A throwdown about the term ‘curator’

Lately, questions about the bastardisation of the term curator have been emerging around the blogosphere. The Hermitage Museum wrote An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet, and Digital Transformations recently asked whether DJs are curators, and vice versa. Their opening volley caught my attention:

The word ‘curator’ gets used liberally these days to talk about stuff people do on the web. But does that devalue the term? Is there any way what someone does on Facebook is comparable to the years of training and knowledge which goes into curating collections in museums and galleries?

But here’s a proposition for you. I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable. Some of our sector’s lingo is making its way beyond the walls of our institutions, and getting picked up by the mainstream in a positive way. If the way people understand that being a cool taste-maker who can select and define the zeitgeist is a “curatorial” trait, let them. If the hip and awesome are associated in some way with museums, great.

In museums, we often ask about how we ensure that we are relevant in people’s lives. But when something like this happens, where an idea that is absolutely associated with us does take on that role, we start arking up and trying to reclaim that space. And I’m not sure we have a right to demand that we have it both ways. If we want to be relevant to people, then let’s allow them to define some of the space in which that interaction takes place. If they want to take one of our words and bastardise it a little, but use it, then isn’t that better than it always being perfectly and correctly applied, but never used?

You will notice this argument has some very similar themes to those we use when justifying putting our collections online. We want those things we’ve spent time collecting and preserving to actually be used and meaningful to people, and so we move them into the space where people actually are – even when we cannot always control the reuse of those digital objects. Why can’t we allow the same thing to happen to our language?

Of course, this idea of “allowing” someone to take over our words is a false one… people do these things with or without us. But maybe if we stop fighting it, we can capitalise upon it. Maybe we can use this as a way to reach new people (“Who is the best ‘curator’ you know? Come and introduce them to our curator!”). If we stop trying to take possession over something we never actually owned in the first place, and instead look at it as a new point of entry for a plethora of possible new relationships, maybe we will be delighted by the results.

What do you think? Can museums use this movement towards curation as a platform for new types of engagement, and to talk to new audiences? How can we exploit this?

59 thoughts on “A throwdown about the term ‘curator’

  1. I think the concept of individual curation is interesting because the value seems to derive from a sense of personal investment and even ownership. Access and interaction with content is either unmediated or gives the appearance of being unmediated and this seems more and more to be perceived as a positive attribute for public consumers. While I am all for designing tools to allow, say, museum visitors more creative interactions with museum collections(heck even allow them to make something), I would hope that the curatorial vision of the museum curator would remain a constant. I still think there is something to be said for the value of experiences that are mediated by an individual with a trained vision gained through years of dedicated thought, i.e. a professional curator. I think it will be interesting to see how museums balance the vision of the professional curator, while at the same time enabling an openness in their collections that satisfies the trend toward unmediated user experiences.

  2. On my phone and no time for a long response but I agree with you.

    Interestingly the term curator used to mean someone who cared for a sick person!

    I think there are two definitions now. A museum curator, who interprets material or digital culture through use of narrative and curators who just make lists.

  3. We have to recognize that we’re in a curatorial culture and it’s something we as museum professionals can be encouraged by and appreciate. We know that individuals will always have unique responses to exhibitions and objects because of their own personal experiences- likewise they’ll organize things differently as well. We can make connections to visitors easier than before because we share this basic common ground of curation. It’s wonderfully insightful to me when visitors makes comparative connections with other objects that I may not have made before. It makes discussion- whether physically in our gallery spaces or in our virtual spaces- more enriching and engaging. That’s where one of the values lie. I don’t see my interaction with our visitors as a one way street, it’s a fluid, two way exchange of learning that occurs.

    Yes, it’s much easier to share collections online today- Pinterest, facebook, twitter, and so on- but everyone curates, regardless of profession and regardless of time, age, gender, etc. (Isn’t it part of human nature to organize, sort, classify?) Today it just reaches more people online/virtually. We hang pictures on walls at home. We have rock and shell collections, stamp collections, collections of dinosaurs, collections of books…etc. But when we’re in a museum, we’re encouraged to engage with our curating behaviors in a much deeper way and that’s where the other value lies. It brings us closer to the museum objects, closer to our own personal objects (physical or digital), and a deeper understanding of ourselves and society. We’ve- museum professionals- not lost anything in our curatorial culture by this ‘new’ use of the term, we just have so much more to gain by this new culture.

