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A Short Grumble about ‘Curating’

November 21, 2013
Image from Nintendo DS game Zookeeper

Image from Nintendo DS game Zookeeper

During the last 18 months or so there have been frequent occasions when I have found myself griping or grimacing at the use of the word ‘curating’. Until now, I’ve not bothered to elaborate on my reasons for this, largely because I consider both the use of the word, and my objection to it, to be fairly trivial. But I was recently pulling a face at the word in the presence of someone who assumed my reaction was a conservative one. This riled me slightly, as I don’t like being considered conservative. So it’s time to explain myself.

As someone who used to be a ‘proper’ curator — in the sense of having the word in my job title, and with formal responsibility for a physical collection — it’s easy to assume that my objection is based on the fact that the word is used inaccurately. These days, anyone who organises, gathers, or refers others to online content can be called a curator; surely this is irksome to someone who has performed the traditional curating of museum objects?

But this is not the basis of my objection. There is no ‘proper’ immutable definition of ‘curating’. Language is shaped by use, and evolves over time. Etymology should not trump popular contemporary use. ‘Curating’ is no more bound to practices associated with physical objects than ‘photography’ is restricted to describing the creation of images through light sensitive chemicals.

The reason I dislike the word ‘curating’ is the reason I never used the word when I was a curator, never used it prior to becoming one, and have avoided using it since: it just doesn’t say very much.

For me, ‘curating’ is a bit like ‘policing’. It’s a word that describes a broad series of activities, but not much more. All policemen ‘police’, but I doubt that many police officers use the word to describe the day to day activities of their job. ‘Policing’ can cover anything from directing traffic to solving murders. If I were to ask a policeman what she had been doing at work that day, and her response was that she had been ‘policing’, I would probably think she was being either deliberately evasive or aggressively fatuous.

‘Curating’ and ‘policing’ are perfectly useful terms to describe a set of social functions, but the concepts are better suited to describing a role. Policemen and curators perform lots of different functions, and the broad term is a helpful generic description. But the value of that job cannot be adequately conveyed through such a vague term. To appreciate the importance of a policeman in society, we need to understand the different activities she performs. We can measure the value of a policeman by analysing or measuring the traffic she controls or the murders she solves; we cannot judge or even understand the role by considering how much ‘policing’ she does.

In practice, although all museum curators perform a similar function, their day to day activities will vary according to the organisation and context in which they work. A curator at a national or university museum may have a primarily academic role. At a tiny independent museum, where they may not even have a salaried position, the curator may be more likely to be sorting out a blocked toilet than giving a paper at a conference. These are all valuable activities in some sense, and all ‘curating’ according to a broad sense of the word, but those actions are best understood in narrower, more precise terms.

I believe there are two intertwined reasons why ‘curating’ has become such a fashionable term for various types of online activity. First, it sounds posh. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that: the connotative aspects of language are important, and if they can valorise a beneficial but overlooked activity, this can be helpful. But an activity cannot be defended by connotative value alone; it also needs clarity.

The second reason, and one that may seem more persuasive, is that a popular appropriation of ‘curating’ can effect a democratic shift in power. Curatorial knowledge and expertise is no longer reserved for and protected by a small professional elite; it is open to anyone who wishes to curate. Curatorial power has shifted from the cathedral to the bazaar, in a manner analagous to the shift in authority from proprietary to open source models of software creation.

Laudable though this model may be, it fundamentally misunderstands the basis of curatorial authority. Many curators win their positions through prior expertise and years of studying their chosen subject, but their unique knowledge and authority comes from their privileged access to the collections and the associated archives. That privilege is based on the time they are able to spend with that material, and their ease of access. I know this from personal experience. When I became the Royal Pavilion & Museum’s Curator of Photographs back in 2007, my expertise only indirectly and partially came from prior knowledge and study. It was simply having access and time to work with the collections that gave me the knowledge that allowed me to be seen as an expert of sorts.

I certainly do not object to the redistribution of power through digital media, but it makes little sense to describe this as a popularisation of ‘curating’. Curatorial power is predicated on proximity and exclusive forms of access to physical material that is inherently finite and difficult to distribute. As that material becomes digital, and infinitely reproducible and distributable, the exclusivity of access that marks curatorial power no longer applies. Digitisation and open access do not mark a redistribution of curatorial power: it’s a form of empowerment that is alien to the model of curatorial control. Popular ‘curating’ is an ambitious oxymoron.

If I have one, perhaps non-trivial objection to the over-use of the word ‘curating’ it’s this: many of the online activities described as ‘curating’ are essential for networked models of knowledge distribution, but we do them a disservice by describing them with such a nebulous word. Directing others to useful content, enhancing existing media, and making connections between otherwise disparate pieces of information are all vital activities for the dissemination of knowledge and understanding. ‘Curating’ undersells them.

I’d urge anyone about to use the word ‘curating’ to pause. Just stop for a moment and think: is there a better verb (or gerund) that could be used? Is the ‘curator’ really selecting, ordering, annotating, remixing, recirculating, or even just pointing? All are valuable activities and all best served by words that may be less glamorous but provide more clarity.

To turn this example on its head, when I look back on my time as a curator, the activities that capture that job in my memory are not the occasional TV interview or exhibition preview. For me, the essence of curation is lugging heavy boxes of physical objects. A decidedly unglamorous activity, but it was usually one that led to me doing something of lasting value. If I was moving collections, it was usually because they were being prepared for display, digitisation, or conservation. All important elements of ‘curating’ — but all best described by plainer, less ambiguous language.

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