20 Curators Taking a Cutting-Edge Approach to Art History

The word “curate” has been borrowed by a wide range of industries, so it’s easy to forget what it actually entails. At museums, curators do much more than put together enticing selections of objects. Yes, they’re charged with choosing the art that we see and the way we see it, but they’re also guardians of cultural heritage; experts in niche pockets of art history; interpreters of priceless works of art; and, in some cases, deft navigators of international diplomacy and import laws. They might travel the world to secure artwork loans from private collections, or work with technologists to develop digital tools that enhance the museum experience.

And while we generally think of contemporary art curators as the ones who embrace the digital age and pressing social issues, they’re not the only ones engaging with the cutting-edge. From major encyclopedic museums to university-run institutions, curators who are schooled in the art of ancient Mesopotamia, South Asia, Renaissance Italy, and many other eras and cultures across the globe are expanding and enriching how audiences experience art history. They’re also innovating the way that art is seen, understood, and disseminated.

Below, we share 20 such curators, whose inspiring work ranges from harnessing virtual reality technology and promoting accessibility, to revisiting age-old collections through a 21st-century lens.


Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by Olivier Middendorp. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “High Society: Guilty Pleasures,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by David van Dam. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “High Society: Guilty Pleasures,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by David van Dam. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Installation view of “High Society: Guilty Pleasures,” at Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2018. Photo by David van Dam. Courtesy of Rijksmuseum.

Recent career highlight: “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil,” Rijksmuseum

Favorite show seen lately: “Drawn to Greatness: Master Drawings from the Thaw Collection,” Morgan Library & Museum, New York, curated by John Marciari, Jennifer Tonkovich, Isabelle Dervaux, and Ilona van Tuinen

For Jane Turner, a recent career highlight was the 2016 exhibition “Frans Post. Animals in Brazil”—the Rijksmuseum’s most well-attended works-on-paper show in its history. Staged in collaboration with the North Holland Archive in Haarlem, the show focused on newly discovered studies of Brazilian flora and fauna by Dutch artist Frans Post, placing them alongside taxidermied specimens of the animals he depicted, on loan from Leiden’s Naturalis Biodiversity Center. “It proved that by being open-minded and creative, and by joining forces, we can appeal to different segments of the public simultaneously,” Turner said.  

She pointed to the nuanced nature of museum exhibitions today as an exciting development. “Blockbusters and visitor numbers will always remain important, but there is a growing recognition of other critical roles that exhibitions play,” she explained, nodding to their roles in highlighting art historical discoveries and social issues. She’s also keen to help make new acquisitions and pieces from permanent collections more accessible. That impulse was evidenced by a recent display that Turner’s department put on called “Guilty Pleasures,” which featured 85 intimate prints and drawings displaying vices like lust and gluttony—a playful complement to the museum’s wildly popular portrait show, “High Society.”


Installation view of “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2018. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2018. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2018. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in the Imperial Palace” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2018. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2015. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2015. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Installation view of “Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio” at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2015. Photo by Denis Farley. Courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Recent career highlight: “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in The Imperial Palace,” Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Favorite show seen lately: “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” Cooper Hewitt, New York, curated by Sarah D. Coffin, Emily M. Orr, and Stephen Harrison

Sylvain Cordier’s work spans some eight centuries of creative expression as he oversees the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA)’s collection of European decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the Art Deco period. He’s been at the museum since 2013, and credits his contributions to the 2015 show “Metamorphoses: In Rodin’s Studio” as a turning point that expanded his subsequent investigations into sculpture. The well-received show saw over 200,000 attendees coming to see, learn about, and even feel Auguste Rodin’s pieces (the show featured reproductions of the artist’s sculptures that visitors could safely touch).  

Cordier has been busy recently with the MMFA’s recent show “Napoleon: Art and Court Life in The Imperial Palace,” which recreated Napoleon’s lavish household through immersive projections that complemented art objects, tapestries, painting, and furniture.  

“I belong to a generation of curators of European art that have to rethink the traditional codes of display and interpretation,” Cordier said, nodding to museum audiences’ increased awareness and knowledge of contemporary and non-Western art. In the end, he explained, “one wishes to reflect the diversity of the public and inspire greater understanding.”


Installation view of “Black Chronicles IV” at FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, 2018. Photo by Anthea Pockroy. Courtesy of VIAD and Autograph ABP.

Installation view of “Black Chronicles IV” at FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, 2018. Photo by Anthea Pockroy. Courtesy of VIAD and Autograph ABP.