    While we can be easily be angered about visitor’s interpretation of date, place, material, we cannot devalue the public’s interest in our collections nor deprive them of making personal connections with objects. We can’t take away their personal experiences. These connections are a foundation for more knowledge, knowledge we want to help facilitate, personal connections we want to help establish, and new voices we want to hear. It’s refreshing to have a new perspective. We should be encouraging analysis, critical thinking, and creative behaviors. We’re not losing our authority, we just have to recognize that the way in which our public experiences our collections has changed. Museums are in transition, and it’s a great space to be.

    I was really interested in this when Steve Rosenbaum came out with Curation Nation; this topic is also very appropriate as I’m in the middle of reading PEW/Left Coast Press’ “Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority…”.

    There are many ways museums can capitalize on our curatorial culture- not just by sharing images of our collection online (that’s a first step) but by being an active part of the discussion and valuing their (visitor’s) voices. With students, discussion about curating can extend into the home and public school life- what does an arrangement really say about you, or the culture you live in? What messages are we trying to share with you? With online visitors who make a collection using our digital objects, we could simply enrich the connections they’ve made by adding supplemental material- if you like ___, you might like ____. If you’re interested in ___, read ____. We can encourage visitors to curate their own collections- assemble objects to create new layers of meaning perhaps even a different perspective and encourage discussions about it- asking others to agree or disagree. We could even encourage visitors to become more like us by add additional thought provoking questions about their own curated collections or engage in a discussion about the history of curatorial studies. We can invite artists and visitors to be inspired by our collection and create new works of art and present them side by side. We can share individual/public curated collections with others. What if we installed a new exhibit curated by one of our pinterest followers and engaged visitors + museum staff in a discussion about how that changes the presentation of the object? What if we installed a new exhibit and presented labels with content contributed by visitors who shared their personal experiences and reflections of the object? What if we engaged visitors in a discussion about ‘what if it really happened during ___ and not during ___? We can even encourage self reflection and ask them what their new curated collection says about themselves or the present society. Ideas are limitless in how we can change the way we present and interpret collections.

    Thanks for raising the discussion, it’s a great discussion to be having right now! -I’m a museum educator at a small museum/library/archives in SE PA and I’m a new reader to your blog. (I also apologize for the length, but like you, feel this is an important topic to discuss)

  4. Rebecca, reading that last bit of your comment makes me wonder- have you heard of TAP and TourML? Seems like the tool might have some of the functionality you are talking about. http://bit.ly/HCx31j

  5. The museum I work for has an exhibit on how to be a curator at home. I think it’s great to encourage at home collection and curation and that definitely extends to Internet collections.

      1. Honestly, there’s really not a space for response and I’m not entirely sure if there’s been any evaluation done on that exhibit. You’ve given me a lot to think about in terms of educational programming!

  6. Erika was bang on – there’s a difference between curation and listing. I’d add ‘authority’ to ‘interpretation’ as the thing that museum curators provide that a list of ‘things I like’ doesn’t have. (Of course that’s not to say that people outside museums can’t provide authority or interpretation, but it’s not a common feature of most of the social media ‘curation’ I’ve encountered).

    So a new word to describe a ‘new’ thing is useful, not least because it’s a shame if ‘curation’ can’t continue to do the work it currently does in describing particular activities. I’m not sure it’d take off, but I came across ‘ontography’ this morning and it’s as good a word as any other. The always thought-provoking Ian Bogost wrote (in http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/): “I’ve suggested the term ontography as a name for creating lists, groups, or other collections of things for the purpose of documenting the repleteness under one tiny rock of existence. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory: it can take the form of lists, photographs, collections, even tumblrs, perhaps, with enough practice. Collection is aesthetically productive…”

    Speaking of language, I’m still not sure what ‘throwdown’ means!

    1. While I agree that a new word to describe a new thing is useful, I’m not sure that intellectual urges can easily have a greater drive than popularism. So if the word curation is being used in the context of someone who ‘makes lists’ of things that, for whatever reason, they find interesting, then I think embracing it and find ways to work with those ideas rather than fighting them is useful.

