Leading Museums, Museum Leaders

The Curation Craze

Miya Tokumitsu, The Politics of the Curation Craze, New Republic, 24 August 2015

Collection of Butterflys. Curating a collection is a highly specialized line of museum work. Photo: Stuart Humphries. Source: Australian Museum.

Collection of butterflies. Curating a collection is a highly specialized line of museum work. Photo: Stuart Humphries. Source: Australian Museum.

Blogs are curated. So are holiday gift guides. So are cliques, play lists, and restaurant menus. “Curated,” a word that barely existed forty years ago, has somehow come to qualify everything in our lives. When I tried that glib parlor game of typing a word into Google to see how it would autocomplete the search phrase, the first suggestion for “curated” was “content.” In other words, almost nothing escapes curation, or at least the possibility of being curated. How did our world become a venue for curation? And how did curating, a highly specialized line of museum work involving the care, accessioning, and exhibition of artworks, come to mean, as cultural policy scholar Amanda Coles puts it, “just picking stuff?”

One simple explanation is prestige appropriation. This is understandable—“curation” lends the cultural capital and seriousness associated with art institutions to the mundane assemblages of our lives. Curating an Instagram feed or Christmas list sounds more legitimate, somehow, than simply having a social media profile or scribbling on a piece of paper.

Back in 2009 The New York Times’s Alex Williams spoke with UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg about the tendency for the vernacular of an esteemed or prestigious profession to trickle down into popular parlance. Nunberg cited the term “associate,” which once connoted a colleague with a “shared a position of authority with another,” but today can refer to the person who processes your Frisbee return at Target. Similarly, the word, “executive” has practically become a prefix on professional job titles: “executive assistant,” “executive producer,” “executive vice president.”

A few professional curators have become fiercely defensive of the word: “As a former actual curator, of like, actual art and whatnot, I think I’m fairly well positioned to say that you folks with your blog and your Tumblr and your whatever are not actually engaged in the process of curation,” wrote Choire Sicha at The Awl. Others are impartial: “It really doesn’t bother me,” said Laura Hoptman, a curator then at the New Museum for Contemporary Art, to Williams.

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