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CURATOR’S LOG: What Is a Curator & What Do They Do?

A Conversation with Curator Emily Waingrow Falke by Rita Serotkin

In this Curator’s Log entry, Santa Barbara Maritime Museum’s Curator Emily Falke answers your questions about what a Curator is and what she does as SBMM’s Curator.

According to Merriam-Webster, a Curator is a person “who has the care and superintendence of something, especiallyone in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit…Curatorial duties include acquiring new artworks, caring for and repairing objects already owned, discovering frauds and counterfeits, lending artworks to other museums, and mounting exhibitions of everything from Greek sculpture to 20th-century clothing.”

According to Emily, “Every exhibit is different, so I approach each differently based on what kind of exhibit it is, how long it will be in the Museum, its topic or purpose, and who it is designed for.” Exhibits vary by their duration and provenance; are they permanent exhibits or temporary, and does the museum own them, loan them out, or have them on loan from another museum. These last two, Emily refers to as “traveling exhibits.” The Arthur Beaumont: Art of the Sea exhibit, currently on display in the Museum, is a traveling exhibit that is on loan from the Irvine Museum in Irvine, CA, until the end of May. Conversely, SBMM owns four traveling exhibits that it loans to other museums, two consisting of Ralph Clevenger’s photographs of sharks and mermaids, one of Bob Evans’ underwater images, and one of Ernie Brooks’ works. Examples of the Museum’s permanent exhibits include the Point Conception First-Order Fresnel Lens and the Dwight Brooks working model boats.

SBMM’s Collections & Exhibits Committee Chair Leslie Power (left) and Curator Emily Falke discuss changes to an existing exhibit area.

While new exhibits developed by the Museum require a lot of research and design work, even traveling exhibits from other museums require extensive “curating.” For instance, as Emily described the process, “Even when I receive all the artifacts for an exhibit, I may still have to decide where and how to display it, the colors to be used around it, the text to accompany it, etc.”  An example of this type of curating came into play for the Beaumont exhibit; and for 2019’s Rum Running exhibit Emily added some artifacts, prints, and a speak-easy door. One of the advantages of the Museum’s work to become certified by the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) that Emily is looking forward to is that SBMM will become eligible to receive traveling exhibits from famous museums throughout the country.

Discussing a new exhibit with photographer Ralph Clevenger.

Completely new exhibits require much more work. First and foremost, they must relate to SBMM’s mission of providing “quality exhibits and educational experiences that celebrate the Santa Barbara Channel and illuminate our rich connections to the sea.” Emily begins the exhibit planning process by researching the topic and calling on various experts in the area for their added input. In addition, during the planning process, Emily considers topics, events, and activities that will appeal to a broad range of people and age groups. These might include lectures that bring the exhibit to life, tastings, demonstrations, and educational activities for children, the last of which she works on with Educational Director Lis Perry. Fortunately, Emily’s bachelor’s degree and teaching certification in Art and her previous experience as a teacher, a museum’s education director, development director, and public relations officer have prepared her well for all aspects of her position as SBMM’s Director of Collections & Exhibits and Curator.                                                                                                                   

Curator Emily Falke with Robert Kieding at the dedication of the Kieding Collections Chandlery, SBMM’s collections storage facility, in January 2020.

When asked about what she likes most about her job, Emily said, “My favorite part of being the Curator is that I get to design every exhibit, its layout, photographs and artifacts to include, text to accompany the exhibit, and interactive elements and touch points. And my job is never done. While I do get to design new exhibits, I am always working on those that are already on display, keeping them fresh and bringing them up to date so that all of the Museum’s exhibits look as uniform as possible.”

Not to be forgotten, as Director of Collections and Exhibits, Emily is also responsible for all of the Museum’s collections, including items that are not currently on exhibit. Those items are kept at the Kieding Collections Chandlery, which is managed by the Collections Manager, Lydia Kaestner, shown here photographing some of the Museum’s helmets for detailed documentation. As part of SBMM’s application for AAM certification, the Chandlery has undergone renovations with new storage areas being built and a recordkeeping database completed, which ultimately made the Museum’s first virtual exhibit—the Brooks Ships Models—possible:

Have an idea for a new exhibit? Let Emily know at

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