Curator: meme in motion

Maltesefalcon1930 Yesterday at the PSFK conference, the term "curator" was used several times.  For instance, Steve Rubel repeated his argument that "digital curators" are "the future of online content."

Having been a curator once, my ears always perk up at the mention of the term  I am pleased that the term has taken on new meanings and new currency, that it has escaped the dusty corners of a museum and gallery world.  It and me, both.  Still, I wonder what this term is now being asked to mean, and why we should now find it now so compelling and fashionable. 

In the "museum" use of the term, curators might as well be called "keepers" and they sometimes are.  They are responsible for bodies of object and knowledge.  It is their job to see that these bodies are organized, protected, illuminated, and disseminated through publications and exhibits, and otherwise made available to publics popular and scholarly. 

Christian Crumlish comes pretty close to this usage when he calls himself a curator of Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library.  So does, Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s entertainment collection.  Bowers  collects things like Archie Bunker’s chair and the Maltese Falcon statuette from the 1941 film of the same name.  (The latter was recently stolen so I guess we now obliged to say it’s in a private collection.  Thank God we still have the movie and the poster, as above.)

Steven Addis started a blog called The Curator Effect in 2005.  First, a professional photographer and then a marketing consulting, Addis wrote an article for Advertising Age in July of 2007 subtitled: Be a Curator: consumers will seek out products, services that engender trust.

The term slides around a little in his hands.  He appears sometimes to be saying that consumers are curators (now that they can research and review consumer goods), that brands are curators, and that marketers are curators.  It is hard in any of these cases to see that the term is anything but the loosest act of metaphor.  To call brands curators is especially puzzling.  Addis’ blog fell silent Oct. 2, 2007 so we can’t hope for clarification.

There is something about popular culture that attracts the term.  The Job$ page at MySpace actually has a category called Pop Culture Curator.  Meg Asaro uses the term this way.  What she curates are ideas and images from popular culture, and the way she does this is with other ideas and images. This might be "curator" in the art gallery sense of the term.  But I am not sure a gallery curator would recognize her usage.  (Incidentally, Asaro has the distinction of being the first person to describe herself in the new sense of the term.  Fast Company did a story on her in 1999 in its "job titles of the future" column.)

Andrew Zolli calls himself the curator at PopTech, but it’s not clear what he’s a curator of.  Is it his network of contacts, of the contacts in the network, of the ideas that spring from the contacts in the network?  I don’t mean that he doesn’t so something remarkable at PopTech, and he is, as I have said in these pages before, widely understood to be a kind of God, but it’s not clear to me why or how we should think of him as a curator

Surely I shouldn’t be too literal about this.  Perhaps there shouldn’t be any objects involved.  Rubel might say, in a digital age, it is the virtual things in our world, multiplying in number and channel as they are, they need ordering.  And to his credit Rubel does appreciate the museum definition of the term, so his is not a reckless act of metaphor.  Rubel appears to wish to say that we need experts to sort through the great tide of digital content that comes at us each day. Aggregating, he says, is simply not enough.  To be sure.  Point well taken.  But I can’t help feeling that what Rubel means is "editor." 

Here’s the thing, I think it’s fair to say that the term "curator" may not be used, even metaphorically, unless there is some "keeping," "collecting," "conserving"  involved.  It’s not clear to me that digital curators have anything to do with keeping.   If there is someone in the digital world, who shows a genuine curatorial reflex, I think that’s Sarah Zupko. 

Please, don’t say that the new curators leave an archival record.  Everyone leaves an archival record.  And real curators don’t just leave a record.  They assiduously build their collections, so that each new entry is made in full knowledge of its predecessors and with a deeply thoughtful anticipation for what comes next.  These collections vibrate like a spider’s web with each new entry. 

Real curators think with their collections.  The collections are intelligence, memory, conceptual architecture made manifest.  I love the idea that someone would take up this function in the digital world.  But that’s not what I see the new "curators" doing.  This richer, more authentic, more sincere rendering of the term could accomplish something astonishing.  It would help sort and capture contemporary culture with some feeling for context, relative location, relative weight, what goes with what.  This is the sort of thing that Pepys accomplished, unwittingly, with his diary.  This notion of the curator has yet to find its champion.  I don’t think we quite yet have a Pepys of the present day.


Abramson, Marla.  1999.  Job Titles of the Future: Meg Asaro.  Fast Company.  Issue 27.  August.   here.

Addis, Steven.  2007.  Raise Your Brand to the Level of a Peer: Be a Curator…  Advertising Age.  July 17, 2007. here

Beckman, Rachel.  2007.  The Smithsonian, Trying to Stay Cool and Collected: How American history competes for showbiz treasures.  Washington Post. October 7, 2007.  here

Crumlish, Christian.  His blog at Radio Free Blogistan. here

McCracken, Grant.  2005.  Nike: new branding approaches.  This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  March 11, 2005.  here

Huang, Christine.  2008.  Steve Rubel on the Digital Curator.  February 8, 2008. here

Orman, Mary Jane. xxx.  Press Release: Le Meridien Introduces LM100.  A group of international creators that will transform Le Meridien hotels into creative hubs and reinvent the hotel guest experience.  here.

