Continuing the conversation about museums and curating the digital world

Curating has become an accidental obsession of mine in the last few months. I’m not a curator. I’ve never been a curator. But lately I find myself thinking (and talking) about curation often; paticularly about whether museums should be curating the digital world, and what that process might look like. This obviously picks up from the paper that Danny Birchall and I wrote for Museums and the Web earlier this year, but it’s a discussion with a lot more juice in it yet.

In response to that session, Koven Smith wondered whether “digital curation” is emerging as another or new curatorial discipline, one that ‘deals with “objects” that are neither unique or scarce. It has its own practices, as does film curation or arms & armor curation (to use two random examples)…’ Yet in another post he continues, asking if ‘the fact that the raw “stuff” of digital curation is not in any way scarce (or unique) eliminates the need for specialized people (i.e., “curators” in the traditional sense) to do the work of curation.’ (Emphasis mine.)

I don’t think it does, but it’s an interesting question. Does it matter if the ‘stuff’ that is being curated in a digital sense is nonrivalrous? What exactly should museums be looking to curate from the plethora of stuff online? Is it just that which relates directly to the existing collection? Or should the goal be broader than that? If museums were to invest time and resources in curating the digital world, what are the unique features that doing so would have in a museum context? Should it be for long or short-term purposes? Timely or timeless? What sensibilities would be involved? And how could museums use a curatorial mindset to connect their collections and objects, their exhibitions, their missions to online conversations happening beyond their walls?

For me, the answer to that final question is the reason all these other questions are worth asking. This is about how museums connect their content, their information, their stories to that which is happening elsewhere; and is about bringing those rich discussions happening elsewhere into contact with our stuff. It’s not just about output; about feeding what we have into the world. It’s about connection.

The Tate’s Digital Strategy starts with a short provocation from Nicholas Serota:

The future of the museum may be rooted in the buildings they occupy but it will address audiences across the world – a place where people across the world will have a conversation. Those institutions which take up this notion fastest and furthest will be the ones which have the authority in the future … the growing challenge is to … encourage curatorial teams to work in the online world as much as they do in the galleries.
Sir Nicholas Serota 20091

If Serota is right, if the growing challenge is to encourage curatorial teams to work in the online world as much as they do in the galleries, then I think these questions will continue to emerge within the sector. Is there a role for museums to curate the digital world, as Danny and I have proposed there could be? And if so, what should or could that job look like? And what skills would a curator of the digital need to have? Would they need to be able to write code, or just to locate and contextualise relevent content, whether produced inside or outside the museum? Is this the natural extension of a social media or a web manager’s role, or is it something different altogether?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject.

21 thoughts on “Continuing the conversation about museums and curating the digital world

  1. I’ve been following the Library of Congress’ efforts along with NDIPP, and there ARE significant challenges to curating both born digital and digitized collections that I believe will require curators with a particular set of skills. Curation of digital collections will allow us to share our collections in more ways via digitizing, and help bring new life to items deteriorating too much to be viewed directly. I follow the LOC Digital Preservation blog, they have a lot to say:

  2. I think there is a role for museums here, but I don’t think we know what it is yet. While I appreciate the Serota quote there, it feels to me like the same bromides that museums have been putting out for years (‘we need to reach out into the digital world’, etc.), to little effect. How many years have museums been saying variations on exactly this, without really becoming a meaningful part of that world? Part of the problem, I think, is that we haven’t addressed this emerging role systematically and within the context of tools that already exist.

    Most museums (with some exceptions, obviously) approach this issue by having curators essentially work the way they’ve always worked, but then putting the end result of that work on a blog or whatever. That just doesn’t cut it. We need to ask better questions like, “In a world where Wikipedia already exists, what is the unique digital value that museums provide?” I feel that there’s probably some sort of value in uniqueness (see Colleen Dilenschneider’s recent [excellent] post on “Point of Reference Sensitivity” for more on this), maybe? I dont’ know. But I do know that we need to address this systematically as an emerging discipline, rather than as an extension of one that already exists.

    1. Koven, I agree. There is this growing sense, for me, that the Web is as much a curatorial problem as a marketing/audience development/education/(other) problem, but as you say, we don’t necessarily know what the role for museums is here yet. The problem is not yet well identified or articulated, so it’s no surprise that we don’t know what shape its solution might take. Having said that, what I think we are talking about is trying to put the museum’s mission more naturally into the broader social context in which the work is now found, beyond the institution’s walls.