Installation view of “Black Chronicles: Photographic Portraits 1862 - 1948,” at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 2016. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London.

Exterior view of “After Dark: Image Projects - Black Chronicles,” at Autograph ABP, London, 2016. Photo by Keri-Luke Campbell. Courtesy of Autograph ABP.

Recent career highlights: “Black Chronicles,” various locations including Rivington Place, London; Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; National Portrait Gallery, London; FADA Gallery, University of Johannesburg, 2014–18

“Zanele Muholi: Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness,” Autograph ABP, London, 2017; traveling to Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, September 2018

Favorite show seen lately: “Adrian Piper: A Synthesis of Intuitions, 1965–2016,” Museum of Modern Art, New York, curated by Christophe Cherix, Connie Butler, David Platzker, and Tessa Ferreyros

Renée Mussai’s curatorial and scholarly work centers on African, Afro-European, black British, and diasporic photographic practices, with a focus on portraiture, gender, and sexuality. Working at the helm of the London-based arts charity Autograph ABP, she works to promote photography that penetrates the politics of social justice, cultural identity, race, and human rights. “Our work often constitutes a response to the many ‘missing chapters’ within the cultural history of photography, and a curatorial desire to ameliorate,” Mussai said.

In 2014, she launched the critically acclaimed touring exhibition and research project “Black Chronicles,” which investigates Victorian photography and black portraitures in 19th-century Britain, surfacing some images that haven’t been seen in over 125 years. These portraits, Mussai explained, “radically changed black representation in 19th-century photography in Britain.” For each installation, she transformed white cube galleries into black cubes, producing large-scale prints from the original archival glass plate negatives. The project has also featured outdoor image projections in public spaces, an interactive web app, and, most recently, a new sound and image installation at the University of Johannesburg’s FADA Gallery, The African Choir 1891 Re-Imagined, which included a score from South African composers Philip Miller and Thuthuka Sibisi.

Mussai’s research-led curatorial work “encompasses the historical as well as the contemporary, engaging critically with the archive, [and] past and present image repertoires,” she said. “I believe in curatorial activism. For me, the provision of a critical context, to find a balance between aesthetics and politics is always key—to act with a sense of urgency, contemporary relevance, and a commitment to the future.”


Installation view of “Michelangelo, Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Michelangelo, Divine Draftsman and Designer” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2018. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Leonardo da Vinci, Master Draftsman” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2003. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Recent career highlight: “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Favorite show seen lately: “Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, curated by Joanne Pillsbury, Timothy Potts, and Kim Richter

This past winter, you may have been one of the 700,000-plus visitors to see the Met’s “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer,” curated by Carmen Bambach. “When a show is well-conceptualized and installed with good design, the public responds with due emotion,” she offered. The museum’s 10th-most-visited show ever, it included 133 drawings (the largest grouping of Michelangelo drawings ever exhibited at once) and a vast number of contemporaneous works by the artist’s peers, along with a to-scale digital recreation of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. New York Times art critic Holland Cotter called the show “a curatorial coup” for the impressive assortment of works it gathered, and “an art historical tour de force: a panoptic view of a titanic career as recorded in the most fragile of media—paper, chalk, and ink.”

Bambach has worked at the Met since 1995 and now oversees its collection of over 4,000 Renaissance drawings. Her accomplishments include in-depth exhibitions that delve into the fine draftsmanship of some of art history’s most revered artists, while also surfacing lesser-known parts of their oeuvres. The 2003 exhibition “Leonardo da Vinci: Master Draftsman” was a pivotal moment in Bambach’s career: With loans from prestigious institutions like the Vatican and Windsor Castle, the show highlighted Leonardo’s accomplishments as a scientist, teacher, theorist, and artist; it was the Met’s most visited show that year.


Mexico, Anahuac, Teotihuacan, Moon Pyramid. Photo by Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images. Courtesy of the fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

View of an area immediately east of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, looking south. The fragments seen here tumbled down from the eastern facade of the building; some may have been deliberately thrown down in an attempt to desacralize the pyramid. © INAH. Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Installation view of “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2018. Photo by Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Circular relief, 300–450. Photo by the Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Installation view of “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” at the de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2018. Photo by Ando Caulfield for Drew Altizer Photography. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Eccentric, 200–250. © INAH. Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías / Zona de Monumentos Arqueológicos de Teotihuacán / INAH. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Mural fragment (bird with shield and spear), 500–550. Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.

