talk a little bit about that transition as you move? I would imagine in a given day, you might be writing in three or four or even five different writing genres. How does that transition work? Is it challenging? How do you sort of manage that?

At some point, you can develop a formula for some things which are formulaic, when you’re writing a, for example, a loans letter, you’re always going to tell them when the exhibition is taking place. You’re going to tell them who’s hosting it, who your colleagues are, that kind of thing. So some of that’s a little bit formulaic, and you can reuse some of that language, which makes that shift a little easier. But you still have to obviously be personalizing the thesis of the show or the reasons you need to borrow the work of art. It is a lot of–it is a lot of mental gymnastics to sort of shift like that. Even writing between two complicated emails, you’re going from one subject to a totally different thing. It could be something to do with the facilities of the museum, asking for some kind of climate control in the space. And then your next message is asking for something different. I don’t know how to explain, you just, you have to learn to multitask. 

Yeah, okay. Okay. Excellent. Um, this obviously will vary from project to project, but could you talk about the length of time, you have to complete some of your more common writing projects? 

It totally depends on the nature of the project. For something like an exhibition catalog, ideally more than a year, because you’re gonna need to research your essay for the catalog entry and write it, edit it. For something like a public lecture, which you’re writing out, even if you’re delivering it without your notes, or just speaking it, ideally, you have a few months for that. Sometimes there’s set deadlines, which recur every year. So we know that every year we’ve got Board of Trustees meetings to prepare a letter for or prepare a document for. And sometimes, you know, emails, obviously, you’re trying to get this off as quickly as you can. So it varies or completely between genres.

Looking back to your undergraduate days, can you talk a little bit about the writing that you recall being asked to do, and how you think that may or may not have prepared you to write in your current position?

We do a lot of research papers, of course, which was very useful, directly applicable. And so we’re sort of doing more sophisticated versions of those now. So learning the principles of that, and the principles to just basic writing, you know, your topic sentence and then your supporting argument below and trying to remember that. And sometimes I get stuck now I keep saying, okay, what’s my topic sentence? What’s my evidence? What’s my argument? Some personal essays we would have to write. And those can be useful if you’re trying to convey something about yourself, say in a job application or a request for promotion, or anything you might be applying for. I think we could have learned more, as I mentioned before, about learning how to write to other people. We did a lot of–we wrote lots of thank you notes. I remember whenever we had visiting lectures or whatever. I think learning to write a good thank you note is always a lifelong, useful skill to have. Learning to read texts, as you might do for an English class, literary literature class, learning to read something very carefully than analyze it is a very good writing skill that I remember being taught in undergraduate.

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

Okay. All right, great. And are there–other than thinking a little bit about approaching different audiences in writing, are there other things that would have been useful for you to learn or to practice, or to be able to do when you were a student that would have better prepared you?

I think learning to write precis learning to write really short, punchy, succinct texts, either, if you’re summarizing something, which you can do for yourself for notetaking, if you’re trying to say, Okay, I just finished this chapter with a novel, I’m going to just write down what it was I read. So I’ve got the plot in my head, because then I can go back and start thinking about other things for the class. But learning how to precis is a really useful skill in this field. If you’re trying to convey some complex concepts to either your lecture audience who come to hear you give a talk or your for colleagues, if you’re trying to make a pitch for an exhibition or a case for something to be able to say, Well, this is what the file says, here are the main points about this object in our collection. Or here’s the conservation history of something, here’s where it’s been treated, or not been treated, or anything like that. This is how some has been studied. If you can reduce down to the main headlines, that’s a really useful skill, and not something I remember doing formally very much in undergraduate.  

Every answer you give prompts me to ask a question that’s not on my list, because the work is so interesting. But could you talk a little bit about writing those public speeches, and how that maybe varies from other genres that you write in?

