What curation means on the internet

dannybirchallDanny Birchall is Digital Manager at Wellcome Collection 

As others in this series of essays have noted, it now seems possible to curate anything from a music festival to a selection of paperclips. The meaning of the word curate is currently in flux, provoking a mixture of fascination and irritation among those working in museums.

But this is more than a question of semantics. New uses and meanings of curation have proliferated on the internet in particular, especially in the fast-moving worlds of social media and news journalism. The meaning of curation in a networked culture is key to understanding the direction our culture is taking and holds valuable lessons for museums. At the same time, the experience of curation in museums can possibly offer valuable lessons to those who we might otherwise dismiss as imposters in the field of curation.

If we’re looking for someone to blame in the first place, we could start with the journalist and tech pundit Steven Johnson. In late 2003 he wrote a short year-end piece for the New York Times, eulogising the emergence of a ‘curatorial culture’ by way of Apple’s celebrity playlist feature on iTunes. This heralded for Johnson a new kind of compilation album, produced by ‘curators not creators, brilliant at assembling new combinations of songs rather than generating them from scratch’. The idea of curation as a practice of selection from a cornucopia of already-available things found purchase in an industry being thrown into crisis by the internet: news journalism. As ‘content’ became cheaper to create (often coming freely in the form of blogs), the gatekeeping role of traditional media was being re-manifested in the idea of ‘content curation’ by pundits like Jeff Jarvis and Robert Scoble.

The birth of this new curation was a reaction to abundance rather than paucity. Where museum curators are generally called on to care for a known quantity of objects (if not their quality or provenance) and make them accessible, curation on the internet is largely a response to an overwhelming quantity of cultural information and artifacts already in the public domain. Low barriers to production and dissemination through blogs and social media sites lead to a glut of possible education and entertainment, most of it free. Unsure of which new videos to watch, which blogs to read, which music to listen to? The internet’s new curators are here to help you.

Leading the pack of online curators is Maria Popova, a blogger who describes herself as a ‘curator of interestingness’. She works through online and offline archives to offer contextualised highlights to her readers. Popova’s practice is very much in an older  tradition of the curator as a connoisseur rather than a subject specialist. Her value is as an alternative to the search engine or homepage: a knowledgeable but idiosyncratic guide to art, design and culture. But with the emphasis on finding rather than creating these tidbits, a leading position can be hard to defend. In 2012 Popova tried to introduce the ‘curator’s code‘, an honour system for attributing discovery, similar to the ‘HT’ or ‘via’ shorthand of Twitter.

Haunting Popova and her peers is the spectre of algorithmic curation. Where Popova offers the interesting and unexpected to those who seek it out, in industries rather more wedded to the bottom line, the job of selecting and presenting content is handed over to cleverly-written code. Amazon uses your purchase history and those of others like you to automatically recommend new things to buy. Google does likewise with your search history, and Facebook with your feed of friends’ stories. It’s not uncommon for websites to produce individually tailored feeds of news that is likely to interest you. This kind of curation is often invisible, or frictionless. It’s also unlikely to bring anything surprising, different or new to light. As an algorithm learns your tastes, it will naturally narrow rather than expand them, giving you more only of what it is sure you will like.

Curation as a practice on the internet has its own life. Driven primarily by a competitive superfluity of digital culture and content, it nevertheless periodically seeks to revalidate itself with references to what museums do. In truth these are often more like retroactive justifications, and small wonder they’re irritating to those who have trained to curate in museums. So what are museum curators to do? Perhaps abandon the term altogether: are keepers of collections and makers of exhibitions still in need of a common terminology and discourse to unite them? Or simply make peace with the kind of change that continually happens in language? A word that once meant ‘caretaker’ needn’t travel too much further to mean ‘selector’.

One thing museum curators will have to get used to quickly is a plenitude of digital culture which will make the twentieth century’s disposable material culture look like Neolithic art. The emergent discipline of digital curation is tackling the preservation and long-term care of digital data. Projects like the Internet Archive are preserving what they can of an often volatile digital world. But when it comes to selecting what to keep, exhibit and interpret, museum curators may find that they have more in common with curators of the internet than they might initially wish.

In return, museum curators might offer curators of the internet some deeper meanings for a practice currently based on little more than taste and selection. Thomas Soderqvist’s idea of curation as the labour of care need not be limited to the museum. We might also look to examples of historically heroic curators like Harald Szeemann, who redefined the contemporary art exhibition or Iris Barry who at MoMA struggled for the establishment of film as an art form. We could show how curation in museums has evolved beyond connoisseurship and become a participative activity. Or develop new paradigms of curatorship that work for all of us.

Some of the arguments in this essay were originally developed in a conference paper co-authored with Susan Cairns at the University of Newcastle, Australia, Curating the Digital World.

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