Installation view of “How to Make the Universe Right: The Art of Priests and Shamans from Vietnam and Southern China” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo © Monica Nouwens. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Installation view of “How to Make the Universe Right: The Art of Priests and Shamans from Vietnam and Southern China” at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Los Angeles, 2017. Photo © Monica Nouwens. Courtesy of the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Recent career highlight: “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” de Young Museum, San Francisco

Favorite show seen lately: “A Decolonial Atlas: Strategies in Contemporary Art of the Americas,” Vincent Price Art Museum, Monterey Park, California, curated by Pilar Tompkins Rivas

Matthew Robb’s fascination with Mesoamerica and the ancient art of the Americas, with a particular focus on the city of Teotihuacan, has fueled his career since his early days at the Saint Louis Art Museum. There, he recalls being impressed by his colleagues’ work on “Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea.” That exhibition, originally organized by the Peabody Essex Museum, brought together more than 90 objects to explore the impact water had on Mayan civilization; with its many major international loans, it gave Robb first-hand insight into how curators can achieve “incredible feats of cultural diplomacy,” he said.  

Now the head of the Fowler Museum at UCLA (which focuses on non-Western art and material culture), Robb’s research and curatorial work taps into the way that “modern technology influences our understanding of the ancient past,” he explained.  

A recent show Robb curated at the de Young Museum, “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” featured new archaeological revelations, as well as a rendition of Teotihuacan created through the immersive gaming platform Minecraft, allowing the public to virtually explore the pyramids and tunnels of the ancient city for themselves. He cautions that because curators “have such densely packed stories to tell about objects, it can be very tempting to incorporate modern technology in ways that can inadvertently overwhelm visitors with information.” He sees technology as a means to enhance the museum experience, not reinvent it, and to “[honor] the skills and knowledge of the makers of the objects that we care for.”


Installation view of “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art” at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2016-17. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian.

Installation view of “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art” at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2016-17. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian.

Installation view of “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art” at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2016-17. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian.

Installation view of “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art” at the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, D.C., 2016-17. Courtesy of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian.

Recent career highlight: “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” Freer | Sackler

Favorite show seen lately: “The Galerie du Temps,” Louvre-Lens, Lens, France, curated by Jean-Luc Martinez and Vincent Pomarède

As a curator, Massumeh Farhad concerns herself with teasing out the stories of objects and making the viewer “see the world in new and different ways.” Her decision to focus on the arts of the Islamic world came naturally; born in Iran, she was always intrigued by the art she saw growing up. Through her exhibitions and scholarship (she’s been a curator at Freer | Sackler since 1995 and assumed her current dual role at the helm in 2004), Farhad has crucially advanced the field of Islamic art history in the Western world.

Recently, she co-curated “The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts,” which made imminently clear the incredible artistic skill and craftsmanship that went into the calligraphy and creation of these holy books, ranging from minute hand-held volumes to towering tomes. It was the first major international exhibition on the Qur’an in the United States, and the first time that the rare handwritten copies of the sacred text were shown in the country.


Installation view of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2013. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of “Impression, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Impression, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Impression, Fashion, and Modernity” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2016. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2016. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2017. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Installation view of “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist” at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2017. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Recent career highlight: “Gauguin: Artist as Alchemist,” Art Institute of Chicago

Favorite show seen lately: “Wiener Werkstätte 1903–1932: The Luxury of Beauty,” Neue Galerie, New York, curated by Dr. Christian Witt-Dörring and Janis Staggs

Gloria Groom, a specialist in 19th-century European painting, has been at the Art Institute of Chicago for over three decades. She has created smart shows that frequently involve giving a 360-degree view of an artist or time period, incorporating clothing, letters, or other ephemera in addition to art. Her 2016 show “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms” included a digitally recreated, 3D version of the famous artist’s room, and it was the Art Institute’s best-attended show in some 15 years. She credits her 1994 show “Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist”—which focused on Gustave Caillebotte’s depictions of modern Paris—as the exhibition that jump-started her career and paved the way for future hits like “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity,” a 2013 show at the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Groom is optimistic about the future of exhibitions. She describes how, over the course of her tenure at the Art Institute, she’s witnessed museum technology evolve from helpful but peripheral audio tours, which “freed the visitor from having to read labels that disrupted the act of looking,” to integral elements that can be key to a successful exhibition. She’s enthused, though, by the increasing flexibility curators have with their exhibitions, which allows for an “incorporation of high art with the physical objects that inspired them,” and an increased exploration of how the creative process “can enrich our understanding of the work and also the artist.”