      Having said that, I had a great conversation last night with Jonathan Dahan about the reaction against the changing definition. Naturally for people who have trained in this area, whose expertise is recognised by their postition, the idea that *anyone* can be a curator could seem quite threatening to their sense of professional identity. It would be like anyone being able to call themselves Dr (in either the academic sense, or the medical sense) without the training. So I understand the angst.

      But I still think that if the meaning of the term is going to change, then we should be trying to capture and capitalise upon that rather than fighting it.

      (And by ‘throwdown’, I meant to throw down my gauntlet, and take a position on this issue.)

  7. I’m not a big fan of the term “curator culture” or its many permutations. When I’m linking to things on facebook or twitter, I don’t feel like I’m curating. Blogging is not curation. Flickr is not curation. These activities are much simpler than that term would have you believe.

    We live, and to a certain extent have always lived, in a sharing culture and we’re not doing anything different now than we were doing 100 years ago. Human beings have always shared. “Did you read that story in the paper yesterday?” “Did you watch that episode of last night?” “Did you hear about Jan in accounting’s trip to the hospital?” “Did you hear what said he would do if elected?” The only thing that’s different about our sharing culture now and then is that now the individual can reach a much larger “audience” of listeners across geographic boundaries and it’s incredibly easy for us to share just about any kind of media rather than just talking to each other or passing around physical copies of media (another activity that’s old as dirt).

    I’m really kind of tired of people referring to every single online activity as though it were another form of “curation” and not just a basic human activity that we’ve always been involved in for as long as we’ve had the tools of language. Technology has altered the means of sharing and the reach of sharing, but we’re still just sharing like we always have.

    So why wasn’t sharing ever called curation before? Why should we call it curation now? What is curation? What do you think curation is? Why is curation in a museum considered less arbitrary than a list of “things I like”? Is it more objective? What does objective even mean in this context? What’s the real difference? What is curation beyond just someone who has studied a subject sharing their interest with others? What, beyond the resources available to a curator, is the real difference between those activities?

    I too question whether or not what’s happening online should be called “curation”, but I come more from the perspective that I’m not really sure what curation is. That’s not to say it doesn’t have any value, but I’d like to see a concise definition of what the activity of curation actually entails. I don’t think most people outside of the museum have any idea really. I’m not sure most people in the museum have the same idea even. I’ve been working at my museum for a year and I still haven’t been able to pry a consistent definition out of anyone. I haven’t gotten a satisfying answer yet.

    @Mia If you’re finding Bogost’s essay interesting you really should read Alien Phenomenology which is where he’s drawing most of his ideas for that essay from. He clarifies the notion of ontography quite a bit and really uses it as a rhetorical tool for expressing a frame of reference more so than an ontological tool for describing objects even though he introduces the concept in an ontological context. In other words, ontography ultimately says more about the list maker than it does about the items in the list. It’s a very enjoyable and thought provoking read. The fourth chapter, where he discusses his notion of practical philosophy or “Carpentry”, should really sing to the DIY-inclined among us.

  8. While I am sometimes troubled, and somewhat annoyed with the concept of a “citizen curator” (it often seems like a marketing ploy), I would say that we should be careful to not reduce content grouping to “list making”. This characterization could give the appearance of denigrating meaningful activity for a large number of people that is ground in active interaction with a diverse array of digital content. Furthermore, while the impetus behind the creation of these “lists”, may not have a coherent educational purpose for a group other than the individual who is creating it, I think that the value for the individual likely goes beyond charting “likes”.

    On the topic of sharing, I agree that we have always shared, but I locate key differences in the degree to which we can amplify our sharing activity, and crucially in the relative permanence our sharing activity leaves behind. Think Facebook Timeline, think Library of Congress Twitter archive. With greater awareness of the relative permanence of our sharing activities, I think the choice of what to share, when to share it, and with whom we share it comes to define who we are- especially in the digital space. So when I look at something like Pinterest I am seeing more than a collection of what people like- I am seeing individuals categorize and continually redefine aspirations as a project of identity formation.

    1. Oh Thomas, what a great point! Collections are about identity formation! How many institutions that we have exist because a wealthy individual with a particular penchant for collection makes a significant bequest? How much of our institutional priorities are driven in response to such bequests (oh, we just got a significant silver spoon collection? We better invest further in c18th cutlery!)?

