On the discrimination of curators and curations ....

Lorcan 2 min read

As existing practices evolve and new ones emerge it often takes time for the way in which we talk about them to settle down. There may be some interim terminological confusion. This has happened in our world with ‘archive’ for example.
We can also see this happen with curation/curation/curator. In recent conversations, it seems to me that I hear overlapping senses radiating from three centres.
The first is a traditional one to do with the creation of collections of cultural objects and the their selection, management and care throughout their lifecycle. Think of museum curators in this context for example, or the curatorial staff at the British Library. We often hear this sense extended to the creation and care of an exhibition. I and others have used the phrase curatorial traditions to refer to the different but related bodies of professional practice deployed in the museum, library, archive and related domains.
The other two are newer and selectively emphasise core functions of the curatorial role suggested above.
The second emphasises a preservation and stewardship role, acknowledging this as part of an overall management lifecycle. One sometimes hears this in a restricted version of ‘data curation’. And preservation is a central aspect, for example, of the work of the Digital Curation Centre at Edinburgh University.
The third emphasises the selection, organization and presentation function, and may be coming to be the most widely used sense in which curation is used. Here is a recent comment of Michael Cairns for example:

In recent years content curation has emerged out of the wild, wild, west of ‘mere’ content. Sites such as The Huffington Post, Red State and Politico all represent new attempts to build audiences around curated content. While they appear to be successful, at the same time there are other sites (such as Associated Content and Demand Media) contributing to the morass of filler content that can plague the web users’ experience. The buzz word ‘curation’ does carry with it some logic: As the sheer amount of information and content grows, consumers seek help parsing the good from the bad. And that’s where curation comes in. [The curator and the docent]

Interestingly, curation, in this sense, has been central to the value of bookstores, newspapers and libraries, and is coming to be emphasised more. In each case, the management of supply may be moving elsewhere (to Amazon in the case of books for example) or becoming simpler (as data is aggregated in discovery layer products for libraries for example), leaving it important to think harder about the management of demand or consumption (providing greater support for selection, saving time, and so on, …) of which curation, as used in this third sense, is a central part.
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