Installation view of “Hokusai” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2015. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Installation view of “Hokusai” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2015. Photo © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Recent career highlight: “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada,” MFA Boston

Favorite show seen lately: “Hokusai the Performer,” Sumida Hokusai Museum, Tokyo

After majoring in linguistics as an undergrad at Harvard, Thompson changed course upon traveling to Japan, where she fell in love with the country’s art. She now specializes in Japanese prints, but wrote her dissertation on painting; at the time, Thompson explained, “prints were not yet considered a serious art form suitable for a dissertation.” Her groundbreaking 1991 show “Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints” at New York’s Asia Society helped to bring Japanese prints to the forefront of the public imagination. These prints are “not only beautiful,” Thompson said, “but often have complex, concealed meanings.”

Her most recent exhibition, 2017’s “Showdown! Kuniyoshi vs. Kunisada” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA Boston), highlighted two rival printmakers from 19th-century Japan, and explored their differing approaches to common themes like Kabuki theater, women, and war. The interactive show engaged visitors through a digital quiz (which you can take online), asking them to choose their favorite artworks and setting up a competition-style battle between the two artists. The show itself was made possible through the MFA’s recent efforts to photograph and catalogue its 52,000-piece Japanese print collection—an example Thompson nods to as encapsulating how technology has facilitated the organization of exhibitions.


Installation view of “Charles I: King and Collector” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images.

Left to right: Installation view of Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel (‘The Virgin of the Rocks’), about 1491/2-9 and 1506-8, and An Angel in Green with a Vielle, about 1490-9, at “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” at the National Gallery, London, 2011-12. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver (recto), ca. 1629. Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Rembrandt van Rijn, after Leonardo da Vinci, The Last Supper, ca. 1634-5. © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, 1629. © Private Collection. Photo by the National Gallery, London, 2016. Courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.

Recent career highlight: “Charles I: King and Collector,” Royal Academy of Arts

Favorite show seen lately: “David Hockney,” Tate Modern, London, curated by Chris Stephens

Per Rumberg has brought his serious art historical chops to London’s Royal Academy of Arts since assuming his current leadership role in 2015. He’d previously held posts at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London, where he was one of the curators who contributed to the acclaimed 2011–12 show “Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan.” In 2016, he unveiled at the Royal Academy a major show of the enigmatic High Renaissance painter Giorgione, which helped unpack a debate over the attribution of one of the paintings, which some believed was actually a Titian; experts were asked to argue both sides of the debate, and the public was invited to weigh in and cast their vote online.  

Most recently, Rumberg co-curated “Charles I: King and Collector,” which reunited over 100 prominent artworks that once belonged to King Charles I, including classical sculpture, English tapestries, and paintings by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Titian. The show not only reassembled one of history’s most prestigious art collections—with extremely rare loans from the Louvre and the Prado, as well as works from the Royal Collection, which Queen Elizabeth II signed off on herself—it envisioned the artistic and cultural impact and taste that the King had passed on to his country.  

Despite his historical grounding, Rumberg said that he “particularly enjoys the exchange with contemporary artists here at the Royal Academy.” Even as technology permeates the museum sphere, he emphasizes, “the most exciting experience will always be: looking.”


Installation view of “Access+Ability” at Cooper Hewitt, New York, 2018. © Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Chris J. Gauthier. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Installation view of “Access+Ability” at Cooper Hewitt, New York, 2018. © Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Chris J. Gauthier. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Installation view of “Access+Ability” at Cooper Hewitt, New York, 2018. © Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Chris J. Gauthier. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Haiyan Zhang and Nicolas Villar, Emma Watch (Prototype), 2016. Manufactured by Microsoft Research. Photo © Alex Griffiths. Courtesy of Haiyan Zhang and Cooper Hewitt.

Elana Langer, Earring Aid. Photo © Hanna Agar. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Installation view of Damián Ortega, Controller of the Universe, 2007, and Dr. Mark Weber and Dr. Henry “Trae” Winter III, Solar Wall, 2010, in “Tools: Extending Our Reach” at Cooper Hewitt, New York, 2014.  © 2014 Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. Photo by Matt Flynn. Courtesy of Cooper Hewitt.

Recent career highlight: “Access+Ability,” Cooper Hewitt

Favorite show seen lately: “Manus x Machina,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, curated by Andrew Bolton

Cara McCarty concentrates particularly on contemporary design issues, and points to her 1988 Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Designs for Independent Living”—which focused on products intended for people with disabilities—as a turning point in her career. McCarty explained that through that show and others, she’s aimed to “[make] visible what was in front of our eyes, but in new ways.”