      Collections are frequently about an *individual’s* identity until they become public, when they then can drive, or at least contribute to, an institution’s identity. So maybe one reason that curation is gaining prominence as a term is actually because the collecting is taking place in public. Maybe the new trend towards ‘curation’ as it’s meant in a taste-making sense is because of the public and open nature of online communication?

      1. Reading these ideas about what curation may be or may not be (and I agree that list-making is definitely not curating), I sought out to find what I thought might be the closest to curation as we think about it in museums. The site Storify.com is the site that always comes to my mind and even then, it’s more in the way you use it. Some might see it as more of a citizen journalist expedition, but you can use all the content on the web and could easily create an online exhibition using its tools.

        Then again, you could say the same thing about many other sites including Pinterest – it’s all in how you use it. For me, I use it personally for things like recipes, but then I also have started to think about what I call “dream exhibitions,” or ideas for exhibitions that would probably never come to fruition, but are interesting concepts to me.

  9. Here’s a quote about lists as related to the New Aesthetic & the article from the Atlantic. Just throwing this in – since I’m reading these posts simultaneously. Perhaps not immediately related, but not so far off, either.

    “I’ve suggested the term ontography as a name for creating lists, groups, or other collections of things for the purpose of documenting the repleteness under one tiny rock of existence. Ontography is an aesthetic set theory: it can take the form of lists, photographs, collections, even tumblrs, perhaps, with enough practice. Collection is aesthetically productive, but a collection that strives to trace an asymptote toward infinity creates obligation instead of clarity.”


  10. This is an interesting discussion. I am not a curator but I have worked as an editor and my research is on editing. I draw a parallel between editing and curation as forms of mediation, involving human judgment and selection.

    I began looking at online use of the term ‘curating’ a couple of years ago. It often reflects a misunderstanding about what both editing and curating actually entail. But I also hypothesise that its popularity reflects a desire to find a term for human selection that isn’t ‘editing’. For various reasons, ‘editing’ is not seen as desireable or cool, but ‘curating’ is. I hypothesise that this might be because curating is associated with selection of visual material, and art, whereas editing is associated with words, and information.

    Here are some of my early thoughts on the subject

  11. I wrote a post about this a couple of years ago. It was my hope then that the issue might have become clearer by now but I guess that was wishful thinking. 🙂


    As you said, this new type of curation, for lack of a better word, has been happening for some time yet so many museums continue to fight for control and refuse to admit that they are not the only authoritative voice. I agree that embracing this change is much more conducive than trying to eradicate it completely.

  12. I’m of two minds regarding the popularity of curation. One the one hand, I agree with Suse that the fact that the general public wants to associate anything they do with the museum profession should be seen as a win for, especially given the current vogue in the field of lamenting how relevant museums are or aren’t.

    On the other hand, there is one aspect of museum curation that isn’t part of the current fad for using the term, and to me it’s the most important aspect; caring. The root of the word means “to care for” which is what curators have done for centuries. We’ve shifted a lot of that care onto new professions like conservators and other specialists, but the essence of curation is taking care of things for posterity, not just gathering them together.

  13. Failing to understand capital-c Curation is failing to understanding fundamental museology. While it’s enjoyable to see people debate about the shift in museums, the lot of it amounts to wishful thinking, as you don’t see these conversations happening among curatorial departments.

    In fact, we still exist in the reality that museums have two types of departments: curatorial departments and curatorial support departments. If I could impart one change in museum technology folks, it would be requiring them to repeat that phrase 5 times every morning.

    All too often those newly-minted museum folk all gather around, have a few fancy grad student beers and proclaim that the World is changing, Curators are irrelevant and the people now have the power.

    These are the same people that whinge constantly about how hard it is to build consensus with curators proper, and how unfair it is that curatorial doesn’t respect them enough to trust them to do their jobs.

    Frankly, I don’t blame said curators one bit – as these folks have made zero effort to understand the the defining characteristic of Museums, (a.k.a. The Brand) IS interpretive output, and that if you take the curation out of the museum, you have an archive.