Oh, sure, it’s, you want to be more conversational, because you’re face to face with an audience, you want it to be–I try to sort of gear it say, to say my mom, so someone who’s interested but maybe not a specialist. You want to tell a story. You don’t want to just be reading off of your notes, even though you may have them. And I often write out really detailed notes, even conversational notes. So even if you’re trying to make a small joke, to win your audience, you might write a little joke in there just to remind yourself, but it’s it’s a very different type of writing because you do have to have a sense that you’re going towards a point, so that you don’t lose them along the way. Because whereas people can put a bookmark down the book and come back later–they’re going to be the audience, they’re either going to stay and listen to you or they’re going to walk away. So if you’re doing a formal lecture, where people sitting down listening to you, you try to have a real sense of a through line, so they can follow you. You try to make it easy for them to follow you. And whether that’s by repeating a point, by telling them up front, we’re going to look at these three things, just sort of laying out a lot of wayfinding signposts for them so they can come along with you. Usually they will, if you can do that clearly and your topics interesting enough. If you’re doing something less formal without notes, like a gallery talk in front of an object or two, often that can be easier, because it’s a little more give and take, you can open up the conversation. So it’s actually conversation, not just one person talking at people. And then you’ve got the work of art there, too, which is also like a third party in the conversation. So for those, you prepare a slightly different way. For a lecture, I like to have it all written down, even to the point where I’m clicking the slide so that I don’t get caught up and then forget to click the slide. But for a gallery talk, I tried to learn everything I can about what I want to say, remember that sort of outline what I want to say, and then just go in, and just see how the conversation goes. 

Great. Um, what is at stake in your writing?

Oh, that’s a very good question. A lot of different things, I think, um, if people are giving you their time, you want to repay that by giving them good information. And that means both information clearly, and nicely presented, but also factually correct, up to the minute researched information. You’re also representing the National Museum. And so you want to do right by that and have your writing be at a high standard, and whether that’s achieving a certain level of collegiality in your messages to colleagues, or, or just producing a paper that reflects well on your colleagues, that’s at stake, I would say. Often, if you are writing for a favor, then that, whether the writing reference for someone or you’re asking for references from someone or asking for a loan, or any of these things–at stake is maybe the success of your exhibition. If you can’t get this major museum to give you something, then maybe the show won’t happen. If the donor is unable to make the donation because you haven’t made a good enough case, you might not be able to do a program or find a work of art. So yeah, so there’s a lot of different things at stake.

Excellent. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?

I think, in general, I don’t know if it’s specific to my  position, I think just writing with clarity. And it can be not getting too caught up in your own words and in your own head, you’ve got to remember, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for someone. And sometimes, if you’ve gotten too attached to a project, or you’ve been looking at it for such a long time, you can forget that  not everyone else has been doing this research, and they don’t quite know where you’re going with it. So I think remembering always to keep that–what am I trying to say? The clear vision of what you’re doing is–it can be can be challenging, I think switching between the different genres, as you mentioned, that can be challenging too. And keeping things fresh. If you are repurposing or maybe a formulaic letter, you don’t want it to sound like that. And you’re probably writing to these people again and again anyway, and you don’t want them to keep receiving the same letter. So but that’s also the same thing with any type of writing, you want it to always feel fresh and interesting.

Yeah, absolutely. Are there certain things that you do–tactics or strategies–let’s say you, okay, I’ve sent this person a letter twice over the past few years, I want to make sure this letter is unique. And yet I still have to convey similar information. How do you approach trying to keep that novel or engaging or personal?

For something like a formulaic letter, I’ll just sit down and write the formulaic letter And then I’ll just start taking out words, and really looking up synonyms if I have to. It may as sort of basic as that. And then other times, it’s just–be aware of your own little personal writing tics. And trying not to keep falling into them, the little patterns. And that’s again, where collaborating with colleagues is helpful, because if you get a slightly more corporate voice, corporate in the sense of a group of people, then sounds less idiosyncratic and a little bit more of what you’re trying to get to.

You talked about getting advice from colleagues, from senior colleagues and  getting feedback on your writing. Has anyone else helped you with your writing here at the museum formally or informally?