Following a fruitful career at the Saint Louis Art Museum, McCarty has devoted herself for the past 11 years to Cooper Hewitt’s curatorial efforts in modern and contemporary design. There, she’s continued the work that the aforementioned 1988 exhibition at MoMA began. Her exhibition “Access+Ability,” currently on view at Cooper Hewitt, features innovative designs of the past decade, including life-enhancing products that have fostered greater accessibility and inclusivity (examples include jewelry that doubles as a wearable navigation system for the blind, and a shirt intended for the deaf that translates music into a physical experience on the skin). The show also aligns with McCarty’s broader interest in the “dimensions of human creativity” and the creative process.


Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo by Anthony DePanise, Office of the Governor of Maryland. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo © Jeffrey Totaro 2018. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo © Jeffrey Totaro 2018. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo © Jeffrey Totaro 2018. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo by Anthony DePanise, Office of the Governor of Maryland. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum.

Installation view of “1 West Mount Vernon Place” at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, 2018. Photo © Jeffrey Totaro 2018. Courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

Recent career highlight: The reinstallation and reinterpretation of 1 West Mount Vernon Place, Walters Art Museum

Favorite show seen lately: “Murder Is Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., curated by Nora Atkinson

“Perhaps out of necessity, museums are turning toward their own collections as sources for exhibitions, with some really creative results,” Eleanor Hughes said of the present moment. For her part, Hughes has been the curator at the helm of the Walters’s major reinstallation of its collection in a historic 19th-century mansion in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon neighborhood. Her research into the property—which belonged to the city before it was gifted to the museum—surfaced tales of Baltimore history, dating back to the nation’s beginnings.

While spotlighting the local community and its history, Hughes has leveraged the museum’s global collection—for example, the inaugural exhibition features ceramics ranging from prehistoric figurines from Anatolia to 18th-century Chinese vessels. The experience is complemented by an app that provides interactive didactics to help viewers learn more about the house and its contents. The app “also assists in bringing multiple perspectives to bear in telling stories—whether of people, works of art, or entire buildings—by allowing multiple voices to be heard,” Hughes explained.“Technology ultimately ought to enhance visitors’ experiences of the objects on display.”


Installation view of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia at the British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Installation view of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia at the British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Installation view of the Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia at the British Museum, London. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Installation view of “Virtual pilgrimage: reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati” at the British Museum, London, 2017. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

One of two sides of a relief from the Great Shrine of Amaravati, evoking the Buddha’s presence symbolically as an empty throne, a Bodhi tree and a pair of footprints. Andhra Pradesh, India, c. 50 B.C. © The Trustees of the British Museum. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Recent career highlight: Curating the late medieval to modern South Asia displays in the new Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery for China and South Asia, British Museum

Favorite show seen lately: “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power,” Tate Modern, London, curated by Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley

Imma Ramos has carved out a specialty at the intersection of religion, politics, and gender in South Asian visual culture. Last summer, she curated the exhibition “Virtual Pilgrimage: Reimagining India’s Great Shrine of Amaravati” at the British Museum, which delved into the ancient inscriptions that identified the donors behind the shrine’s creation (the roster included everyone from a perfumer to a Buddhist nun). Those individuals were brought to life by actors in footage projected onto gallery walls using new technology developed by Google Creative Lab, enabling visitors to interact with these historical figures using their phones.

In terms of the broader museum landscape, Ramos is interested in the societal pressures many museums are facing to “decolonize” their collections. Earlier this year, she co-organized “Exhibiting the Experience of Empire,” a symposium on the topic, where “speakers stressed the need for alternative perspectives on European imperialism and transparent approaches to collecting histories,” she explained. Ramos noted that next year, she hopes to work with colleagues at the British Museum to develop an exhibition wherein the institution will reflect on Britain’s imperial past through its objects.


Still of Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, created for “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, 2017. Courtesy of Preloaded and Tate.

Still of Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, created for “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, 2017. Courtesy of Preloaded and Tate.

Still of Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier, created for “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, 2017. Courtesy of Preloaded and Tate.

Installation view of “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, London, 2017-18. Photo by Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley. © Tate. Courtesy of Tate.

Installation view of “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, London, 2017-18. Photo by Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley. © Tate. Courtesy of Tate.