    While there exists room to allow for user-generated content / lightboxes / etc, it’s foolish, dangerous and misleading to impart any authority on said user-generated materials. To put user content alongside curatorial as equals disrespects the expertise of curatorial, and

  14. There is an analogy to what happened in hacker culture with the term “hacker”. A hack in its original form is an elegant solution to a problem or a quick fix (both have their merits in different circumstances). The media basically took the term to mean someone who cracks into computer systems and this term has stuck. I would find it surprising if the general public knew any other term for the word.

    So like it or not curator as a person who filters content is probably here to stay.

    1. That is an exceptionally good analogy, makes me wish I had thought of it it’s so spot on. I think one difference though is that hackers knew before the term was co-opted by the media that the general public had no idea what a hacker was or what they did. Hackers knew they weren’t common enough to warrant widespread recognition. So when people started using the term “incorrectly” hackers weren’t that surprised.

      Curators seem to think that the general public understands what they do (we don’t and never did, popular media representations of museum curators rarely match reality just as popular media depictions of hackers are more fantasy than reality). This belief that people are supposed to know what they do seems to engender a great deal more resentment among curators over the changed use of the word. I don’t think many museum professionals realize just how Inside Baseball their professional domain really is. The changed meaning of the term “curator” is a result of both sides of the issue failing to understand each other.

      Add to that the fact that much of what curators traditionally did has been offloaded to specialists like conservators (as mentioned in another comment above) and most people have a hard time nailing down just what curation actually is (in the contemporary museum context). If curators want their terminology to be reserved for their purposes they have to offer an explanation for why. They haven’t done a great job of communicating those reasons to the general public. That’s not the public’s fault. This reminds me of the general reaction to the Curator’s Code not too long ago and the dismayed surprise that many curator’s expressed when confronted with that reaction.

  15. I just found something that made me a little squeamish for the way it relates to this debate. I stumbled across an ad for “Curata”, which is apparently content curation ‘solution’. Their website includes some eBooks, and this is a quote advertising one of them:

    “Do you want to know more about content curation? Our E-book, Taming the Flood, provides an overview of the curation revolution/evolution and what it means for your business.
    You’ll learn:
    What curation is and how it can boost your brand’s visibility
    How curation can increase prospects’ trust in your company
    How smart brands have mastered curation to establish thought leadership and overthrow market leaders”

    This is the type of language that is out there right now, and it’s pretty horrible. But it also shows the power that the concept of the curator has in the zeitgeist at the moment. If marketers are trying to make money off the notion that curating relates to authority and trust, there is something very interesting happening culturally.

    (As an aside, I bet Curata’s discussion of what curation is carries far less of the nuance of the discussion happening right here on this page. However, it is interesting to see how the use of the word is changing and being co-opted by other sectors. How can we use this opportunity to educate people and further illustrate the museum sector’s understanding of the word (and the job)?)

    1. Your last question “How can we use this opportunity to educate people and further illustrate the museum sector’s understand of the word (and the job)?)” was something I had been considering as I was reading this comments. It is a wonderful opportunity for museums and museum professionals to become the “experts” or at least the prime example. But how do we use the opportunity?

      I’ve had a few ideas of possibly museums offering opportunities to for the community curate a museum’s collections. Perhaps it could be a game for students (no wrong answers or game overs?). But I do see museums as possibly leading the way on helping the public to understand the importance of curation and how it is different than list-making or “liking” something.

  16. At Museums and the Web this “curator” discussion also came up in the Twitter stream. It’s one that I’ve seen happening intensely online since 2009, so I made a bundle of links that influenced my thoughts about the curate vs. aggregate debate early on, on bit.ly: http://bitly.com/bundles/cshteynberg/4

    I agree with you, Suse, that reacting vehemently against anyone calling themselves a curator isn’t going to help the situation, and isn’t going to help museums interact with potential audiences. However, I also maintain that curating and aggregating are different things, and even if the word “curation” gets taken over the web, we need a separate descriptor for what I believe curators traditionally do, if they do their job well, which is to add value, to make us thing about objects and ideas in a new and enlightening way. Simply linking to dresses that we want to buy on Pinterest or assembling bundles of links to articles about social media on bit.ly doesn’t make me a curator.

