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Do you use ‘Curate’ when ‘Organise’ will do? Well you shouldn’t…

By Nick J Booth, on 31 October 2012

Inspired by my colleague Mark’s excellent blog ‘How to tell an archaeologist from a palaeontologist’ (read it here) I thought I’d dedicate my blog to my own particular bug bear: The use of the word ‘curate’ and title ‘curator’.

I recently went to an interesting music and light show at a theatre in Hackney, which involved 3 different acts playing over an evening. The organisation that put it on describes itself as a ‘cultural organisation that curates, produces and disseminates digital culture’. There were lots of people there and the evening seemed to go well. I’d say it was very well organised. So why did that organisation decide to call it ‘curated’ instead of ‘organised’ or ‘put on’ or any other word?

A sign reading 'Do not disturb, Curating in Progress'

The modern day equivalent of ‘under construction’?

I am going to put it out there early – I think organisations and people do it as a form of self-aggrandisement. I think people chose to use the words ‘curate’ and ‘curator’ because it sounds more high-brow, to some people, than organiser or promoter. Perhaps they think it makes that person sound more intelligent, or gives a deeper meaning to what they do.

I first noticed the word used outside a museum in 2009 when I read about a PR event for a natural sugar substitute. The PR firm had flooded the roof of a high rise building. It sounded interesting, different and fun. The roof hadn’t been open to the public for years so it was allowing people the chance to see something new as well. Brilliant! But then the article I was reading showed a photo of a man pretending to fall out of his boat into the water with the label ‘Event Curator xxx stages a fall from a paddle boat’. Why was this person called the Event Curator? Wouldn’t ‘Event Organiser’ have done? Or host, instigator, arranger, Producer, Lord of the Natural Sugar Substitute?

So why choose the word ‘curator’? Is it because ‘curator’ has a certain cultural cashe? Have museum curators done such a good job over the years that people want to emulate us? Or is it that geek chic, fake glasses and ironic bowties mean that the once nerdy ‘curator’ is now desirable?

This isn’t a new thing, eyecurious.com dubbed ‘curator’ their word of the year in 2009, and there has already been some interesting feedback from ‘real’ curators in other blogs, notably from this Hermitage Curators blog. The feelings of the author can probably best be summed up with the following quote – “MAKING A LIST IS NOT CURATING. Nor is it is filling your bookshelves with color-coded paperbacks and animal bones and jars of feathers you found at a thrift store. Oh my days, don’t even get me started on “curated thrift stores.” Its an interesting point of view, though to my mind it goes a bit far. I don’t subscribe to the view that you should check your business card to see if you are entitled to use the word…

In opposition to the above article is this one, from musuemgeek.wordpress. ‘I think that the liberal use of the term curator makes it stronger and more valuable.’ The blog  argues that the use of the word curator in a wider context is not only fine, but should be encouraged. Perhaps we should encourage people to go head-to-head against a museum Curator, in a sort of curate-off until one curator is left standing, presumably they would then be the uber-curator and we should all refer to them as the last word when it comes to display ethics or conservation grade material. In my head I imagine this curate-off would look something like chess boxing, which would of course be awesome.

Possibly my problem is that I can’t get over the idea that it might just be me. I might be being elitist and crotchety about the use of the word. Perhaps I should just lighten up, sort myself out and get over it. But I don’t think that’s it.

A photo of a man in a suit and glasses blanacing one legged on a table

One of the top Google Images result for ‘Curator’.

I previously worked in a local authority museum. We didn’t have a Curator. I was an Assistant Collections Officer and my line manager was a Collections Officer. An Exhibition and Audience Development Officer put on the exhibitions and ran events. I am now a Curator; however my line manager is the Head of Collections Management. Curator fits in my title because a lot of people don’t really know what a Collections Manager does. It almost feels like the Curator is a dying breed in the museum world in England and Wales (where I have all my experience), and where it does exist it tends to be in the larger organisations such as the national museums, when it can be quite senior, or in places where museums/ collections exist but are not core to the organisation, such as UCL or a Royal Society, where its easier to describe yourself as a Curator rather than a Collections Manager. I don’t think this is necessarily a good or bad thing. The word ‘curator’ just doesn’t cover what a Collections Manager or Exhibitions Officer does.

Perhaps it would be fair to liken it to the comparison between a journalist and a blogger. My understanding is that journalists work to a code of ethics and are often highly trained people who have studied and put in the effort to perfect their chosen career. In the words of Jolie O’Dell in her blog post, despite experience or an English degree “a writer per se is not a journalist. Not any more than a keyboardist is a concert pianist or a mechanic is a nuclear submarine technician. A journalist belongs to a specialized, technical subset of the writing professions that requires specific training.”

In my mind curator fits into that category. It’s not simply enough to organize a collection of things, or put on an event. A Curator has spent years training and learning, often volunteering or working low paid, precarious jobs to get where they are. They don’t simply organise; they constantly work on a collection to improve its documentation or storage, they spends hours agonising over emergency plans and loan requests, they worry about dust and pests and they do their best to make sure that the collection they care for will survive into the future. Curators have shelves smash on them, move heavy things with more regard for the object than their back and get emotional when they misplace an object. Blood, sweat and tears (though that sounds rather bombastic for a blog about musuems).