Rubel, Steve.  2008.  The Digital Curator in Your Culture.  Micro Persuasion. February 6, 2008.  here

13 thoughts on “Curator: meme in motion

  1. communicatrix

    This is the first time I’ve heard the term “curator” applied to what I’ve often heard described as “trusted filter.” And of course, I heard it here first, from my…curator? Editor? Trusted filter?

    Seriously, Grant: what term would you like to see applied to this particular service you’re providing?

  2. David T

    really interesting perspective. been hearing/using this term a lot the past six months or so and it is great to see others adding thoughts.

  3. srp

    James Lileks has amassed a large collection of motel postcards, amusingly captioned, along with stock certificates, foreign money, and so on. He spends a lot of effort ruminating about fragments of the past and what they mean. Perhaps his work is more like the curating Grant has in mind.

  4. Jeff Cobb

    Rubel does at least say that he doesn’t mean editor, but nonetheless, I do think there is too much of a tendency at this point to see the digital curator role as some combination of aggregation and editing. The points you make here are excellent and add a much needed sense of focus and discipline to what is all too likely to evolve into another haphazard buzzword. I particularly like “Real curators think with their collections. The collections are intelligence, memory, conceptual architecture made manifest.” In addition to ability, the thinking part simply takes time, and that is what seems to be the missing element in so much of the effort to churn content into Web pages (a sin of which I have certainly been guilty myself). Thanks for a great post. –Jeff

  5. Pingback: Mission to Learn

  6. Tom Guarriello

    Yes, Grant, we’re all hearing this term pop up a lot these days. I find myself thinking of a “concierge” when I hear it; someone who is very familiar with her/his local area, has multiple insider connections, can steer you to the right place once you make the clearest request. After gaining confidence in a good concierge, you find yourself seeking recommendations without hesitation, thinking, “Oh, Serge will know!” If that’s not curating in Rubel’s sense, then I’d like one curator and one concierge, please!

  7. Jim Carfrae

    Grant, very nice post. I think the magic is in your line “Real curators think with their collections.” What is allowed to be known and the way it is assembled is more than a presentation choice, it is the defining of something; adding insight or inspiration to the pool of wisdom. If the person is only communicating or clarifying, then maybe they only want to be a curator.

  8. Donald A. Coffin

    I can’t read or hear the word “curator” without hearing James Cagney, in the film Ragtime, saying to the curator of the museum, that as long as those men were occupying the museum, “you are the cur-A-tor or nothing.”

  9. Dustin

    The museum itself has long had a kind of “modern” cachet. In the late 19th century, the use of the word “museum” as part of magazine titles was quite common; magazines wanted to show that they were a collection (probably a “curated” collection) of all that was going in in the culture. Department stores, from which museums at the time had derived much of their inspiration for presentation and arrangement of cultural material, borrowed them back in their own displays. One (which one escpaes me — Harrod’s, maybe) even printed up an “exhibition catalogue” that guided shoppers through the world of goods, with culturally-themes “exhibits” along the way.

    The connection, I think, is with ordering chaos. Curators bring order to/impose order on the “messiness” of cultural life. Certainly the late 19th century was a time of great anxiety about the pressures and disorder of the “modern” world, as expressed by folks like Simmel, Freud, and the rest. Today the same pressures are expressed all the time; we’ve even got a new crop of social neuroses (ADD, OCD, anorexia, autism, etc.) that reflect something of a breakdown of the ability to choose in an age of overwhelming plenty. (Note: there are people who have actual diseases, and I’m not trying to minimize the reality of their conditions; I’m pointing instead to the casual use of those diseases to describe one’s inability to function, e.g. “I’m so ADD today!”)

    Today the overwhelming plentitude is informational, not material, but it seems the reaction is the same — find organizers to pin it down and put it on display. Imbue them with the power to filter, shape, and ultimately construct our view of the culture around us. ANd that seems natural, except at the back of my head is the niggling awareness that currators/museums show us *dead* things…

  10. Bradley Kay

    This is interesting. I especially like the thought…”Real curators think with their collections. The collections are intelligence, memory, conceptual architecture made manifest. I love the idea that someone would take up this function in the digital world.”

    I recently wrote a post on The Third Place, “Behold! The Agency Curator Has Arrived” in which I described a world where employees of advertising, marketing and communications firms started to think of themselves as curators rather than just functions (e.g., digital strategist, account planner, data, accounting, etc.). I believe this label alone would go a long way in helping individuals understand that they have a meta level purpose and responsibility to making their agencies great. Check it out and let me know what you think.

  11. abhi

    hi – stumbled across your post and it’s beautiful. especially, “Real curators think with their collections. The collections are intelligence, memory, conceptual architecture made manifest. I love the idea that someone would take up this function in the digital world. ”

Comments are closed.