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What Could Curation Possibly Mean?

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My colleague Trevor Owens wrote a great blog post entitled “What Do you Mean by Archive?” This led to a follow-up discussion where I publicly announced on Facebook that I wanted to write about the term “curation.”  Its seemingly widespread use in popular culture in the past 4-5 years has fascinated me.

Curated, photo by Leslie Johnston
Curated, photo by Leslie Johnston

Every time I get a new device I need to teach the spell checker “curate” and “curation.”  In fact, I just had to add “curation” to this blog software dictionary.  So even my email and word processor dictionaries do not know what these words mean.  So why is it everywhere?

I have seen “curated” collections at retail shops. On web sites. In magazines. In the names of companies.  I have seen curated menus. I don’t mean collections of menus – I mean a menu describing the meal as “curated.”  Social media is curated into stories.  Music festivals are curated.  Brands are now curated. There is a great “Curating the Curators” tumblr that documents encounters with the many varied uses of the terms.  And I cannot fail to mention the fabulous meta “Curate Meme” tumblr, “Where Curators Curate Memes about Curation. Where will the absurdity of our use of the term Curation go next?.”

Apparently we are in the age of “Curated Consumption.” Or of “Channelization.”

The most famous discourse on this topic is Pete Martin’s “You Are Not a Curator,” originally written for (now seemingly defunct).  For a great general discussion on this, read the Chicago Tribune piece “Everybody’s a Curator.”  The Details article “Why Calling Yourself a Curator is the New Power Move” is an interesting take on personal brand management. Perhaps most interesting is “The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators,” a guide for people interested in becoming a real-time blogger/curator.  My colleague Butch has already weighed in on digital curation versus stewardship.  But what is it we really mean when we say curation?

Curation is Acquisition

My academic introduction to the concept of curation came in my initial museums studies courses when I was an undergraduate. I was taught that curation was an act of selection, one of understanding the scope of a collection and a collection development policy, seeing the gaps in the collection and selectively acquiring items to make the collection more comprehensive and/or focused in its coverage. In this a curator is considering and appraising, researching, contextualizing and selecting, constantly searching and refining.  The curator is always auditing the collection and reappraising the items, refining the collection development policy as to its scope.

Curation is Exhibition

I think my first understanding of the word curation came as a museum-going child, when I realized that an actual person was responsible for the exhibits. I came to understand that someone identified a context or message that one wanted to present, and brought together a set of objects that represented a place or time or context, or provided examples to illustrate a point. The exhibition wall texts and labels and catalog and web site are carefully crafted to contextualize the items so they do not appear to be a random selection.  These are acts of conceptualization, interpretation and transformation of objects into an illustration, making the objects and the message accessible to a wide audience. In some cases, curators are transforming objects, some of which may seem quite mundane, into objects of desire through exhibition, by showcasing their cultural value.

Curation is Preservation

In a preservation context, curation is the act of sustaining the collection. Curation is about the storage and care of collections, sometimes passive and sometimes active. The more passive activity is one where items have been stored (ingested) in the safest long-term manner that ensures they require as little interaction as possible for their sustainability, while having an inventory in place so that you always know what you have and where and what it is.

In the more active act of auditing and reappraising a collection, the curator will always be looking for  issues in the collections, such as items exhibiting signs of deterioration or items that no longer meet the scope of the collection. In this curation is the progression of actions from auditing to reappraisal to taking some sort of preservation action, or perhaps de-accessioning items that no longer meet the collection criteria or require care that cannot be provided.

For those of us in the federal sphere, there is this commentary on the definition of curator from a blog post by Steven Lubar, a former curator at the National Museum of American History:

“The official OPM “position classification standard” [pdf] for curators is not of much use. It was written in 1962, and states that “Moreover, unlike library science, the techniques of acquisitioning, cataloging, storing, and displaying objects, and the methods of museum management have not been standardized into formal disciplines and incorporated into formal college courses of training and education.” Shocking, really; someone should update this.”

And what about digital curation? My colleague Doug Reside has written the most succinct description of what it is we do. And the Digital Curation Centre has a great brief guide to the activities and life cycle of digital curation.

How do I feel about what some call the appropriation of these terms?  On one side I dislike the use, as it seems that everyone thinks that they are a curator, which might dilute the professional meaning of the terms. On the other side, the retail usage of curation is not that different from part of what we do – the selection and showcasing and explication of the value of items – with vastly different criteria of course.

And people may indeed curate aspects of their own lives, auditing and reviewing and sustaining and de-accessioning music or books or clothing. So as much as I may get prickly over some uses, they seem to fit in the spirit of the word. Perhaps their use in popular culture will lead to a more widespread understanding of the use of the terms as we use them, and of what we do.

Comments (3)

  1. The Library really ought to add a “like” button for lazy readers like me who don’t have much to add beyond “attagirl.” Leslie, your thoughtful voice and curatorial eye will be much missed.

  2. Great post, Leslie. One thing I appreciate about any definition of curation is that it recognizes the importance of humans in making judgements as to what is of lasting value. Curators capture some things that might otherwise slip through the cracks if we were to depend only on machines like Google’s for filtering and recommendations.

  3. I think curation is essentially a way for people to be able to buy their opinions from someone else who ostensibly spent more time forming them. I, for one, find the whole trend somewhat disturbing, as I have always found personal tastes to be the one area of life in which we always have the possibility of freedom and independence.

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