    One reason why I think that this is important is not because of someone potentially encroaching on my own side career as a sometimes-curator, or even diminishing museum authority (this is an anxiety that a lot of museums have that I don’t think is very rooted in reality–in my own experience the public has a lot of knowledge to share, but they also rely on and appreciate the expertise of museum researchers/curators very much). The problem is the kind of language that you mention above: “content curation” and marketing-speak language taking over the curation experience and turning it into a commodity space (e.g. read the Details magazine article in the bit.ly bundle or here for many, many examples of this: http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201103/curator-power-move-trend. My favorite quote: “In its fall 2010 catalog, Restoration Hardware modestly announced, ‘No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.'”). Furthermore, you only need to read any kind of marketing blog to read about how time consuming “content curation” is and yet how important it is to making people consume and to being a successful organization. Many marketing blogs recommend moving to semi-automated “content curation” (how in the world is that possible, if curating does indeed imply adding meaning?).

    What is created is a vapid space where consuming the newest thing is touted as meaning-making, but when this new thing is “discovered” it becomes uncool, creating an ever-quickening cyclone of meaningless consumption. New York Magazine has an excellent older piece called “What Was the Hipster” that includes the following quote from social critic Thomas Frank: “The rebel consumer is the person who, adopting the rhetoric but not the politics of the counterculture, convinces himself that buying the right mass products individualizes him as transgressive . . . The hipster is a savant at picking up the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction.”

    In our individualistic (and democratic) world, so much of our meaning is taken from what we consume–and we see the consequences of everything, even human beings, being commodified (you probably need no convincing, but The Story of Stuff is always a nice reminder of how we’re manipulated on a day-to-day basis to become a cog in a wheel that is destructive: http://www.storyofstuff.org/). The commodification of our places of inquiry and education should be something that concerns us all.

  17. In light of what Ryan (George Eastman House) said “In fact, we still exist in the reality that museums have two types of departments: curatorial departments and curatorial support departments. If I could impart one change in museum technology folks, it would be requiring them to repeat that phrase 5 times every morning.
    All too often those newly-minted museum folk all gather around, have a few fancy grad student beers and proclaim that the World is changing, Curators are irrelevant and the people now have the power.”

    and Matt ” If curators want their terminology to be reserved for their purposes they have to offer an explanation for why. They haven’t done a great job of communicating those reasons to the general public. That’s not the public’s fault.”

    I am still dismayed that museum technologists (in general) seem to have forgotten curators exist.

    Where are you curators on social media? where are they on the project development teams for digital projects? why is so much time and effort (and $$$) spent on finding ways to engage audiences, finding content, creating new narratives…when most of these skills exist in your museums already. Why isn’t the time being invested in upskilling your curators, teaching them to use new tools to do the jobs they already do, and involving them on digital projects?

    If they haven’t done a great job thus far in communicating what they do, then take the time to show them this new shiny communication tool…its called the interwebs…and teach them how to use it…then get them to use it in ways that can benefit both them, the museum, and our audiences.

    I don’t understand why, when seeking audience engagement or whatever, it isn’t best to have your curators right there at the coal face. @museumnerd sent out a tweet at mw2012 that said social media “It’s exciting when a museum tweeter says, “I asked the curator/conservator/educator, and they said [informed answer]” and advised to “Become an access point to the minds behind the institutional walls.” But why on earth aren’t the minds behind the museum walls right there for you to interact with?

    I already know what you are about to say regarding getting your curators online (because i asked curators why they weren’t online and wrote a paper years ago…things haven’t changed much) http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2010/papers/dicker/dicker.html

    1. They have no time. I now call bullshit on this. Yes i get that curators are busy (I am a curator). Everyone is busy. I think you counteract this by showing them the results of work they do online…share analytics with them, share with them the reach their work can achieve, play this off against traditional curatorial goals (ie… I seen curatorial published books that are celebrated as a success for a run of 1000 publications…when a great blog post by the same curator has been read 20,000 times…

    2. They don’t have the skills. Well teach them. As in Suse’s other post about who’s responsibility is it to teach these things to curators…well I think it is your web/digital departments. It doesn’t cost much or take much time to host informal learning sessions about digital projects or media…show them what Twitters is…what Facebook is…what other museums around the world are doing. How to edit a blog post, how to write for the web.

    3. It is not integrated into what they do. Well integrate it. A trickier one that can be challenging at some institutions. Perhaps instigate curatorial digital work into reporting? celebrate the results of work done this way, comments on blog posts etc.

