I usually walk the designated 10,000 steps a day either in my garden or in the hills and mountains of Southern Austria, where I now live. But, when I was a curator, it was not unusual for me to clock up 20,000 steps a day. But the steps I take now are much more valuable and improve my general, and mental health, “work” steps are entirely different, and they are not always good for you.
I gave a book reading to the Alpine Club of Vienna last week about my book Walking into Alchemy. During the question-and-answer session afterwards, the first questioner asked me, “how was it possible for you to be able to walk 21 kilometres, especially at the beginning of your year of walking?” I admitted that it wasn’t easy, and I was full of aches and pains for days afterwards. But I also mentioned that in my previous life as a curator, I often walked 20,000 steps a day.
Everyone was amazed.
The stereotypical image of a curator is a bespectacled person, sitting still and quiet in a dusty attic room with stacks of books - a general air of organised chaos abounding. A studious person who would rather be warmly ensconced in a library researching some arcane topic than having contact with the Great Outdoors and fresh air, perhaps taking only a few hundred steps a day.
Like all stereotypical generalisations, there is a nugget of truth nested within this myth. In his painting Scholar of Natural Sciences, the German artist Carl Spitzweg captures the caricature beautifully. His even more wonderful painting called The Bookworm encapsulates the attributes of the curator, librarian, and scholar in one comic image. When I was training to become a curator, I secretly hoped that my curating life would be one of patient study and calm.
I was completely wrong about that.
The life of a modern curator is very different; the role has developed. It now embraces research, catalogue and caption writing, marketing, PR, TV and Radio appearances, exhibition planning and latterly, since the demise of the Museum Technician, the installing of permanent and temporary exhibitions. It was this last role as a Curator Technician that led to my 20,000 or more steps a day. These days were very long and often fraught with the worry of hanging paintings weighing 100 kilograms or more.
Paintings are not only heavy, but they are also valuable, irreplaceable, and fragile. They can be damaged very easily. Old canvasses can rip easily, and frames are nearly always gilded with a layer of delicate gold leaf, and under this layer, there is one of clay called bole. Bole flakes off very easily into tiny fragments or into lumps; even the slightest jolt can cause damage. Paintings the size of a wall are as delicate as your average teacup.
Because of the weight and the fragility of paintings, it is sometimes necessary to erect scaffolding before a major hang can take place. And this, in turn, necessitates many more steps. All curators know the term “walking the route” – this is a "hike" through the museum to find the best way to carry anything into a museum or gallery that may be damaging to the artworks. Scaffolding poles are long, pointy, sharp, and potentially lethal to paintings, so that access through the museum must be carefully planned. I remember when I was working as a Keeper of Art in Devon, and we had to rehang our most valuable painting The Children’s Holiday by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt my step count for that day was over 30,000!
On days like these the sense of achievement was very rewarding, and to be working with such masterpieces is a great honour. But, I was often physically and mentally exhausted and sleeping was difficult. I used to have a notebook by my bed to write things down that I needed to remember, and even then, my mind would be racing.
A few weeks ago, I walked for 9 hours on a new hike in Carinthia – about 36,000 steps (29 kilometres) and climbing up 1,000 metres from where I live to 1600 metres to reach the most delightful Hütte (an inn in a log cabin); the longest walk and the longest ascent I have ever attempted. I was astonished because, far from being exhausted, I felt recharged and exhilarated.
Since relocating to Austria, I have become a walker; I was not expecting this to happen, but now I am addicted. I realise that there are steps and steps – some of them are really good for you and some of them wear you down – so don’t listen to your Fitbit or Garmin watch. Take a step in the right direction and head for the hills wherever you are and whether it's 300 or 3,000 it's all good.
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