Between the Click and the Curator

(Part two in a five-part series: Intro post. Part I. See also: “Credo: Addendum”)

In the previous post in this series, I suggested that we in web-land tend to use the phrase “content curation” to refer to two distinct activities, and then talked a bit about how we got to the current state of collective hypervigilance about the filtering/mosaic form of content curation.

Today, I want to begin talking about professional curators, what their work might have to do with ours, and how we can get better at our jobs.

I Know It When I See It

As noted extensively elsewhere, there has been a bit of a kerfluffle about the use of the term “curation” to refer to “real-time” filtering/link selection. Before we turn to the world of professional curation, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that we, the web-making industry, have been pretty careless with the term in ways that have—understandably, I think—got up some curatorial noses.

For example:

Content curation has emerged as a new and powerful way for marketers to seamlessly sift through the flood of content available to prospects. Like the owner of a high-end art gallery, you have to sift through the information from across the web and “curate” it to ensure that it is relevant to the customer. 1

In addition to abusing the human capacity for figurative language—seamlessly sifting a flood?—this comment implies that curation is a customer service process intended to ensure relevance. Many professional curators are doubtless interested in audiences, but I think most curators would bridle at the notion that their work centers on the act of culling irrelevant material.

Another post provides a revealing glimpse of what curation means to someone immersed in the jargon of online marketing. Language nerds may wish to avert their eyes.

Content marketing is the hype as it uses content as a currency to get attention of your audience or potential customers instead of paying for advertising. The main drawback of content marketing is the requirement of creating content. For most people creating new original content is just too demanding.

Content curation is aggregation in context. Thus instead of creating content you only have to find, evaluate, sort, filter through the glut of already existing content, then copy and aggregate this content and publish it by your channel in a different format. . . . If you have some creativity adding on your own point of view is still possible in order to have some personal input. 2

If that doesn’t make you twitch, consider yourself uninvited to my slumber party.

Finally, there’s Scoble’s now-famous info-molecule post, in which he explains that just about anything you do, up to and possibly including sneezing into a tissue, is curation: 3

Look at this post here, I can link to Tweets, and point out good ones, right? That’s curation. Or I can order my links in a particular order. That’s curation. . . . Or I can forward those links to you via email. That’s curation.

A curator is an information chemist. He or she mixes atoms together in a way to build an info-molecule. Then adds value to that molecule.

Reading these posts, I can see why museum and gallery curators might reach for their revolvers. 4 The New Curator post I keep linking to includes a reference to a small, informal survey about the primary function of a curator, and the article’s author reports that “not a single person said ‘selecting.’” I sympathize with the desire to distance one’s profession from seamless flood-sifting, but the survey responses did include the following, which hover awfully close to the practice of selection:

Making choices.
Steven Lubar, Director, Brown University’s Public Humanities program

To help people sort through an excess of information/choices and to shed light on objects that might be missed; to sort wheat from chaff.
Kirsten Teasdale, Museum Educator, The Conference House Assoc.

Making choices, making predictions, making connections.
Suzanne Fischer, Curator of Technology, The Henry Ford

If these responses are indeed representative of the field, museum workers clearly do consider prioritization and—yes—selection to be an important part of a curator’s work. Not the only thing, but an important piece of the whole.

Most of us can probably agree that making an ordered list doesn’t constitute curation in any meaningful sense, and I agree with Leslie at the Clutter Museum when she writes that you cannot simply “click to curate.” But somewhere between a grocery list and an exhibition, curatorial skills do come into play. So what’s the difference? Where is the transition between aggregation and something curatorial?

Another handful of survey responses from New Curator provides the missing link:

To act as ‘story keepers’ and to encourage people to interpret the world we live in from different perspectives.
Catherine Manning, Curator at the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia

Explore and create connections that artists, academics and the public do not (yet) see.
Francesco Spagnolo, Director of Research and Collections, The Magnes

To draw connections, bring meaning out of the seemingly meaningless.
Emily Hummel, Public History MA student, American University

Connections, meaning, story-keeping. Yep.

Stories All the Way Down

Maria Popova manages Brain Pickings, which is one of my favorite examples of content curation. She makes a good case for using the language of curation to describe the importance of the ability to recognize interestingness:

Curation is all about pattern-recognition, seeing how various and diverse pieces of content fit together under the same taste umbrella or along the same narrative path, so the guiding principle has to be the sole storyteller with a strong point of view.

