Slouching Toward the Curatorial

(Part four in a five-part series: Introduction, part I, part II, part III.)

Based on my own experience and the comments I’ve seen on content-related discussions of curation, I’m guessing that most content strategists who don’t come from the museum or art worlds don’t realize that there’s a whole field right across the hall (or perhaps in the building next door) that offers processes, perspectives, and a mature body of literature, all of which relate to our work.

My first inkling of this came early in a project I’m working on with Happy Cog Studios and Ralph Appelbaum Associates. The RAA team brought their content development process to a meeting and I brought mine, and we discovered that they covered nearly identical areas—though RAA’s was designed for years-long (and very expensive) museum projects and mine usually takes about four months to get through. As I mentioned in my last post, this kicked off a months-long reading project for me, including not only the official research conducted for the project, but the kind of unofficial, independent research I always do to try to get under the skin of a major project.

What I’ve learned so far has has helped me find new ways to think about my work and our industry. Not by providing a metaphor, a task for which nearly any profession will do: “Five Ways Content Strategy is Like Boxing” or “…Like a SWAT team” or “…Like Making Biscuits.” Unlike prizefighters, ninja-cops, or bakers but very much like content people, curators and other museum workers are engaged in the acquisition, protection, management, display, and reuse of objects that communicate with us, and they’ve been quietly publishing journal articles, papers, essays, and books about it for quite awhile.

For a nerd like me, this discovery feels like being handed the key to a secret library full of fresh-squeezed awesome.

One of These Things Is Not Like the Others

I am not suggesting that content people are or should be curators, but rather that many aspects of our work are naturally allied with curatorial practices and concerns. Our fields are fundamentally different in many ways—not least being that museum and gallery workers tend to handle tangible, authenticated objects with high cultural value, while content workers mostly deal with intangible, infinitely reproducible digital files—but we can nevertheless learn quite a lot from our older siblings who work in libraries, archives, and—in this case—museums.

A thorough consideration of curatorial work as it relates to online content would require far more information than a single blog post—or even a series of them—can usefully hold, so instead I’ve sketched out a few areas for consideration. The links I’ve included are the wee tip of a taste of the things we can learn from curatorial work, and my hope is that they’ll pique the interest of likeminded content people and begin to open up connections to this allied professional world.

Collecting and Managing Content

Because they handle rafts of physical and often precious objects, museum workers must use formalized and carefully considered intake, recordkeeping, and descriptive processes. Most of us in the content world have learned to use good content intake processes because anything else leads to near-immediate doom, but…

  • What about processes for maintaining a real awareness of our content resources over time?
  • What kind of data description, tracking, and reporting would that require?
  • Are there ways we might use analytics, CMS tools, and good metadata to keep track of which assets we’re underusing?

And then there’s the practical question of format and storage. In the last 10 years, I have spent more hours stripping presentational elements out of content than I care to consider, and I know I’m not alone. We may have passed the tipping point for the separation of content from presentational markup, but given evolving markup languages, CMS quirks, and file storage requirements, it’s clear that our content management problems are far from over.

If you always have the luxury of working with a supersharp development team, you may not have to worry about it, but otherwise…

  • Do you know what your database looks like?
  • Does it store information in ways that won’t make things harder later on? Have you considered what “later on” might look like?
  • Is it divided into chunks that allow easy redistribution in other formats?

…and did you know there’s a whole professional field dedicated to these issues?

On that last point, I should note that “digital curation,” as the term is widely used, isn’t a digital “version” of museum or gallery curation, but a highly focused subfield that deals with the preservation of digital data. More tech-oriented content strategists are doubtless already familiar with this field, but I suspect that many of us don’t know—as I didn’t know till this spring—that digital curation offers a very rich, accessible, and practical body of information on the long-term management of content. (The fields of library science and information management likewise—and perhaps more obviously—have loads to offer us, but that’s another post.)

Starting Points

Evaluation & Evolution

Long before web-makers began conducting usability tests and analyzing click patterns, museum workers were producing, evaluating, and revising exhibitions. (Department stores were doing it, too, but to rather different ends.) Serious, disciplined content evaluation that goes beyond split-testing and simple analytics is something we already know we need to get better at, as a discipline and an industry, so it’s only logical to learn from the ways in which professionals in allied fields conduct and use evaluations.

