Continuing the conversation about museums and curating the digital world

Posted on July 22, 2013


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.