Over the course of a multifaceted career, Cuyler Page has worked for prestigious architects, been a designer-craftsman, managed touring art exhibits, restored heritage sites, acted as a director for tourism associations, and has taught tourism programs at the college level. His passion for the presentation, interpretation and preservation of heritage resources has him currently serving as the curator of collections and programs at the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Victoria.
Being a museum curator, says Page, “means both caring for the collection of artefacts and archives in a museum, as well as understanding and caring for the people who wish to access its exhibits, programs and research facilities. A curator is often also a manager of staff, both paid and volunteer, and that involves caring for the staff members to facilitate their own success in the workplace.”
A onetime architecture student at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., Page moved to Arizona to work with the innovative architect Paolo Soleri, whose major project, Arcosanti, is a master-planned community of 5,000 inhabitants located outside of Phoenix. He first visited Vancouver in 1962, accompanying a traveling exhibit of Soleri’s work, where he eventually moved and enrolled as a music student at UBC before finding work as an architectural draftsman in Kelowna. He eventually decided that being a designer-craftsman appealed to him most. Since it combined architectural theory with the physical act of creating tangible, practical things, he pursued this line of work, while also immersing himself in the art-gallery milieu, becoming assistant curator of traveling shows for the Vancouver Art Gallery. This led to a string of consultancies in master planning, exhibit design and installation at museums throughout BC.
Of all the projects he has worked on, a personal highlight is the 17 years he spent designing and implementing the restoration of the Grist Mill and Gardens at Keremeos, a pioneer site dating back to 1877. “The site layout was conceived as a movie that the visitor experienced while passing through it,” says Page, who proudly recalls that under his management, the mill became one of the province’s must-see historical attractions. It was a tremendous learning experience, he says, particularly the HR aspect of managing a staff of 15. Page fostered a family-like sense of teamwork, “in which everyone’s ideas were respected, and I have tried to apply that ever since.”
A museum curator has many diverse duties. “There’s planning, creating, and maintaining exhibits. There’s responding to public inquiries, because museums are looked on as places of expertise, so that takes quite a bit of time. There’s working on collection management, making sure records are complete. And there’s conservation, which curators like to refer to as the art of controlled decay.” Meanwhile, curating in the not-for-profit realm presents its own diplomatic challenges. “Board members set policy and may be actively engaged in one aspect but don’t necessarily bring a broad professional awareness to the role. For the most part, people come with a passion and a commitment. The important thing is finding out what their passions are and then bringing them along into new realms they might not have thought about,” he says. Similarly, a curator must work to understand his audience, “learning to see things through the visitors’ eyes — what are their expectations?”
Passion is one of Page’s bywords, and he looks for evidence of it in job applications. “As an employer, I am impressed by how people spent their time before they were employed. Getting involved with a museum, even as a volunteer, shows your passion.” Diploma courses in cultural management or tourism are fine, he says, but “young people are targeting museums right out of school and don’t have any prior experience. In my early days, people came to museums from diverse fields and then we worked together. I found that was a real strength.”