Career pathways: Curator – 16th Century

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Q. Who are you?
My name’s Tarnya Cooper, and I work at the National Portrait Gallery, and I’m curator of the 16th century collection, so the early part of the collection, from 1500 to 1603.
Q. What does your job involve?
No real day is the same in a curatorial job, you’re constantly doing different things every day, sometimes I might be doing bits of rehanging in the gallery, sometimes I’m going to try and raise a bit of money, or talking to groups of people or doing some research. So we look after all sorts of different things in the collection. That doesn’t involve holding things onto the wall, thinking about what’s the best care for the collection, doing some research trying to understand more of the paintings.
Q. What challenges do you face?
My problem is not enough time, usually, to get everything done in a day. I get about eighty or so emails in a day. So prioritising different things. Some things you can answer really quickly, so whether you can respond to enquiries from the public, or other museums and galleries, or thinking about things you can get done really quickly, and then other things that take a lot more time and consideration. Probably one of the challenges is knowing when to say no. I really believe if you can’t achieve something really well, don’t do it.
Q. What appealed to you about this job?
I really enjoy working at the National Portrait Gallery, because actually it’s not an art museum, it’s about people and achievements and biography, which is a fascinating subject.
Q. What’s good about your job?
It’s really great because no day is the same as a curator. I really, really enjoy putting on exhibitions and displays. You start of with a kernel of an idea, and then you pull all the images together, and then you manage to tell a story, a narrative about something which is quite difficult to explain in any other way but a visual way. I think people respond to images and paintings more easily than they do text, and you can spend an hour or so walking around an exhibition and you could have learned a whole chunk of English history or a whole chunk of information about artist or all sorts of things, and it’s almost like you don’t know you’re learning it, you’re enjoying it, and I love being able to watch people pick up new knowledge and enjoy themselves.
Q. What’s your proudest achievement?
One of the things we do here at the Portrait Gallery is acquisitions of paintings, purchasing paintings for the nation effectively, and one of the things I’m proudest of doing here is purchasing a portrait of John Donne, which is a portrait that was in a private collection all its life, and has now come to the National Portrait Gallery to live here forever, and after I’m dead I hope it’ll still be on the walls. I spent probably about a year negotiating for this painting to come to the gallery, so it’s one of my achievements that I feel happiest about.
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