On curatorial voice and the web

Posted on April 11, 2012

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Well, this is going to be an interesting week. Although I have only been in San Diego for Museums and the Web 2012 for about 24 hours now, I have already had more stimulating conversations than in recent months put together. Where time allows, I will shoot to capture a few of these emerging ideas as they come (although time to digest might be hard to come by until the conference ends).

So, first up. I’ve had a couple of parallel discussions with Dafydd James from the National Museum of Wales, and with Ed Rodley (finally, we meet!), about the importance of voice and pitch for different audiences, and it got me thinking of what we are asking of curators (amongst others) when we want them to blog/make public their research or make it open and accessible.

My PhD writing is very different from my blog writing. It is far more dry, academic and formal. The tone and the content are both different, because I am writing for a different audience. Similarly, my early misgivings about the Museums Association UK republishing Can a technologist get ahead in museums? was because the writing had been done for the context of museumgeek, and not for a broader and more general audience. In each case, I am tailoring my pitch to the people I expect to be reading my work.

Frequently curators, and other researchers, are used to writing for a very specific group of other researchers (ie research papers, formal publications). Much as we in the musetech community know each other and speak using particular terminology etc, so do they. This community of passion has a shared understanding of context, and a shared vocabulary, and can talk to the nuance and detail of an issue, because they all have a broad understanding of that issue.

However, when we ask curators to write for the web, we are asking them to write for a completely different audience – and an undefined one at that. The type of language to use, the expectation of existing knowledge – all that is gone. Instead, there is an expectation that the curator can instantly repitch their work, but without a particular focus. Of course, most curators are competent writers, and the change in voice might not prove a problem, but it does likely require additional work and different approach.

Even beyond this, however, by having to simplify their work into a pitch that can be more broadly understood, the nuance of the issue, too, is at risk of being lost, and that changes the nature of the discussion. Maybe some curators could even gently harbour a concern of actually eroding some of their professional standing and reputation by publishing work that is generalist, rather than specialised. (This point is entirely speculative, but it’s something to consider.)

This simplifying of content does already occur in the context of museum exhibition text, but because it is often limited by space, it is also expected to by short and simplistic. The expectation is already pre-set, and this writing exists in the clear context of the exhibition. The open nature of online research is different.

This also threatens the idea we often hear in musetech conversations that we simply need better workloads and content management systems. It’s not so simple as just ‘producing content’ and making that content available, because all content requires repurposing for audience.

When, in my last post, I spoke about breaking musetech conversations out of the bubble, my closing question was How can we as musetech professionals become better translators, and better speak the language that others in the field are using? The question is at least in part about pitch. How can we repitch our conversations so that they are meaningful outside our own bubble? It strikes me that when we argue for curators etc to engage online, we are expecting that they will do the same. But it’s a lot easier to talk to those who already understand your subject than those who don’t, and maybe that adds a layer of complexity.

What do you think? Do you think that this idea of reframing content adds complexity to the question of curatorial voice online? Or, if you are a curator, do you feel there is an expectation to publish different online than you would offline?