A throwdown about the term ‘curator’

Posted on April 15, 2012

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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?

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Posted in: Ideas, Museums