Although I try very hard not to bring work home with me, sometimes (okay, most of the time) I can’t help it. I just love museums, and so I often find myself thinking about them after 5 p.m.
Something I’ve been mulling over for a while is the use of the word “curate”, and how the phrase has become a buzzword around the world wide web. What does the word “curate” mean in popular language—and more importantly, what does it mean for museum professionals that this word is being re-appropriated?
It was because of the social media site Pinterest that I started thinking about how people who aren’t museum professionals or art historians use the word curate. Pinterest is a site where you can “pin” or save images from your internet travels onto boards—kind of like online, public scrap-booking (I use it personally but not professionally, and I’m still not totally sold on museums’ use of Pinterest—the site is so consumer-driven that there’s a disconnect for me). Anyway, although Pinterest doesn’t describe itself as a content-curating site, internet chatter, like this article at Fast Company, calls it just that, defining curators as “individuals with a passion for a content area to find, contextualize, and organize information.”
I noticed more and more people around the internet using the word “curator,” and I found myself thinking, “wait, what?! By saving photos of cookie recipes I want to try, or dresses I wish I could afford, I’m now a curator? No!”
I worried that my reaction was curmudgeonly, a much-too-traditional museum person gut defensive response. And yet, I also knew a bit about what goes into the curatorial process at an art museum—and it is a LOT more complicated than organizing a bunch of recipes into one place. So I set out to think about how to bridge together my museum-loving self with the part of me that’s interested innovation and challenges.
To do that, I went right to the source and had a chat with Mel Buchanan, the Museum’s Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design, and also my fellow blog maven and trusty source for all things curatorial. Mel had a refreshing and thoughtful take on the re-appropriation of the word: What we mean when we say “curating” on the internet is more like being a really top-notch editor. That is, someone who is good at picking things out of the endless internet ether and organizing them into something else. What we mean when we say “curating” in an art museum is a lot more than just being a top-notch editor. But both meanings can exist and live happily together.
As a curator, Mel was flattered that the word was being used widely, as it brings more “coolness” to what was once viewed as a stodgy profession. I’m all for that!
So, what’s the difference? Curating an exhibition of artwork requires editing and “picking things out,” yes—as an art museum curator, you’re searching your own museum’s collection for what would be appropriate for the idea of your show, and you also search other museums and private collections for supplementary pieces. But curating in a museum also requires research, idea development and refinement, project management, budget management, programming considerations, educational training, decisiveness, and even interior decorating skills. (Phew.)
These skills are things that, certainly, some internet curators do. Not everyone puts research and extensive thought into their Pinterest boards, for example, but there are definitely folks that do.
Most importantly, Mel helped me understand that in the bigger picture, the curatorial department of an art museum (including registrars, conservators, art handlers, etc.) is primarily focused on the care of the artworks. The department as a whole is true to the Merriem-Webster Dictionary definition of the word:
One who has the care and superintendence of something; especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit.
There are definite parallels, although in practice the use of the word on the Internet and the use of the word in the Museum are somewhat different acts. After all, your Pinterest board of cookie recipes or fancy dresses isn’t caring for the cookies or clothes in any way. But keeping track of the objects, making sure they’re in great condition, and helping those objects be seen by others are all on a curator’s daily to-do list.
Mel’s delineation of meanings helped me get past my indignant response and into a more positive, excited head space. (Thank goodness!) Ultimately, I think it’s fantastic for museums that museum words are making their way into the vernacular—it has the potential to give more familiarity to art museums for people who aren’t walking through galleries every day, which is of course a great thing. I also think it’s an exciting challenge for us museum people. Can we take this opportunity to hook people in?
I want to finish with some food-for-thought questions—not just for museum people, but for anyone who’s interested in helping me explore the answers. Here’s what I’m wondering…
- What does “internet curating” mean for the already daunting issues of artwork copyright/use online?
- As this casual use of “curate” becomes more commonplace, will our visitors be primed to want to engage more with Museum collections—onsite and online?
- If so, what does this engagement look like? (Is it Pinterest, and should I just accept already that Pinterest could be a great place for museums?!)
- How can we as museum educators, curators, and staff work together to support an environment where casual curating/engagement could lead to deeper, more sustained engagement with works of art?
- Because of this word use, will we see more young people who want to become (art museum) curators? How can we support them in delving deeper than just editing?
I’m intrigued to see what the future of curating—in all its forms—will look like, and would love to know your thoughts.
Chelsea Emelie Kelly was the Museum’s Manager of Digital Learning. In addition to working on educational technology initiatives like the Kohl’s Art Generation Lab and this blog, she oversaw and taught teen programs.