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. PSFK.com. 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.