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Career stories: James Peto, Senior Curator, Wellcome Collection

14 Aug, 2012
James Peto

James Peto. Credit: Wellcome Images

In the run up to A-level and GCSE results days, we’re publishing a series of Q&A case studies from our Big Picture issue on Careers with Biology

James Peto is an exhibition curator at the London-based Wellcome Collection, a museum, art space, library and more. He discusses his career history and explains what it’s like working to develop science exhibitions having never had a single biology lesson.

Describe your job in one sentence.
I’m an exhibition curator – part of the team that puts together exhibitions here.

What did you study at school?
I did French, German and English A levels, then I went to Cambridge University to study French and German. I was increasingly interested in art, so I changed course halfway through and did my degree in the history of art.

What did you do once you left university?
I got a job at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA), selling tickets at the box office for two years. Then, because I’d learnt to touch-type, I got a job in the ICA gallery as a secretary. After that, I managed to get on a year-long course in curating contemporary art run by the Whitney Museum in New York.

When I came back, I worked in the Castle Museum in Nottingham and then on Tyneside, commissioning artists to make works in public spaces – outdoors and indoors around the city and in places that were very different from the clean white box of the art gallery. I’ve always been interested in how artists can make a difference in the real world, not just in the art world. The artists we worked with wanted to encourage people to stop and think about their environment, the way they interact with it, and the way they live.

Then I worked as a curator at the Whitechapel Art Gallery for four years and moved to the Design Museum, where I became head of exhibitions. That was a shift towards the practical application of art. Design can be about applying practical and engineering skills, as well as aesthetic criteria, to make things that work well for people.

I applied to the Wellcome Trust for funding for some projects I worked on there. I was very interested in how the Trust was trying to break down the boundaries between science and art and encouraging people to see science as part of everyday life – something that affects culture and is affected by culture, not just something done by clever people in white coats hidden away in laboratories. When I heard they were planning Wellcome Collection, it related closely to my interest in art that is as close as possible to real life, so I was delighted to get a job here.

What would a typical day for you entail?
Each day is different. A lot depends on which stage of an exhibition we’re at. There’s a research stage, which involves a lot of thinking about what it is that we’re trying to say in the exhibition, what subjects to cover, and what objects and artworks to include. This is followed by a period of negotiating loans from other museums and collections. Then there’s a design stage. How will each individual object be displayed, how will it relate to the next exhibit? How does the whole exhibition hang together? What’s the overall feel and shape?

What are the most challenging and satisfying things about your job?
One of the biggest challenges is what kind of and how much interpretative text to put in an exhibition. Get the balance right between giving people enough information but not bombarding them with too much. It’s important that they can find their own connections. Often, it is more interesting to ask questions than to give answers – getting people to explore areas of uncertainty in science and in life: the things that are still unanswered or that are disputed. I think paradoxically that can be where people learn more, by trying to engage with the things that aren’t known, rather than simply learning what they’re told.

The most satisfying thing is when visitor surveys tell us people are spending a lot of time in an exhibition – or even coming back to see it again. That suggests their curiosity has been stirred, and they’re finding something fresh every time.

How do you balance a career and a family life?
That’s one of the biggest challenges. The hours are quite long, but the work can be very satisfying. And also you need to spend time looking at other exhibitions. It’s important to learn from what other people do.

How do you find it working in a science-related area without any formal science education?
It means I have a lot to learn with each exhibition we put on. Depending on the subject of the exhibition, we might need a lot of expert advice from others. There’s a great deal of consultation and collaboration involved, but I enjoy that process.

Qualifications

  • A levels: French, German, English (1976)
  • BA in art history (1980)
  • Independent Studies Programme, Whitney Museum, New York (1987)

Career history

  • Working on a farm in Germany in the summer holidays (1976-80)
  • Odd jobs – a security guard and painter/decorator (1980-82)
  • Ticket seller, ICA box office (1982-84)
  • Assistant/secretary, ICA Visual Arts Dept (1984-86)
  • Assistant curator, Nottingham Castle Museum (1988-89)
  • Exhibition and project manager, Tyne and Wear Museums (1989-93)
  • Exhibitions curator, Whitechapel Art Gallery (1993-98)
  • Curator, then head of exhibitions, Design Museum (1999-2005)
  • Curator, then senior curator, Wellcome Collection (2005-)

Top tip

Go to as many exhibitions as possible, follow your interests. Do lots of looking, reading and thinking. Looking especially – ask yourself, ‘What is it that can make a subject visually exciting and intriguing?’ Try lots of comparing and contrasting. That’s where your enthusiasm and curiosity develop – and they’re integral to the job.

This article was originally part of the online content for ‘Big Picture: Careers from biology’. Read more profiles and find out more about careers with biology on the website

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