Installation view of “Modigliani” at Tate Modern, London, 2017-18. Photo by Seraphina Neville and Andrew Dunkley. © Tate. Courtesy of Tate.

Recent career highlight: “Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy,” Tate Modern, London

Favorite show seen lately: “Cézanne’s Portraits,” National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; National Portrait Gallery, London; and Musée d’Orsay, Paris, curated by John Elderfield, Mary Morton, and Xavier Rey

While curating “Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor” at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2014, Nancy Ireson worked with experts to integrate digital technology into the exhibition space for the first time—implementing interactive touchscreens, allowing viewers to zoom in to see evidence of the artist’s fine technical process. “It opened my mind to new ways of communicating research,” Ireson said. Just a few years later, she would introduce virtual reality to Tate Modern’s exhibition design and help launch “Modigliani VR: The Ochre Atelier,” which allowed visitors to virtually explore the modern master’s Paris studio.

After co-curating Tate Modern’s “Picasso 1932: Love, Fame, Tragedy” exhibition—which carefully parsed through the prolific artist’s legendary output during a single, pivotal year—Ireson is assuming a new post, stateside, at the helm of the Barnes Foundation’s curatorial team. She points to the trend towards more user-led museum experiences as an exciting development in exhibition-making broadly, nodding to the Max Ernst Museum’s augmented-reality app that allows visitors to engage with a Joan Miró sculpture. Ireson is also supportive of developments that make museums more accessible—such as sign language-based exhibition tours that are broadcasted on social media channels like Facebook Live, which the Met recently did for its Auguste Rodin show.


Kami bharni-gouache on paper, 18th century. © National Museum, Delhi. Courtesy of Europalia, India.

The Universe and the terrestial sphere. Photo by Hock Khoe. © National Museum, New Delhi. Courtesy of Europalia, India.

The Nativity of Mary, Mughal miniature, ca. 1725. © National Museum, Delhi. Courtesy of Europalia, India.

Jain cosmogram, 17th century. Photo by Hock Khoe. © National Museum, New Delhi. Courtesy of Europalia, India.

Kubera Stone Kushana, 2nd century. Photo by Hock Khoe. © National Museum, New Delhi.  Courtesy of Europalia, India.

Recent career highlight: “India and the World,” a collaboration between the CSMVS, Mumbai; the National Museum, Delhi; and the British Museum, London, 2017–18

Favorite show seen lately: “Hilma af Klint: Painting the Unseen,” Serpentine Galleries, London, curated by Serpentine Galleries and Daniel Birnbaum; “Beyond the Nile: Egypt and the Classical World,” Getty Center, Los Angeles, curated by Timothy Potts, Jeffrey Spier, and Sara E. Cole

Naman Ahuja’s curatorial work has seen him delve into topics like Indian sculpture at temples and stupas, medieval Indian Ragamala paintings, and terracotta plaques from antiquity. A running thread through his exhibitions, he surmised, is iconography, and how visual aesthetics can serve as a means of communication among individual artists or within a whole society.

In 2013, Ahuja curated the acclaimed exhibition “The Body in Indian Art and Thought” at the Europalia International Arts Festival, held in the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels. Deemed a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition, Ahuja dove into themes of religion and sensuality by presenting rare and striking works that spanned 4,000 years of Indian art, loaned from the nation’s public and private collections. (He navigated much bureaucratic red tape in order to bring it all to Brussels.)

Most recently, Ahuja co-curated “India and the World,” a celebration of India’s 70 years of independence and a remarkable collaborative effort among Indian institutions and the British Museum, which opened in May. The show covers over 1 million years of history, divided into nine overarching stories told through 200 objects—including a brick from one of the world’s first cities, an iconic sculpture of a Roman discus thrower, and cooking pots that are thousands of years old.


Peter Paul Rubens, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden, 1620. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.

Installation view of “Rubens. Painter of Sketches” at Museo del Prado, Madrid, 2018. Photo © Museo Nacional del Prado. Courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado.

Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Synders, The Recognition of Philopoemen, c. 1609-10. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Jan Cossiers, Prometheus, ca. 1636-38. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Three Graces, c. 1630. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Descent from the Cross, 1611-13. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Peter Paul Rubens, The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, c. 1618-20. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen.

