Object Lessons – Curating in the Twenty First Century

By Katy Barrett

The idea of ‘curation’ seems to have become all the rage at the moment. Everything is being ‘curated’, from the Olympics opening ceremony, to Blackpool Illuminations, to lecture series and event programmes. This has recently sparked a number of conversations on Twitter, and various blog posts have been written on the subject, most notably a whole Tumblr site. We have questioned again and again what does and doesn’t make the actions being so called the act of ‘curating.’

I don’t think any of us involved in these conversations has a problem with the act of curating becoming more popular, or with the word being more commonly used. It means, I hope, that curators are shaking off the stereotype of sensible shoes, twinsets and pearls. But, equally is this change productive if it merely re-defines curating to become synonymous with directing, arranging, or selecting (all words more suited to the activities above)? Indiscriminate word use not only makes the assumption that anyone can ‘curate’ any kind of loosely-defined cultural event, but also devalues the careful work that is done by curators.

Curation, of course, does involve acts of direction, arrangement and selection in the processes of choosing objects to acquire for museum collections and then putting these on display in temporary exhibitions and permanent galleries. It also, increasingly, requires the management/arrangement/direction both of people to communicate these displays, and of the visitors to whom they are communicated. But, ‘curation’ at base means the care or custody of objects, and this is what sets it apart from the many activities being so designated. Curators have specialist knowledge of the historic artefacts in their care, the means to preserve their material qualities for future generations, and then, but only as the product of this care, the role of interpreting/explaining/selecting the objects, in more obvious parallel with film directors or events organisers.

So, if curating is all about material objects, what does this mean for curators in our ever-more digital age? Fragile collections are being digitised on high-quality online databases in order to reduce the need to handle them. The objects are being cared for by essentially replacing the material object with the digital for the average visitor. Museum-goers now increasingly investigate museums, galleries and collections online before visiting, accessing high-definition images of objects, and much more varied information than can be squeezed into a gallery. Collections online also means many objects otherwise hidden in store can now be accessed by virtual visitors, who can then select, arrange and direct these objects into their own personal collections. Does this make visitors curators? Are ‘curators’ still fulfilling their traditional function in the age of crowd-sourcing and digital scanning?

These questions seem particularly pertinent to me in connection with an initiative currently underway at the Saatchi Gallery in London, or rather on Saatchi Online. 100 Curators 100 Days aims to create ‘the largest online art exhibition’ with curators from museums and galleries all over the world having 1 day each to present a selection of their favourite works. Each curator has selected 10 images for their ‘collection.’ Clicking on the artist’s name will take you to a page that collects all of their pieces and gives you biographical information. There is space for visitors to comment on collections and to become ‘friends’ with artists, as well as interacting through Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest etc. The site is engaging and seems to have a thriving audience of commentators and viewers.

Yet, the works chosen are not from their curator’s ‘home’ institution, and most seem to be available for purchase. Many collections have no description or explanation, and the idea seems to be for viewers to form their own idea of the reason behind each selection. Many also seem to be prints or photographs that exist as endlessly replicable digital images rather than a material object. I don’t doubt that all the participating curators care for and interpret material objects in the ‘real’ world of their museum or gallery, but this online version seems to me to prioritise precisely the kinds of activities which allow the word ‘curate’ to be so fashionably and widely applied at the moment. Whether or not this is in the end a good or a bad development for the arts is a question about which I remain unsure.

Special thanks to Rebekah Higgitt, Ellie Miles, Dominic Berry and others for conversations that helped me think through these ideas.

Katy Barrett is a PhD Student on the AHRC-funded project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, Innovation and Empire in the Georgian World’ hosted by the University of Cambridge and National Maritime Museum Greenwich. She has worked in a number of national museums and now writes a blog to keep her hand in, as well as running a seminar on material culture at Cambridge. Read more by Katy at www.spoonsontrays.com.