      I’m not entirely sure that this is something that can or should be addressed systematically though. If anything, I think it needs almost the opposite approach, with people in different institutions trying things quite experimentally in order to start to come to grips with what might work, or what a solution could be. I like watching the way the gang at Cooper-Hewitt have been thinking about these questions, but I want to see other institutions try things in a completely different way too.

      1. Fair enough. “Systematic” probably wasn’t the right word choice–maybe “rigorous” would be better. I just want to make sure that merely by using the word “curator” we’re not already making assumptions about the way this emerging discipline works that may or may not actually be true.

        An example of one such assumption, and one which I (mostly unsuccessfully) tried to get at in the brief post you mention above, is that the “curator” is even a single person in this context. If the quote-unquote objects are, as you say, nonrivalrous, it might be that the curator role is actually a collectivist role (as the ‘editor’ role essentially is with Wikipedia), rather than a specialized one contained within a single person.

        Related to this, I think there’s something to the fact that Tha Internets makes it relatively trivial to become well-versed on a topic quickly (or to become, as Patton Oswalt says, “weak otakus”). Research is basically trivial now–it’s no longer a specialist designation. So given that, the curatorial role now has to provide more than just the fruits of laborious research. The question is what exactly that “more” is.

  3. One aspect that requires non-traditional skills is demonstrating the authenticity of the object. Digital objects are so easily copied and manipulated how do you know that what you are looking at us in any sense original?

    1. David, thanks. My first reaction when reading your comment was that maybe digital objects don’t have to be original in anything like the way we understand the term with physical objects. But your point about manipulation is an interesting one. Hmm.

      1. Original is perhaps best thought of as an accurate representation of the maker’s intentions. It may be that the digital object has had to be changed in some ways (migrated to a new file format perhaps) in order to be displayed on new IT hardware where the original hardware has become obsolete and is impractical to support. Sometimes emulation may be useful, but perhaps an artist has made use of some “feature” of the original system that an emulator can’t replicate.

  4. Suse, thanks for continuing to worry this bone. I felt like the discussion at MW2013 was inconclusive, and became a bit abstract. But here you’re on to something real: “How could museums use a curatorial mindset to connect their collections and objects, their exhibitions, their missions to online conversations happening beyond their walls?” (I’m also a bit less cynical than Koven, and think Nick Serota is on to the same thing.)

    We were speaking about very similar points in an @NAMExhibitions Twitter chat last week re #meaningmaking which has been Storified here: In that context, it was initially about connecting a portrait gallery with visitors on-site through a digital drawing activity that makes it real in their lives. Whether it’s onsite or online, the meaning-making impulse is about making it personal–taking the abstract or culturally validated “treasure” and seeing how it affects *me, now* — or beyond the selfie impulse, how it impacts an issue *I* care about.

    See, for example the parts of the conversation between Sean Olson @olson510 @nealstimler @erinblasco @danamuses and @Cadir1 about to filter or not to filter, and Sean’s emphasis on the museum’s obligation to both filter and add context, not just reflect back. I agree with his take, and it leads us very much in a curatorial direction… Of course curatorial and editorial end up merging in this kind of online text space!

  5. Suse – The Masters Program I am in just announced a certificate in Digital Curation, although the description seems more along the lines of digital archiving and digital collection management:

    Museums and cultural heritage institutions worldwide have recognized the need to digitize their collection records and images for several decades. The advent of the World Wide Web has increased the urgency of this effort to make collections, exhibitions, and other resources accessible over the Internet. Museums worldwide are now routinely digitizing all collection objects as they are acquired and loaned, not only for access, but also as documentation in the event of loss, damage or theft. Increasingly, museums are acquiring born-digital content such as digital media art; historical data in digital formats; and scientific research data. The creation and acquisition of digital assets continues at a rapid pace, and museums now have a critical need for professionals in the field to manage and preserve all types of digital assets, as well as to participate in the development of standards and policies.

    The program will prepare students to:

    – Identify and describe the principles of digital preservation and digital curation
    – Create and assess digital preservation plans and strategies
    – Demonstrate understanding of archival principles of appraisal and the management of digital content in trustworthy repositories
    – Demonstrate awareness of legal issues that impact museums’ abilities to preserve digital content and make it accessible
    – Identify and describe workflows for the creation and management of digital content in museum environments
    – Demonstrate understanding of research methods and critical thinking skills through the supervised research paper

    This seems to be an easier approach for a degree program than actually delving into Digital Exhibition/ Engagement Curation, but I hope delves into digital content curation as well.

