Lock up your marbles! Here come the curators

I love museums and art galleries. I love the web. So why is it I feel so uneasy about the use of the word “curate” in connection with online content?

It certainly seems to be a hot term in the media industry, as seasoned hacks struggle to reinvent themselves in the face of impending old media extinction:

Curation is the new role of media professionals.

Separating the wheat from the chaff, assigning editorial weight, and — most importantly – giving folks who don’t want to spend their lives looking for an editorial needle in a haystack a high-quality collection of content that is contextual and coherent. It’s what we always expected from our media, and now they’ve got the tools to do it better.

Apparently a piece of paper with news on was so century-before-last. Now your newspaper must be transformed into an online hub with copious links to events, organisations, comments and blog posts about your locality or specialist topic.

Creating original content was a thankless task. I know from the hours spent as a young reporter in drafty village halls, smelly magistrates’ courts, and wading through the wreckage of the latest chip-pan fire. [Tip: if you ever come home  from the pub late at night and feel like making chips, don’t. Just don’t.]

How much better, some seem to be saying, to make a living organising and displaying other peoples’ work instead. How innocent it sounds when “curation” is the borrowed name for this new business model. I don’t like it and I’m not alone in my unease.

To homage a joke from a recent I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, that’ll be curate as in Ronnie Biggs the Great Train Curator.

Meanwhile in a strange role-reversal, some leading museums professionals are seeking to redefine themselves as editors

“The future has to be, without question, the museum as a publisher and broadcaster,” said MacGregor, director of the British Museum.

Serota, director of the Tate, said: “The challenge is, to what extent do we remain authors, and in what sense do we become publishers providing a platform for international conversations?

“I am certain that in the next 10 to 15 years, there will be a limited number of people working in galleries, and more effectively working as commissioning editors working on material online.”

Despite the fact that most real curation happens in not-for-profit organisations, it’s easy to see why the idea of being a curator is so beguiling to refugees from the established media. Closing a print edition of a publication robs its staff of their work in physical form. Being a curator implies that content can be a tangible object after all.

But I think there’s a sleight of hand in this appropriation of a word from the physical to the virtual world. Online content is infinitely copiable, so some of the central objectives of museum or arts curatorship simply don’t apply.

  • Real curators safeguard culturally precious objects that might otherwise be at risk. Archive.org and Google’s cache may perform this role for the web, but not the local aggregators, RSS readers or shallow “hub” sites.
  • Real curators make exhibits more visible and accessible to their visitors, and that’s a claim the new online curators may make for themselves. But once you’ve hit the back button from the umpteeth spammy link farm you realise that they’re actually getting in the way of access to the original content by obfuscating URLs and diluting social bookmarking across multiple domains. As Warren Ellis pointed out, “getting linked up isn’t exactly hard any more”.
  • Real curators are at pains to show their collections in context, and sometimes go to great lengths to help us reimagine original contexts that have been destroyed. Arguments rage in the museums world about treasures like the Parthenon Marbles, whose complex pasts and futures leave multiple conflicting contexts. This is not true of the web, where the network is the context. At best, pulling content into another site or template adds nothing. At worst it actually destroys context.

The metaphor is all wrong.

“Curate” objectifies content, pickles it, assumes it’s made of neat little packages that can be given acquision numbers, stored and put out on display. Yet the best online content isn’t like this. Even the factual kind is made of characters and stories, of threads woven or tangled together. Content is organic.  Content is not art and archaeology. It’s flora and fauna.

These new curators risk cramming rare rain-forest orchids into gaudy garden pots, and displaying bedraggled dancing bears in crowded town squares. If they take content out of its natural habitat, they will over-organise and over-editorialise, and in so doing squeeze the life from the stuff they claim to celebrate. Could it actually be that too much curation is what’s killing old media?

Content wants to be free (as in free speech, not free beer). It’s best seen in the wild, where ideas can reproduce, eat each other and evolve. I don’t want my content in an online museum or gallery. I don’t want it stuffed, or caged in a zoo. But an online safari, that would be something…

Update 9/3/2010: The curators called. They want their word back.

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