And the art of curation isn’t about the individual pieces of content, but about how these pieces fit together, what story they tell by being placed next to each other, and what statement the context they create makes about culture and the world at large. 5

I think that’s an excellent formulation of the curatorial aspects of online filtering-as-storytelling. This sort of content work—that which relies on pattern recognition, storytelling, and the nebulous but centrally important quality of the good eye—is not an analogue of the much larger skillset of the professional curator, but it does aspire to the curatorial. And despite the denigration of “taste” as an element of curation, it does seem relevant: not in the sense of “good taste,” but as shorthand for a particular kind of predictive synthesis.

An Aesthetic Science

Some people can look at a roomful of nearly identical objects and pick the one dress, the one pair of sandals that will sparkle in the eye of a fourteen-year-old girl from Long Island. Similarly, some people can “just tell” which objects will be enhanced through juxtaposition with other objects. Their brains are doing a kind of pattern recognition that synthesizes zeitgeist and history and context and aesthetics and produces something that seems oracular. (Some people do it with math, and that one can really spook the crowd.)

But these processes aren’t literally ineffable, they’re just complicated stories told in deceptively simple ways. Aesthetic “taste” is shorthand for the ability to go straight to the answer without consciously doing all the work required to get there. To some people, some things belong together, and when you put them next to each other, they tell a story.

At its best, this kind of curation arranges units of content into an emotionally or intellectually compelling exhibition that is more than the sum of its parts. In reference to the failings of the controversial 52nd Venice Biennale, one critic discusses the alchemical potential of exhibition curation:

The alchemy of good curating amounts to this: sometimes placing one work of art near another makes one and one equal three. Two artworks arranged alchemically leave each intact, transform both and create a third thing. This third thing and the two original things then trigger cascades of thought and reaction; you know things you didn’t know you needed to know until you know them; then you can’t imagine ever not knowing them again. Then these things transform all the other things and thoughts you’ve had. This chain-reaction is thrilling and uncanny. 6

Alchemy is such a great figure for this process: it walks and quacks like a science, but at the core, it’s all correspondences and symbolic resonance and story.

That’s a piece of what one sort of curatorial work aspires to achieve. And if you ask me, it’s what we should hang over our desks as well, whether we call ourselves curators or bloggers or editors or tropical penguins. Whether the frisson is emotional or intellectual, if we’re not making the hair stand up on their arms in a flash of recognition, we have work to do. 7

In the social media world, posting an ordered list of tweets may feel like curating, but it’s a sad shadow of what curation can be. No matter how many top-ten content-curation skills lists are published, the human ability to spot patterns, synthesize contexts, and tell compelling stories will always be less like combining one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen and much more like turning the symbolic base metals of the physical world into something that glows in the the mind.

Doing It Wrong

Given all this, it’s awfully fortunate that we have access to the world of traditional curation, and to people who have been thinking and writing about these skills and ideas for so long. Unfortunately, we’ve so far chosen mainly to ignore that world, except when we pop up to slander it. From an article on content curation written by someone who works in PR:

There is a certain level of “intellectual snobbery” in existence from the point of view of traditional museum curators (the “purists”). Many museum curators have PhDs in their area of expertise, and believe that it is only with the highest level of education, and many years of research and experience, that one can be a true curator.

Museum curators argue that, when applied to digital content, the term curation is a bit of a stretch, and that content curators are simply filters of information. Marketing influentials disagree and believe that, using a high level of industry expertise, content curators can provide the same value as a museum curator to their own industries. 8

This is what my maternal grandfather would have called horseshit. It’s an unacceptable oversimplification of a complex field that includes professionals with a wide range of perspectives, and unfortunately, it’s hardly the only example of this tactic. 9

If you don’t know what a “museum curator” does, as so many “marketing influentials” (which is so not a noun) clearly do not, how can you responsibly suggest that you will “provide the same value” in a commercial setting? The answer, of course, is that you can’t—that you’re relying on your readers’ short attention spans to keep them from noticing that you’re constructing a straw man, labeling it “CURATER,” and then alternately kicking it and suggesting that you’ve arrived to do its job.

So let’s just stop.

The Moral Obligation to Be S-M-R-T (er)

If we pick three links on a topic and put them in a particular order, then no matter what we call it, what we’re doing is linking. This is what the web was built to do, and it can require a certain amount of focus and care. But if we genuinely believe that what we’re doing is curatorial, we should be ambitious for our work and intellectually curious for ourselves, and try to learn from the people who’ve held that title for so long.

