In the 1970s the function, which is not yet a profession, emerges in a favourable context and swiftly defines itself in relation to other professional activities in the arts domain.
The logistical management of collections and exhibitions, ever increasing volumes of artwork movement and the progressive integration of preventive preservation from the beginning of the 1980s paved the way to the legitimate recognition of Registrar as a new profession.
It is no surprise that the first Registrar services, structured and identified as such, appear in France following the opening of the Georges Pompidou Center in 1977 and the Musée d'Orsay in 1986 benefiting from the influx of activity linked to the creation of two major institutions in the cultural sector.
The beginning of the 1980s is marked by a rising trend in the substitution of existing documentation or art movement services by Registrar departments. Areas of activity begin to specialise becoming either collection or exhibition centric while other registrar services remain general in scope. The attribution of different actors (conservation, documentation, restoration, technical services, etc) slowly balances out on a case by case basis relative to the profiles and competences required in each area and in relation to the specificity and history of the establishments.
By the mid 1980s, the status of Registrar as a recognised profession is attested by the number of positions created nationwide and in the majority of major cultural institutions and heritage establishments: Louvre, arts décoratifs, musées d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, musées de Grenoble, Saint-Etienne, Marseille, Villeneuve-d’Ascq, Lille, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Amiens, FRAC, etc
Registrars progressively begin to consolidate a specialised pool of expertise partially drawn from the Anglo-Saxon model. The transmission of knowledge is predominantly passed on by experience and apprenticeships through direct contact with registrars, transporters, conservators, artists, etc.
In the course of this period of maturation during the 1980s and 1990s the profession consolidates know-how and develops expertise which leads naturally to Registrars regrouping in associative organisations from the 1990s onwards.
Such associations seek to attest the professional identity of their members, to promote recognition of their skills, and to raise awareness about the profession both nationally and internationally.
From this point on, Registrars tend to recognise themselves as belonging to a specific group with a strong professional identity, a process culminating with the symbolic organisation of the 2nd European Registrars Conference in Paris on 14th & 15th November 2000.
This growth in activity goes hand in hand with rising institutional recognition of the necessity of the function. Such recognition had hitherto been absent due to a lack of awareness in the sector in terms of both recognising and integrating the professional dimension of the function of Registrar.
Nonetheless, two important developments are to be noted:
On the one hand, national recognition of the specialism with the integration of the subject into the academic syllabus of higher education qualifications in documentation studies. In 1997, registration became an option within competitive professional exams for the recruitment of Research Analysts. The options include either Documentation or Registration.
On the other, the emergence of higher education courses specialising in the profession. There are a number of different Master Degree programmes available today. Notably, the Registration & Documentation Masters delivered by the Louvre created in 1998 and the Masters degree in Registration and Exhibition Management delivered by Amiens School created in 2009. Such qualifications are now required in certain job descriptions.
As much as the opportunity to pursue official qualifications in the field of registration is to be applauded, it is regrettable that the drive for recognition and definition of the profession has stopped halfway. In fact, if the public function of state has evolved in this sense, it is not the case at the territorial level, in which the profession is practiced with varying degrees in status: conservation attaché, conservation assistant, heritage officer, etc. And of course, a number of Registrars exercise their activity on a contract basis and as such operate outside of the public sector.
A balance between the number of young graduates and the needs of establishments needs to be found, as it is indisputable that the need exists. A little coherence concerning status would be to everyone’s benefit. The contemporary art world is currently working on drawing up “job profiles” to define a framework of skills and determine associated career paths. The example would certainly merit being followed, with the perspective of a more general cooperation between the different professions of conservation.