    The use of the word ‘curator’ that is morphing itself into every other job description and activity that makes lists online is not our fight to fight. let it go.

    What you can do though is elevate the status of a ‘Museum Curator’…which i think benefits everybody involved.

    1. I wouldn’t list any of those reasons. We are sharing our analytics. We are trying to show people how engaging through technology can make their lives easier. We are showing success stories in ours and other fields as examples. We are providing training (as much as we can while still doing our own work). We are trying to better integrate our digital services throughout the entire museum in every department, not just the curators.

      You assert that some of us have “forgotten the curators exist.” That’s the opposite of what’s happening. We’re going to great lengths to engage with curatorial departments. I don’t think there’s a single group of people we’ve tried harder to help understand our goals and how one of those goals is to help them with their jobs. But there’s a lot of resistance in curatorial departments. We can’t spend all of our time overcoming that resistance.

      And this education thing goes both ways. If you want a technologist to better understand what you do, tell them what you do. It’s not obvious. People don’t automatically know. I can’t speak for curators or help curators learn how to speak for themselves through digital media when they take a defensive posture and assume I’m trying to marginalize them every time I ask a question.

      1. I’m just speaking from my experience at a wide range of museums Matt. You are totally right, curators need to come to the party too.

    2. This is what I think: there is a fundamental difference between old-school exhibitions on one side, the web on the other.

      The exhibition process basically goes like this:
      1. plan the exhibition (behind closed doors)
      2. produce the exhibition (behind closed doors)
      3. build the exhibition (behind closed doors)
      4. Done!
      5. Open exhibition to the public.

      While web work is more like this:

      1. Plan the web experience (behind closed doors)
      2. Build prototype/beta (behind closed doors)
      3. Open the web to the public.
      4. Test, analyze, make continuous improvements
      (Never done)

      or, more generalized:

      1. build
      2. launch

      1. launch
      2. build & repeat

      The difficulty with involving curators in digital media is, in my personal experience, that they feel quite uncomfortable to do the “curating” in public, letting the audience see & try out the un-finished projects. Also, they feel dissatisfied that you cannot “close the book” and finish a project, but that web pages require continuous attention. This also identifies the main problem with most “web exhibitions” produced so far — they are static products, permanent presentations. In comparison with the surrounding web — interactive, ever-changing — they feel dull and misplaced and would often fit better into a book format.

      As a curator myself, I have grappled with these problem and think that a solution might be found in actually revising “finished” exhibitions, to continue to edit them, let visitor interactions become part of the exhibition, etc. I think communication is changing towards more dialogue and less broadcasting without losing the authority of the museum voice.

      Questions please! 🙂

      best regards,
      Aron Ambrosiani
      National Maritime Museums of Sweden / The Nobel Museum

  18. Wow, it’s getting a might heated here. Some comments:

    Reductionist statements like “museums have two types of departments: curatorial departments and curatorial support departments” are both inaccurate and unhelpful.

    “it’s foolish, dangerous and misleading to impart any authority on said user-generated materials.” There’s a whole lot scientists and humanities scholars around the world who might beg to differ and are actually quite happy to have all the help they can get working with large data sets that are beyond their means to process on their own.

    My own experience has also been that visitors, by and large, rely on and appreciate the expertise of museum researchers/curators very much. In fact, they can’t get enough of it, and, by and large, the people responsible for the interpretive output of our institutions do a good job insulating themselves from that very same public. That’s a missed opportunity.

    Statements like “museum technologists (in general) seem to have forgotten curators exist.” are patently false, since so many museum tech. discussions revolve around the products of curators’ work. Curators are impossible to ignore if you’re a museum technologist. Until recently, the opposite has not been true.

    Regardless of whose “fault” it is that the two groups don’t understand each other, it is still incumbent upon anybody who thinks things could be better to build bridges. What we are engaged in right now is precisely the kind of discussion that needs to be happening at our museums, with a broad group of constituents. How does all this tech hoo-haw help us serve our audience? If it’s so great, how do we get the time/money/resources to do it?

    Less talk, more rock!

  19. A couple of days ago this article “Curators are the new superheroes of the web” (http://ow.ly/amzzF ) appeared on fastcompany. Though the author isn’t taking up this issue out of deference to capital-c Curators, the question of what constitutes curation and what doesn’t still needs definition, in any context. He states: “Curators tend to have a unique and consistent point of view–providing a reliable context for the content that they discover and organize.”