Luckily for us, we don’t have to rely on an dated cartoon image of a curator—or to keep guessing about what we imagine curators do and think—because there are plenty of professional curators having interesting conversations on the web.

You could do much worse than to begin with the online writing of Elizabeth Schlatter, Deputy Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the University of Richmond Museums in Virginia. Schlatter has written several lucid and balanced articles about the response of museum and art curators to popular uses of “curation” by web people, marketers, and other groups of people not traditionally trained in curatorial work.

Her article “A New Spin: Are DJs, Rappers and Bloggers ‘Curators’?” includes thoughtful and widely diverging perspectives from a range of professional curators, and is essential reading for anyone who wants to consider content curation within the context of traditional museum and gallery curation. 10 Here, Schlatter quotes Troy M. Livingston of the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, N.C.:

I think the threat to curators is that if we allow anyone to participate, will that lessen the value of what curators contribute? There’s a sense of resistance and fear perhaps in the curatorial profession because of this. [ . . .] The real difference between this idea of Curating 2.0 and traditional curating is scholarship. That kind of expertise to study objects and put together an exhibition for cultural and education purposes is very different than the kind of curating going on in Web 2.0.

In another recent article, Schlatter considers the ways in which “real” curation (my term, not hers) is changing:

the spectrum of what can be defined as “curatorial activity” is simultaneously being expanded in two diametrically opposed directions. At one end, the word “curate” is being used to describe myriad activities not pertaining to museums or art, while at the opposite end is the increasing specialization of the practice as exemplified by introspective theorizing and institutional criticism as well as proliferating academic programs.

This climate of introspection within the curatorial world has provided a wealth of ways to think about the nature of real-time content curation. Here are just a few jumping-off points—you can expect quite a few more to appear in the remaining posts in this series.

Curators on Curation

The New York Times has a light but encouraging article on the current generation of young curators that serves as a nice introduction to the popular end of the curatorial conversation, despite including the hilarious phrase “taught classes in scholarly subjects like letter writing.” Easily twice as interesting, though, is the article’s superb multimedia companion piece, which includes brief audio interviews and images from exhibitions.

One curator interviewed, Clara Drummond, returns explicitly to the storytelling functions of curation:

I think you have to have an interest in storytelling . . . I mean, it’s sort of an old-school idea about what it means to be a curator, but I think that still stands—it really is about telling an interesting story.

On the abstract/theoretical end of the spectrum, Maria Lind, director of the graduate program and the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College, ponders the scope of “the curatorial”:

At its best, the curatorial is a viral presence that strives to create friction and push new ideas, whether from curators or artists, educators or editors. . . . The curatorial involves not just representing but presenting and testing. It is serious about addressing the query, What do we want to add to the world and why? 11

In a fascinating joint interview between controversial curator Jens Hoffmann and artist Julieta Aranda, Hoffmann situates his work in terms of “temporary alliances” between artist and curator that produce “grand narratives that are bigger than the sum of their parts: exhibitions with an epic dimension, if you will, which reconnect to my formative years as a theater director.”

The relevance of these notions to practical concerns like the relationship between online content creators and the people who want to “curate” their work is obvious. 12

In a 2007 article, Hoffmann is more explicit in his consideration of curatorial work:

Ask 20 people what they think a well-curated exhibition is and you will get 20 different answers. Curating remains a very young profession. It has not yet managed to develop a clearly defined identity, any form of theory or even standards by which to measure quality. This is further complicated by the fact that curating has diversified over the last decade. There are now multiple coexistent discourses on curating that are often not related to one another at all. Many have grown to be very sophisticated and specialized: from the art history–led discussions around collection displays and museum exhibitions to the debate around art in public space, and from the arguments around biennials to disputes regarding the idea of the so-called “creative curator.”

Now that curating has become popular—just look at the number of curating courses offered around the world—in the general eye it is often simply understood as the practice of flipping through art magazines, walking through art fairs or biennials and selecting artworks that will illustrate a clever theme or idea that the curator has thought of. That curating is more complex—something that in fact has a lot to do with experience and the ability to be multi-talented—has not yet reached everyone.

The curator should bring a sense of staging to the exhibition, with the intention of creating a unique experience for the audience and for the works of art. Above all, the curator should have a vision.

I couldn’t agree more.

The Alchemist

Keep mixing, brother. (Image credit: William Fettes Douglas, The Alchemist.)