Recent career highlight: “Rubens. Painter of Sketches” at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen

Favorite show seen lately: “Campo Cerrado: Spanish Art 1939–1953,” Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, curated by Dolores Jiménez-Blanco Carrillo de Albornoz

Friso Lammertse has built a reputation around revelatory exhibitions on Flemish and Netherlandish Old Masters, from an in-depth look at what inspired a young Anthony van Dyck to a playful overview of paintings of leisure and debauchery by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Most recently, the exhibition he co-curated of Peter Paul Rubens’s oil sketches provides an unprecedented window into the experimental, preparatory phases of the artist’s process.

The curator feels a clear duty to respect the museum’s visitors, and to raise questions and ideas for them to grapple with. “Certainly with Old Master shows, it often seems that museums think their visitors are complete dummies,” Lammertse said. “In that respect, we could learn from contemporary art exhibitions, in which visitors are at least taken seriously as people who can think and look.” He doesn’t, however, subscribe to the popular strategy of showing contemporary art alongside historic works. “In most cases, the juxtapositions are such that the meaning of both the Old Master paintings and the contemporary works become as flat as a pancake,” Lammertse said. Old Masters can stand on their own, he noted, presenting opportunities to see how art has evolved, while also raising ample opportunities for discussion and criticism.


Installation view of “Cagnacci’s ‘Repentant Magdalene’: An Italian Baroque Masterpiece from the Norton Simon Museum” at The Frick Collection, New York, 2016-17. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of The Frick Collection.

Installation view of “Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection, New York, 2018. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of The Frick Collection.

Installation view of “Canova’s George Washington” at The Frick Collection, New York, 2018. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of The Frick Collection.

Installation view of Paolo Veronese, The Adoration of the Kings, 1573, in “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” at the National Gallery, London, 2014. © The National Gallery, London. Courtesy of the National Gallery, London.

Installation view of “Murillo: The Self-Portraits” at The Frick Collection, New York, 2017-18. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of The Frick Collection.

Recent career highlight: “Canova’s George Washington,” The Frick Collection

Favorite show seen lately: “The Paston Treasure: Microcosm of the Known World,” Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, curated by Andrew Moore, Nathan Flis, Edward Town, and Francesca Vanke

In 2014, Xavier F. Salomon became the Frick Collection’s chief curator at the age of 34. With a Ph.D. from London’s Courtauld Institute (like several other curators on this list) and posts at such esteemed institutions as London’s National Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and the Met, Salomon has honed expertise in Venetian 16th-century painting, and is a leading scholar on Paolo Veronese.

Salomon believes that small, focused exhibitions are where the most interesting developments are happening in museums today. “I always prefer an exhibition with a small number of objects but with a lot to say, than endless blockbusters that have nothing new to say,” he explained. This preference is manifested through the curator’s recent exhibitions, including a clever show of self-portraits by Spanish 17th-century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo that examined the artist’s sense of self; and the Frick’s current show, Canova’s George Washington,” which revives the little-known story of a commissioned sculpture of the first U.S. president by Antonio Canova.


Unknown, Coffered Ceiling from the Temple of Transforming Wisdom (Zhihuasi), Beijing, c. 1444. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

iPad interactive application, “Zhihuasi Temple Ceiling.” Photo by Joseph Hu. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Forms of Elegance: Chinese Ceramics” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2014. Photo by Constance Mensh. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  

Recent career highlight: The reinstallation of a permanent gallery of Song dynasty ceramics at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Favorite show seen lately: “The World is Sound,” Rubin Museum, New York, curated by Risha Lee; “Beyond Compare,” Bode Museum, Berlin, curated by Julien Chapuis, Jonathan Fine, and Paola Ivanov

Hiromi Kinoshita’s mission is to make Chinese art and culture accessible to the public. Her résumé includes major exhibitions like 2005’s “China: The Three Emperors (1662–1795)” at the Royal Academy, which brought together nearly 400 objects from Beijing’s Palace Museum.

Recently, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), Kinoshita reinstalled a permanent gallery of Song dynasty ceramics and, alongside them, hung large-scale monochromatic photographs by Eric Zetterquist that zoomed in on specific details of them. “I wanted to draw attention to the simple and elegant forms of the ceramics, as during this period, the aesthetic was form over decoration,” Kinoshita said. Another recent innovative addition to the galleries was an interactive screen that allowed viewers to explore the details of a 15th-century Chinese Buddhist temple ceiling, to convey “how much time and effort was put into creating a work that, in effect, was never meant to be seen up close.”

This line of thinking will continue as Kinoshita works with a team of interpreters, educators, designers, conservators, and other staff to reinstall the PMA’s Chinese galleries for the first time in decades. (They’re set to reopen in early 2019.) “We have an amazing collection, and the aim is to make it more accessible to a diverse audience by engaging their senses in attractive, meaningful thematic displays that highlight narratives important to Chinese art and culture,” she said.


Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

La Grande Odalisque, 1814

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Sandro Botticelli, Scenes from The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti, 1483.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

David vencedor de Goliat (David with the Head of Goliath), 1598-1599

"Caravaggio and the Painters of the North" at Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Napoleon on his imperial throne, 1806

Musee des Beaux-Arts, Rennes

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Louis Francois Bertin, Publisher, 1832

Musée du Louvre, Paris

Recent career highlights: “Ingres” and “The Other’s Gaze. Spaces of Difference,” Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Favorite show seen lately: “The Spectacular Second Empire, 1852–1870,” Musée d’Orsay, Paris, curated by Guy Cogeval, Yves Badetz, and Paul Perrin

“Museums are integrated throughout society and those who work in them have the responsibility to address all audiences,” Carlos G. Navarro said. Curators have the responsibility, he added, to confront museum-goers with new, unfamiliar questions, but also to “show them realities they do not know, excite their imagination, and finally, make them enjoy.”

Navarro aims to address contemporary sensibilities through classical art that resonates with current events and issues. The 2017 exhibition he co-curated at the Museo Nacional del Prado, “The Other’s Gaze. Spaces of Difference,” highlighted works from the major Spanish museum’s collection that feature homosexuality, or were made or commissioned by homosexual individuals. The exhibition provided a fresh and refreshing perspective on the world-renowned collection, including works by Caravaggio, Peter Paul Rubens, and José de Ribera.


Installation view of “Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017-18. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017-18. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017-18. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017-18. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Installation view of “Painted in Mexico, 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2017-18. Photo © Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Recent career highlight: “Painted in Mexico: 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici,” LACMA; Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., Mexico City; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Favorite show seen lately: “Rubens. Painter of Sketches,” Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, curated by Friso Lammertse and Alejandro Vergara

“In all my exhibitions, I strive to maintain academic rigor and clarity to reach as wide an audience as possible,” Ilona Katzew explained. “Simplicity can be deceiving and difficult to achieve, and is often the result of a highly thoughtful and belabored process.”

Katzew specializes in Latin American art ranging from the viceregal period (when the region was under Spanish rule) to the present, with a focus on the 18th-century art of New Spain (Mexico). The first exhibition she organized in 1996, “New World Orders: Casta Painting and Colonial Latin America,” centered on a unique genre that portrays the interracial relationships among Amerindians, Spaniards, and Africans after the conquest. The exhibition reaffirmed her path as a curator and her desire to make subjects that have traditionally remained on the fringes of the art historical canon more accessible.

Katzew also notes that the trick for large encyclopedic museums, as they continue to find new ways to remain current, “is to strike the right balance between preserving history, being more inclusive, communicating new ideas, and reinvigorating display strategies.”

Her most recent accomplishment is “Painted in Mexico: 1700–1790: Pinxit Mexici,” an in-depth examination of 18th-century New Spanish (Mexican) painting. The show is the first of its kind. To curate it, Katzew traveled to more than 30 cities in Mexico, the U.S., and Europe over the course of six years, examining over 2,000 artworks.


Louis Finson, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1607. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio, magdalen in Ecstasy, after 1610. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus, 1606. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent career highlight: “Caravaggio: A Question of Attribution,” Pinacoteca di Brera

Favorite show seen lately: “The Cinquecento in Florence,” Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, curated by Antonio Natali and Carlo Falciano

British-Canadian curator James Bradburne has long had an eye for unusual curatorial undertakings. His 2001 show “Blood: Art, Power, Politics and Pathology” at Frankfurt’s Museum für Angewandte Kunst was a career milestone; the show combined art and science to explore the ways in which our conceptions of blood has, as Bradburne put it, “changed the material culture we create over the centuries.”

Bradburne’s transition to museum management in recent years has meant less time to focus on his areas of expertise—late Renaissance natural philosophy and the court of Rudolph II. But he keeps his curatorial skills sharp with projects like the upcoming interactive exhibition “Brera Listens,” which aims to involve Milan’s citizens in the Pinacoteca di Brera’s reinstallation of 20th-century Italian art from its permanent collection. This reimagining of the museum’s holdings is in line with Bradburne’s philosophy that it’s not blockbuster traveling exhibitions that will push museums forward today, but rather a return to “smaller and more focused exhibitions closely linked to museums’ permanent collections.”

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