And lest we begin to doubt that our industry has enough in common with museum curation (and exhibition design and evaluation and so on) to make their techniques useful to us, I should note that the same conversations we have about agile development vs. waterfall and iteration vs. planning are cropping up in a slightly different form in the museum world:

Instead of thinking of the exhibition as a building that is planned in detail and then built, one would think of it as a living organism. It begins small, perhaps as a few displays set among others. As the exhibition team studies the ways that visitors engage with this embryonic exhibition, the team starts to invent methods for expanding it that seem likely to be fruitful, in view of what team members are learning about visitors and their responses. As the embryonic exhibition is revised and enlarged—perhaps doubled, let’s say—it is studied again, and yet again it is changed and built upon. The exhibition, in other words, evolves as the team’s understanding evolves in regard to what the visitor experiences and what the exhibition facilitates.[ref]”From Knowing to Not Knowing: Moving Beyond ‘Outcomes,'” by Andrew J. Pekarik. Curator: The Museum Journal, Vol. 53 Issue 1. 105 – 115 (28 Jan 2010)—This journal is paywalled, but the linked article may be downloaded without signing in or paying.[/ref]

Sound familiar?

Many of the evaluation techniques used in the museum world will be familiar to web people who do a lot of analysis, but I’ve rarely seen web projects evaluated with such care and thoroughness.

Starting Points


Having immersed myself in museum-related books, blogs, and journals for a couple of months, I find that the ways in which I think about content presentation have changed a bit. Specifically, I’ve begun to recognize that the movement toward low-distraction design for reading, particularly as seen in tools like Readability and Instapaper, has a lot in common with the museum worker’s attempt to give people a chance to “be with art”[ref]Photo of To Be With Art Is All We Ask… from this article; more on Gilbert & George; Anne d’Harnoncourt on the notion[/ref]  in a quiet, low-pressure setting.

The typesetting techniques used in the tools I mention may have been adapted from print, but the notion of presenting content in a serene, undistracting format is related to the curator’s (and exhibition designer’s) role as aesthetic mediator and realisateur. It’s also squarely opposed to the all-quaking, all-flashing banner ads of our present web environment.

These last two points are not unrelated.

I’m not going to link to a bunch of research papers about presentation,[ref]I will, though, point out an essay on art and distraction that I’ve returned to several times: “Pictures, Tears, Lights, and Seats,” by John Walsh, former director of the Getty. Walsh’s essay was published in the Antioch Review and is accessible as a PDF via any library with a solid JSTOR subscription. It has also been collected in James Cuno’s fascinating and sometimes horrifying collection of essays by the directors of major art museums, Whose Muse: Art Museums and the Public Trust. The essay is excerpted in part, sans illustrations, on Google Books and via Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.[/ref] as my point is that we should stop and think about the ways in which we present our content and the many reader-hostile practices we’ve decided to accept as necessary evils, even when they don’t solve business problems.

What Does It Meeeean?

Though we’ve been doing it for years, the formalized practice of content strategy is still finding its feet. As a result, we are under a certain amount of pressure to demonstrate the value of our contributions in purely economic ways—and that’s a reasonable thing to do, because our work is enormously practical and does indeed produce economic benefits.

But in this period during which our discipline is still malleable, we have the chance to define our work in ways that transcend the purely economic, and in doing so, we can take cues from related fields for whom the economic is (at least nominally) secondary. It’s clear that publishing and editorial work, marketing, library science, and information science are all somewhere on our family tree—and so too is the curatorial tradition as it’s found in galleries and museums.

Looking at these professional ancestors (and siblings and marriagable cousins) isn’t about trying to establish our work as Serious Cat through an appeal to authority, but about recognizing the wonderful fact that we don’t have to invent everything afresh or work in a vacuum just because we work on the internets. I hope that this series, which ends this week, can play a small role in turning our collective gaze outward.

Unicorn looking in window

In folklore, curators may be lured by virgins and the scent of freshly baked bread. (Image source.)

Notes & References

4 thoughts on “Slouching Toward the Curatorial

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Slouching Toward the Curatorial : --

  2. Erin,
    Thank you so much for this series. Curation is the way of the future and the road to success for any and all sites which wish to give their online community the content they’re looking for. As a technical communicator I have been using MindTouch 2010 for it’s curation analytics feature and I highly recommend it. Anyone who would rather their site not fall to the wayside, in terms of it’s role as a place for customers, partners and employees alike to commune for content, could benefit from MindTouch 2010. To borrow from MindTouch’s website– “For the first time ever, content owners can analyze their documentation by quality, aging and customer search behavior in aggregate or by specific topics.” Just my 2 cents 🙂

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