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?

There is a man behind the curtain

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving one of my first ever lectures. The subject is Museums, Galleries and the Politics of Institutions, which is a thoroughly juicy and exciting topic. Colour me excited!

I’ve just started ‘building’ my lecture, but already I’ve had an unexpected realisation about both teaching and museums. Until now, it’s never really occurred to me the extent to which every class I’ve ever attended, and every museum I’ve ever visited, constructs the information and stories within. The message is not just built around what is important to say, but also on what will fit within the limitations of time and space; on what will make a compelling story; and on the personal whims and preferences of the information architect.

This observation is so obvious, I don’t quite understand how it hasn’t smacked me square in the jaw before. As much as I’ve ‘known’ that museums can never tell ‘truth’ since every story has innumerable sides, the reality of that situation had never occurred to me so starkly until I had to create a lecture on the subject.

You see, I want to give the students insight into the historical development of museums; to educate them about (some of) the myriad of ways that the choices made in museums are political; to equip them to start seeing museums and exhibitions through critical eyes; and, ideally, to inspire them and capture their imaginations. And I’ve only got an hour in which to achieve all this.

It’s a big ask. Due to the time limits, I will obviously have to leave out far more than I can include, and the things that I do decide to include will be those that are both relevant/important and that reinforce the narrative direction I decide to construct.

And that’s the kicker. The information that makes the cut will be the information that best helps me tell a compelling story – one that is logical, and memorable, and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples I use in the lecture will not necessarily be the most critical – they will be the ones that best help make my argument. I’ve looked at the examples used by the lecturer who gave the course last year, and they are entirely different from my choices. He and I used the same subject as a starting point, but each of us constructed a very different lecture – and a different story.

Yet most students will probably hear my lecture and believe that the information I give them is the canonical stuff that they need to know, simply because of the forum in which it is presented. In choosing works of art to focus on, I will be privileging those works and artists simply by drawing attention to them in the context of a lecture. It is a great responsibility. If I choose (intentionally or by neglect) only to talk about works of art by men, or European artists, or painters and sculptors but leave out video artists, then I too am guilty of neglecting to present a whole perspective about the subject… and yet I will have to make said choices because of the limitations of time. Therefore, my lecture is every bit as political as its focus.

Curators too are faced with these difficult choices. It is never possible to include everything when constructing an exhibition. Doing so would probably make the exhibition less clear and less impactful. But visitors don’t necessarily consider this. Most visitors will accept at face value that what is included is there because it was the most deserving – not because it best illustrated a point, or was the only appropriate work in the museum collection. This is precisely why museums are such political institutions.

I have known this at some theoretical level for years. I’ve taken dozens of courses at University and worked in museums for a little while. But it was not until constructing my own lecture on a subject that is so open-ended, with many possible paths that the journey could take, that I gained real insight into the extent that my own knowledge has been constructed around the ‘curatorial’ choices of my teachers. It’s been fascinating.

I think we have a responsibility when teaching people about history – or anything – to provide them with a story that is clear and legible. Without that, they are unlikely to learn at all. But I also think that we as teachers – whether in universities or in museums – have a responsibility to remind people that what we select for such a purpose is not the be all and end all of knowledge, and that the lecture or the exhibition is a great starting point but it should not be the final destination.

And I think this is the ultimate message that I am hope to get across to the students. I am going to use the process of constructing a lecture as a metaphor for the process of constructing an exhibition, and show them that there is a real person behind the choices that get made – and that those choices have real meaning. Thus, I think I will finish my lecture with a statement like this:

This lecture, like a museum exhibition and like every lecture you’ve ever sat in, does not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It weaves one story of the history of museums. It leaves out more than it includes.
It is not neutral. It is never neutral.

I hope they get the point.