The Curator: Clara Drummond

January 27, 2012

Can you imagine reading an original authentic letter written in 1796 by a twenty year old Jane Austen? And then being able to share that letter with the world? What an exciting job! And then to go home at the end of the day to hold your baby? Truly a blessing.

Two extraordinary gifts in one day…


where are you from?
The wilds of Nova Scotia. Now I live in Brooklyn.

what do you do?
I’m an Assistant Curator in the Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum. The collection consists of handwritten and typewritten letters, diaries, drafts of poems and novels, and various other documents dating from the 15th century until today. My job, along with the other curators in the department,
is to take care of and manage the collection. This involves suggesting acquisitions, describing material in our online catalog so researchers know we have it, organizing exhibitions, working with conservators to decide what needs treatment, facilitating research, giving tours and presentations, writing about the collection. There is a lot going on.

what did you want to be when you were a kid?
I don’t remember having many career aspirations. I was more into imaging leisure activities, like traveling the world or fencing. I have vague memories of wanting to be a beekeeper (my parents kept bees), a journalist, or a writer. And I do remember wanting to live in New York. At least I achieved that!

what were you doing ten years ago?
I had just graduated from undergrad in Halifax with a degree in Classics and was thinking what do I do with that. More school, it turns out. I then moved to Boston for a PhD and then finally a Master’s of Library Science. Needless to say, I was happy to graduate.

what is most challenging about curating a collection?
In a large collection like ours, there are so many objects to discover. The obvious
treasures will already be known, like the only surviving manuscript of Milton’s Paradise Lost or Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, but there might be lesser-known gems. So one challenge is just to familiarize yourself with the collection. Another challenge is that textual material can be difficult to exhibit in a compelling way. I think visual material is much more accessible as people intuitively know how to interpret it and react; they can see the image, the colors, the use of space. Even without knowing anything about the context of the object, visitors can at the very least have a reaction, I like it or don’t. But when you present handwritten documents, especially if they are not easy to read, the reaction can easily be confusion or ambivalence. What am I looking at and who cares?

what do you take into consideration when telling a story?
Each manuscript has multiple stories: how it was created, in what circumstances and by whom, what it communicates, and how it came to be at the Morgan. So picking noteworthy objects and then choosing the best story for that object is one thing to consider. But at the same time the exhibition should also tell a larger story with a good beginning and ending and some exciting bits in the middle. That is not to say that visitors walk through a museum space in the same way they read a book, they often don’t. So ideally the objects and accompanying text speak for themselves while at the same time creating connections between objects that reveal the overall narrative and basic questions.

what’s the most important piece you’ve curated to date?
The Jane Austen exhibition I did with my co-curator Declan Kiely was great fun. You
can’t really go wrong with Jane Austen, and her letters are carefully crafted treasures, interesting visually and in their content. We decided to display them alongside satirical prints from the same time period that depicted similar themes. This was one way to deal with the challenge of textual materials, pair them with images. We also produced a film which was meant to live beyond the exhibition walls. You can see the online exhibition and the film here.

what does it feel like to hold history in your hands?
Nerve-wracking sometimes but very cool. John Steinbeck wrote how there is a “curious associational electricity” when you handle a manuscript and it is true. To think that Thoreau held this very journal in his hands, that these words are remnants of the movements of his hand across the page, makes your heart beat a bit more quickly.

if you could spend a couple of days in history, with whom, or what historical event would you witness?
Hanging out with Cleopatra or Elizabeth I would be fun or spending time with Gutenberg when he was just starting to print on his revolutionary press. Being nerdy and bookish I would also have liked to see the ancient library of Alexandria.

what is your dream project?
Right now, I am working on a project I have thought about for a long time that will look at the place of animals in our artistic endeavors. The show is titled In the Company of Animals and runs from March 2 through May 20, 2012. My dream project would be discovering a trove of Shakespeare manuscripts and working on that exhibition, but this will probably never happen. Inspired by the Catullus poem on the subject, Odi et amo, I would love to do a LOVE | HATE exhibition that gathered together the best manuscripts and works of art on these two related topics.

what do you do when you need a break from work?
Chase Felix, my 16 month old, around, look at the photos on design blogs and dream, eat chocolate and drink coffee and read novels.

what do you collect?
Despite the fact that part of my job is to build and sustain a collection, my instinct is to purge most things in my own life. I do have a love of weird miniature things (lots of animals I now realize) that I have collected for many years and have an old type case to display some of them, like my mini-painted octopus and tiny dragon jack-knife. Like I said, weird.

The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen from The Morgan Library & Museum on Vimeo.