Curation is a word that has been adopted in many spheres of late. From music playlists to makeup kits. From interior design to fashion collections. As is the nature of language, the term has experiences an evolution of late. As an art historian and a curator myself I find the new uses of the terms curation and curator curious. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the origins of the word and the appropriateness of the new applications.
Like so many words in this part of the world its origin stems from Latin. It was first used to describe a guardian of valuable aspects of ancient life such as viaducts. Later, in medieval times it was applied to certain clergy, as guardians of souls. By the 1600’s, though, its use was established in terms of those responsible for exhibitions.
What an Art Curator?
This is a specialised position. A curator has, to quote Liam Neeson in Taken, a particular set of skills that qualify them to collate, critique and combine a selection of artworks for exhibition. Every time you visit a museum or art gallery the display you are looking at is the result of meticulous curation. Depending on the size of the organisation there may be a curatorial team or just one. Either way, the pieces exhibited and the design of the exhibition is not a happy accident. The curator(s) has looked at every aspect of the objectives of the show and reflected them in the end product. It’s an involved process that takes place to serve the art itself, the artists who created it and its audience in equal measure.
Just this morning I heard another alternative use of the word curated, it referred to a shopping experience that offered the consumer a selection of goods depending on their preferences and purchase history. A nice idea. A clever marketing strategy but so far removed from what true curation really is. Somewhere along the line there seems to have been a muddying of the waters between personalisation and curation.
Personalisation can, quite easily, be developed by analysing data in a mathematical way. So, ironically, the actual person creating the selections can be removed from the equation altogether. Curation, on the other hand, can only come from the knowledge, experience and instinct of a trained professional.
In a time where so much is being automated and robotised it’s nice to know that one arena, art curation, remains apart. You can come back to me when Siri and her cohorts start filling museums and galleries with artworks but until then, cherish your curators and the care they take to produce exhibitions that challenge, soothe and expand your mind.