More Paths

References & Notes


  1. “Content Marketing: Definitions of Curation & Context”
  2. “Why Content Curation Is the New Hype” Note: I have ignored the half-ass line breaks in the original in favor of a more legible format.
  3. Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators
  4. Yep, I’m going to link one more time to “You Are Not a Curator” because it’s such an enjoyable spasm of a post.

    Tangent 1: The original German is more like “I remove the safety on my Browning,” but scansion matters. Lots more on this here. And have some Mission of Burma, too.

    Tangent 2: newcurator reminds me, delightfully, of Albert Rosenfield. His path is a strange and difficult one.

  5. “The Art of Curation”
  6. The Alchemy of Curating
  7. I’m reminded here of Walter Benjamin’s flash of telescoped perception:

    It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.
    The Arcades Project, p. 262

  8. “Content Curation: Bringing Order to Information Overload”
  9. You might suggest that characterizing curators’ position on content curation as “OOZE” is also an oversimplification, which it is. The difference is that I’d be surprised to see anyone take my capsule summary seriously.
  10. The article also includes an assertion I’ve seen several curators make, and which is, I think, based on a misapprehension about the reasons non-curators discuss their work in curatorial terms. Schlatter quotes an independent curator as saying that “The growing use of the term ‘curator’ in other fields, while misleading to many, fools no one who is actually in the industry and knows about the scope of activities that a curator undertakes.”

    It’s possible that somewhere, someone is using the term “curator” to try to ennoble their work or pull one over on someone else, but as far as I can tell, it’s much more commonly used either as a buzzword (a practice with its own interesting psychology) or a means of trying to find ways of talking about newly important activities.

  11. Maria Lind on The Curatorial
  12. See “Why Content Curation Is Here to Stay” for more on creator-curator spats

6 thoughts on “Between the Click and the Curator

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  3. To be fair, Steven Lubar was speaking as a director, where all kinds of important decisions are made, Kirsten said “objects” and Suzanne put it in terms of “connections and predictions”, which seems far more geared towards exhibitions. Rather traditional museum explanations that highlights the importance of particular artefacts. The “selection process” here is one of academic objective reasoning (“This is possibly the earliest hand tool of this type in this area”) rather than individualised preference along a theme (“This cool link to an article about something I’ve become well known for being interested in”)

    My issue that gained a lot of attention is that curatorship is a job with actual skills. Too many “content-curators”, as you put it, are lacking the notions of preservation/conservation for the sake of future generations, requiring great detail to providence and “object biography” (If one is a fan of Igor Kopytoff). Few content-curators have the hardline policy that museum curators have to direct their work on the collection. I suppose that’s why you’re making more sense to me than Scoble by taking about strategy.

    The superabundance of information is overwhelming, so the truly great stuff has to be treasured. More and more content curators simply means adding to that very same superabundance.

  4. A very well-research post. I agree that some curation as we see online and in marketing still fails to rise to the complete definition of curating in museum science. However, as a student of social science, I can still here a high-pitched resistance to what is essentially an absorption of ideas across disciplines. If we don’t believe marketing as a discipline could evolve with ideas taken from a social science, then we sound no different than the neo-classical physicists who thought economics of the 18th century was no better than witchcraft and a sham science for using the term “equilibrium”.

  5. @newcurator: Oh, on the whole, I’m with you. I’m trying to be very clear about the fact that “real-time content curation” isn’t remotely the same thing as what I keep wanting to call “actual curation.”

    I do think that if web people are going to use the term at all, we should attend to its roots and try to learn from the people who do serious curation. And thus my attempt at bridge-making. We should probably call it “high-speed bricolage” or something, but that’s French, so it’ll never catch on in the US.

    More and more content curators simply means adding to that very same superabundance.

    That’s the root of my trouble with most of the marketing world’s approach to content. It’s antisocial and, incidentally, a very short-sighted business strategy.

    Anyhow, my next couple of posts will deal with a different kind of content work that is, I think, much more closely allied to curation.

    @Taariq: I don’t think any marketing or “content curation” work will ever come close to matching the kind of work performed by curators in museums and galleries. Which is fine — they’re quite different things. But I also think it’s irresponsible not to try to learn from those disciplines.

    To put it a little differently, I think it’s our professional responsibility to be both civil to and curious about the people whose terminology we’ve co-opted.

    (I should now admit that I still think Economics is essentially witchcraft, despite my humanities background. Though I mean that in the nicest possible way.)

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