The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Friday, July 29, 2011

On Curating

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
-Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride, 1987.

Attic Alumna Amy linked to an article highlighting the rising popularity of the micro-blogging service Tumblr, whose headline was "Curating Online: Hobbies for Hipsters."

Back in the day, when I was an undergraduate, and people would ask me what my professional ambitions were, I would respond with, "I want to be a curator." Confronted with blank looks, I would have to explain that a curator was the person who put on exhibitions in a museum, but would inevitably be dogged by the persistent misunderstanding that I wanted to become a conservator - because, apparently, that's the only museum job laypeople know about.

So I am grateful that "curation" has entered common parlance. However, this development leaves me with the fear that now, when I say "I want to work as a curator", people will think I want to get paid for a "hipster hobby" on "the interwebs". Tumblr itself isn't doing us museum professionals any favours: its "spotlight" feature is divided into categories of users, one of which is "curators". While some of the descriptions do seem legitimate uses of the title ("STATE is an online exhibition platform that features new projects and statements by artists who use the internet as a primary element in their work") others are not so much: sharing internet content, however narrowly specialized, is not curation. By that definition, links on your Facebook wall are acts of curation, and they just aren't.

I might be a pretentious intellectual, and a bit of a snobby crank, but I really do feel like it's time for a Susan-Pearce-like research project which would seek to investigate and define this. Whereas Pearce wrote about individual collecting, and sought to distinguish it from hoarding, I wonder what she would say about defining these acts of collecting as a form of self-curation. And then, when extended to an internet-based common-place book, does that collecting and sharing become curation simply by dint of its having an audience who are exposed to themed information and media? I'm not talking just about acts of digital preservation, or collecting web-based art; I am asking a more epistemological question. Are we on the Attic "curating" posts about museum news, conferences, and the PhD experience? Is the internet a kind of museum and are we a tiny exhibition space within it? And if so, how does that transform the definition of museum, the professionalisation of curatorship, and the audience experience?


ellie miles said...

I find the term 'curation' cropping up more and more recently. A Sunday Times advertisement recently ordered: 'Curate your week', and more than a few fashion bloggers use the term 'curated' in place of the term 'bought'. These uses have a tendency to sound incredibly pretentious and must be jarring to professional curators, who often feel their work is becoming perceived as less significant within museums. I find it curious that the word has gained such prominance at this moment.
During my research I was told that curating is more about what is left out than what is included in, and I think it is this distinction that such uses of terminology compromise, as many of these sites encourage fairly expansive iteration. All this is to say nothing of many tumblr users' reckless approach to copyright and provenance.

J said...

Ellie, I like what you say about iteration; however, in my research on museum exhibitions, I have found that many institutions re-use objects in particular ways that might also be called iteration.

And you are so right about Tumblr. There are so many images I would like to reblog, but don't out of principle: if there isn't a citation, I won't blog it. And I don't follow people who post without credit either.

Alex said...

Tumblr, whose headline was "Curating Online: Hobbies for Hipsters."

I never knew this was Tumblr's headline. I can definitely understand why someone working professionally as a curator would find this inappropriate as Tumblr users do have a reckless approach to copyright and provenance.

Curious if this extends to other sites like Instagram or even my own hipster fashion site that runs off eBay affiliates. eBay itself has a very large selection of vintage and collectible items.

Kind Regards,