Certainly, lots of people have been very helpful informally, in terms of concrete feedback, or maybe general ideas about how to write something. In terms of more formal instruction, our education department has a program called Writing Salon, where members of the public can register and come in and write all different genres–poetry, do some theatrical writing, memoir, all different genres. I haven’t taken one of those. I would like to take one of those. But I haven’t been able to get away from the desk and go do it. So there is a chance to have writing instruction here if you join one of our programs. I’ve not done it. I think I’ve–because I’ve been in graduate school while I’ve been working, we’ve gotten some formal instruction through school. It’s not for the museum here, but certainly while I’ve been working, I’ve had a little bit of formal instruction on how to write a research paper or how to write a grant. But I would say most of it is coming from on the job. And from learning by example, or the help of your colleagues.  

How do you believe you’ve evolved as a writer over the course of your career?

It’s easier to write now. It’s not necessarily starting from scratch, I, I’ve done, I’ve experienced lots of different types of writing now, and so at least have somewhere to start from. And if I get stuck, I can talk to somebody about it. But in general, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do. And so that–since it’s, there’s a little bit less of staring at the blank page, kind of paralyzed. What do you do when you have a blank page, just start writing and you’ll figure it out. I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer, I would hope so. And I would think that would come with having the more experienced reader as well, because part of being a good writer is doing a lot of reading. And so seeing what speaks to you and what works as a reader, you can then apply to your own writing.

Excellent. And to what extent do you think writing is valued within the organization as a whole?

I think it’s valued very, very highly. I think it’s an essential skill. I think it’s–if you are able to work with well your colleagues as a person and then write well, then you’re going to be able to do a lot of different things. So I would say it’s valued really highly.

And our last little set of questions, how do you think you would have defined successful writing as a student, as opposed to successful writing in this current space? And  would you define yourself as a successful workplace writer here?

That’s a lot of questions. Lots of break it out. I think, as a successful student, it would have been, could you answer all the questions you’ve been set in a compelling way? Does your essay have some evidence in it? Can you support your opinions? Is it clear? Is it turned in on time? Turning things in on time is important too! But it’s a bit more, is it original? Are you contributing something original to the conversation? Um,could you repeat the second bit of the question? 

Sure, how would you define successful writing here? And would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?

I would say I’m on my way to becoming a successful workplace writer. A lot of my work is still written for my supervisory colleagues. So I’m not quite yet there, where it’s going straight from my head to the editors office. So I have a lot to learn still about how to write some of the things we publish here, and I’ve written a little bits, so I’ve written some catalog entries. I’ve written some guides for brochures. But I haven’t written an exhibition catalog essay yet. So things like that I’m looking forward to learning to do. And once I can do that, then I would say yes, I’m a successful workplace writer! I think in general, my emails tend to be clear for colleagues, they tend to be friendly. And so in my own capacity, I’d say, probably fairly successful. I guess more generally, success in the workplace here is, is measured maybe in the results. Are you able to persuade people when you need to? Are you able to dash off an email that’s urgent enough, yet polite enough to get, you know, whatever it is taken care of from straightaway? Can you write a lecture that people are going to stick around for 15 minutes sitting there listening to and really interested? Maybe asking questions at the end? Can you write a guide that you can walk through the museum and see people actually opened up in front of the art reading it? So there are different levels of success. You know, can we write, speaking larger for outside my department, can we write grants that enable us to put on public programs? Can we write advertising copy that draws people in to see what we’ve spent all this time working on for them? So lots of different ways to measure the success, I suppose. 

Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you think it’s important for me or any of our other audiences to know about writing in your specific organization and your specific position?

I think a lot of it–well, there’s a lot of specialized skill for writing in the field of art history. I think a lot of it comes down to basic principles of making an argument, supporting it with actual evidence. Because of the nature of the work, sometimes that evidence is maybe visual, or archival or whatever. But being able to write like that, if you can do that, in any field, I think you’ve got a little bit of latitude or chance for success in other fields as well. And I think that’s a very general thing that we have in common with any field is being able to do those things. Writing for this field specifically… I think just be able to write for lots of different audiences. This may be unusual because if you’re working perhaps in a scientific research institute, maybe you’re not writing for the general public all the time. Here we are writing for the general public all the time.


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