    Much of the discussion comes down to an ethical code (not far off from the guidelines put forth in http://curatorscode.org), e.g. “If you don’t add context, or opinion, or voice and simply lift content, it’s stealing. If you don’t provide attribution, and a link back to the source, it’s stealing.” etc.

    It’s interesting to find that even well outside the museum context, there’s still a notion of an orthodox usage of the term, and a caution against abusing it.

  20. I totally agree with you that a more liberal use of the word ‘curator’ makes it stronger, and dare I say more democratic. I do not think most people are in danger of confusing the character and relative importance of how someone curates their Facebook pages versus a trained, degree-d and certified professional curates at a museum.

    But I think if people can start thinking about the curation they do in their own lives (whether a Facebook page, Pintrest, arranging your collection of rocks on a shelf to show them off) and recognize it as a form of curation, they may get more interested in the fancy kind going on in museums.

    Maybe poeple will come to museum more, or be more interested. Would that be great?

    1. I definitely agree with your point that it could help people to understand what is happening in the “fancy” kind. Visitor studies were done where I work in which people were asked about the underlying theme of a gallery… and most people had no idea that there was one. Our galleries are for the most part chronological, with a theme tying together the works of art on display (realism/idealism in the Baroque, upper class/lower class in the Gilded Age, to name a few). Most people don’t pick up on the theme at all despite how carefully it’s chosen and referenced in labels and intro panels.

      But if you look at something like Pinterest, people are collecting pictures and grouping them within a common theme. It’s not quite the same thing, of course, but I think talking about how you group things in Pinterest could be a conversation starter towards how you group artworks on the wall. Even realizing that planning went into what they see is a step in making museum goers who are thinking more, looking more, considering more, and perhaps engaging more.

      1. I love your idea about talking to people about how they group things on Pinterest as a conversation started about grouping works of art in a museum. It’s using a language the visitors might understand (particularly student groups), and translating what we do into that language. Nice way to frame a discussion.

  21. Right now, I’m reading Stephen E. Weil’s Rethinking the Museum, and there is a section that seems entirely appropriate to this discussion. On page 53, Weil discusses the work of John Cotton Dana, and writes “In his 1917 book The New Museum, Dana urged that museums of the future make a special effort to attract the young and to interest them in making collections of their own – collections that they might ultimately share with the public. This development of the collecting habit, he wrote:
    “with its accompanying education of powers of observation, its training in handiwork, its tendncy to arouse interests theretofore unsuspected even by those who possess them, its continuous suggestions toward good taste and refinement which lie in the process of installing even the most modest of collections, and its leaning towards sound civic interest through doing for one’s community a helpful thing – this work of securing the co-operation of boys and girls, making them useful while they are gaining their own pleasure and carrying on their own education, is one of the coming museum’s most promising fields.””

    With this idea in mind, maybe this idea of collecting or “curating” online – even if it were only simple list-making – can be seen as an interesting, useful and positive thing.

  22. Quote from the CEO of Restoration Hardware (purveyors of posh pretend-old furnishings) in the glossy New York Time Style Magazine, May issue:

    “We think of ourselves not as retailers but as curators.”


  23. A book was recently published and its cover noted it was ‘curated by…’ – what on earth happened to editors!? And since when does Nick Cave curate a music festival? What happened to producing?! I find it offensive because not only have we been struggling for decades to make people realise what we do and how valuable our work is without much recognition but we also don’t get paid properly for it. The use of the term so flippantly, and more frequently, devalues it and curators are no better for it because anyone can be a curator nowadays if they only say they are!

    1. Dunja, do you think that seeing versions of the Mona Lisa or any other work of art devalues it? And is art less valuable because there is lots of it, or are there still social and economic forces at play that make some artists worth more than others? Curators (museum) still have skills and education that they bring to the position that Internet or other curators don’t. The adoption of the word by a broader populace doesn’t shift that.

      In the next day or two, a paper that Danny Birchall and I have written should go on the Museums and the Web 2013 site that you might be interested in. It was a paper we actually started creating following this blog post and discussion, and unpacks the issue in a slightly different way. When it goes live, I think you’ll find it here:

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