Perhaps the final word should go to the Oxford English Dictionary, where ‘curate’ is defined as…

  • (noun) a member of the clergy engaged as assistant to a vicar, rector, or parish priest.

    A Cartoon Image of a Curate

    A real Curate


Ah no. No help there then.

I would be really interested to hear what other people have to say on the subject. If you agree / disagree with me please let me know!

13 Responses to “Do you use ‘Curate’ when ‘Organise’ will do? Well you shouldn’t…”

  • 1
    Mark Carnall wrote on 31 October 2012:

    Hey Nick

    Interesting post. If you talk to some of our colleagues who teach museum studies they’d (legitimately) argue that there aren’t any curators anymore.

    The use of the title is complicated and as you’ve pointed out even within museums it can refer to the person in charge of collections, the person in charge of the collections managers, the person responsible for the running of a whole department or even someone who has no idea about object preservation and documentation but is an academic researcher in zoology/social history/archaeology and a figure head for the collections. Degrees in curating aren’t the kind of curation you are talking about and unlike conservation there isn’t a registration or curator accrediting system. In fact the term is so loosely defined that surveys about collections measure support for the collections in terms of the number of posts responsible for collections rather than number of ‘curators’.

    I suggest for clarity we erect a new term- Objectsbody? Repository Gate Keeper? Museumor?

  • 2
    Ellie Miles wrote on 31 October 2012:

    Hi Nick,

    I enjoyed your post, and I’ve been thinking about new uses of the words myself. In the last couple of month I’ve been working with others to blog about different uses. If you’re interested you can find the blog here: http://curatingthecurators.tumblr.com/

    One of the things that I find interesting about new uses of the terms is that the worda are sometimes used to replace job titles I regard as pretty cool. Music-video makers, fashion bloggers and editors have all been referred to by the term. Of course you’re quite right to point out how the term has changed meanings within museums too. I think one of the aspects of new uses I am most critical of is that many refer only to the most public-facing work of the curator, and leave out the elements of documentation, care and research that you’ve pointed out here.

  • 3
    Nick J Booth wrote on 31 October 2012:

    Hi Mark and Ellie,

    Thanks for your comments. I used this blog to try to work out in my own mind why the use of the word bothered me so much, and to be honest I’m still not sure why it does. I do like the sound of ‘Repository Gate Keeper’.

    Ellie thanks you for the link, it is very interesting and I’m sorry that I didn’t see it earlier. I like the suggestion that ‘selection is not a core element of curation, as visitors select and arrange without taking on role of ‘curator’’.

    Particularly enjoyed the New York Cartoon as well – http://hyperallergic.com/57956/the-new-yorker-wades-into-curator-confusion/

  • 4
    Curate | magic lantern arts wrote on 12 November 2013:

    […] in the worst possible way when creators in the consumer market started using the word willy-nilly. Unsettling? Not really. However it is used, the deepest parts of me resonate with the word in a host of ways. […]

  • 5
    Leo wrote on 26 March 2014:

    Hi Nick,

    I think old curates work for church,new curates work for contemporary church,museum,in city.Two kinds of curates do the same thing:preaching,about modernity and postmodernity under Christian logic.

  • 6
    When Two Tribes Go To War. Art & Science ‘curatorship’ | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 30 April 2014:

    […] My colleague Nick Booth has previously written about the problems with the word curator now becoming almost meaningless through overuse. I was inspired to write about the differences between “Art and Science” curation for […]

  • 7
    NatSCA Digital Digest | NatSCA wrote on 1 May 2014:

    […] My colleague Nick Booth has previously written about the problems with the word curator now becoming almost meaningless through overuse. I was inspired to write about the differences between “Art and Science” curation for the Art […]

  • 8
    Is there a gift shop? Where's the cafe? wrote on 30 May 2014:

    […] via UCL Museums & Collections Blog […]

  • 9
  • 10
    James wrote on 8 April 2015:

    Hi Nick

    I enjoyed the post, I’ve been thinking about new uses of the words.

  • 11
    Please don’t call us a Cabinet of Curiosity | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 12 February 2016:

    […] I don’t want to go on a tangent about how organising isn’t the same as curating (which has been well covered on this site). It’s that the term suggests that our collections are irrelevant today – nothing but a […]

  • 12
    Birth Certificate wrote on 8 September 2017:

    My colleague Mr Booth has previously written about the problems with the word curator now becoming almost meaningless through overuse.

  • 13
    Marla wrote on 20 September 2020:

    I think it’s ok to use the word curate outside of museum and galleries if you are truly curating.

    Organize- arrange into a structured whole; order.

    Curate- to select items from among a large number of possibilities for other people to consume and enjoy; applied to many areas including music, design, fashion, and especially digital media

    I like it if you are creating an experience and telling an overall story. Taking onto consideration of all the senses… what people will see, feel, hear, smell- etc

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