      1. Of course! I will be following the evolution of the program (and am considering taking it myself). I am interested in going the digital media towards curation route, instead of a curator moving into digital media, and wonder if others have been able to make this transition.

    1. I think you make a really interesting distinction here Jennifer, you mention Digital Exhibition/Engagement Curation/Digital Content Curation. We both come from the perspective trying to rethink our role and come up with an accurate way to describe it. We think we may be classed under one or all of those areas really.

      It is also interesting to see that discussions haven’t really covered what role digital humanities ( can play in defining the curator of the digital world. The kind of stuff that’s going on at University of Canberra is also very interesting in the context of this debate. The Digital Treasures PhD (spearheaded by Mitchell Whitelaw @mtchl), explores how digitisation is opening up cultural collections to the digital world.

      Nicole and Penny

  6. I love the questions you are asking here. This issue is very close to me since I do have a curatorial background, but have moved solidly over to the digital content development realm of the museum. I find that there are a lot of crossovers between this work, as you, Koven, and Peter have pointed out so eloquently.

    As I read your post, I could not help but think that you are also describing the work of journalists and cultural critics (and even some artists). In many ways, journalists, critics, essayists, and curators all ‘curate’ content. Sometimes that content is an idea, sometimes it is contemporary, sometimes it is historical, sometimes it’s a real object, sometimes it’s digital. So I want to ask how a curator is different from these other professions? Historically, a curator was distinguished by handling physical collections of unique objects (let’s not get into the whole debate about the difference between a curator and an archivist!).

    I love Peter’s examples, and I agree that roles get merged in these kinds of examples. And I have to say that the idea of personal meaning-making for the audience isn’t exactly part of traditional curatorial practice, is it!? More than anything, I see in those examples an agent provocateur/trickster at work!

    1. Jolifanta, I think the sense of merging roles (curator/editor/cultural critic/etc) that you’re speaking to is one reason that this is an interesting question, and part of why I’m thinking about this subject. Do museums need to be responsible for connecting their work, their content etc, to the online conversations beyond their own institutions? Or do we just supply the raw material of interpretation (and by this, I can mean data, I can mean images, I can mean other forms of content), and wait for others to contextualise it online for us? Peter’s point about meaning-making being personal is an interesting one, but I’m starting to wonder whether we aren’t also getting new forms of social meaning-making. Where previously there was the institutional voice, which sat alongside or in tangent to the personal meaning and truth experienced when looking at the objects, we now have a greater possibility of also seeing the personal meaning others have made from the object, and so get a kind of social reading of the object/idea/story. If we Google an object or experience, we sometimes get to see and read the object through one or more frames of reference beyond the institution’s own. And I wonder if that changes how meaning is made and understood, and how objects are read?

      And yes, I love Peter’s examples too. So glad he linked the @NAMExhibitions Twitter chat.

  7. Is this just strictly curation or interacting with the content on behalf of the museum and with the community? I find a lot of elements of a community manager (not an intern) relevant in the discussions about this role. Not new. Just reframed.

  8. My take is that your museum is not ‘digital’ until it starts acquiring, preserving and presenting born-digital objects – and dealing with all the consequences of non-uniqueness, impermanence, and ephemerality.

    I’ll happily give a hall-pass for a few years to any art museum actively collecting performance art though.

    1. Seb, I’m with you. I almost referred back to your post about museums making the ‘digital shift’ when writing this post, in thinking that it’s not something that is going to happen until we start to address these issues of curating and collecting the Internet.

      Nice exception for the performance art collectors.

  9. Danny Birchall just linked to a great interview excerpt with Hans Ulrich Obrist that’s totally relevant to this discussion.

    “the use of the term ‘curator’ has grown exponentially over the past couple of years. It has to do with navigation; we live in an age with an abundance of information and people need guides, editors.
    The big question now is how are we going to edit for the digital world? Because there will be a different way of editing, of selecting.”

    On tagging, and the automation of selection:
    “…It is a huge topic, the notion of self-organisation, and the idea of framing abundances is very beautiful. It has to do with the question of how is it possible eventually, as a curator, to escape the idea that you are a master planner?”

    Read it here:

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