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Collecting and Collections

Objects, Artifacts and Curators

When does an object become an artifact? Why is it more interesting and informative to look at real things in a museum rather than looking at pictures of them? What’s so special about an artifact? Why do museums collect? These are all important questions, especially for the people who do the collecting in museums. These people are called “curators.”

A curator is a specialist educated and trained to understand objects (what they are, how they work, what they mean) and their history (who made them, who owned them, who used them). The name for this type of study is “material culture” or “material history.” Curators develop their knowledge through reading, research and, above all, by carefully examining hundreds of objects.

When a curator decides to acquire an object for the collection, that object becomes an artifact. This happens officially when the object is given an acquisition number by the museum and when all the available information about the object is gathered together and carefully recorded under that number. So what do curators look for when they collect objects, and how do they decide what’s really important and what isn’t?

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