A curator, my kingdom for a curator

OK, can someone please explain to me (in words of one syllable, for the hard-of-thinking) this passion for the words ‘curator’ and ‘curating’? I mean, when did this happen? One minute, everyone is editing, or selecting, or choosing, or programming. I turn my back for a second, and they’re all curators.

In the Guardian (here) yesterday, Luke Jennings posted a piece about the Dave St-Pierre Dance Company (or, as they’ve become known, The Naked Canadians). There were lots of very silly responses, and a few thoughtful ones. One of the most intelligent and measured was by ‘riversutra’, who is clearly involved in the professional dance world. I know this, because in his/her very sensible comments s/he used the phrase ‘as someone who both produces and curates dance’. So, s/he programmes (a word s/he also used) — and? And what?

‘Curator’ seems to have evolved from ‘curate’, a clergyman who has the care of souls in his keeping. (It also, much to my surprise and pleasure, appears to be a tiered cake-stand, also known as a ‘curate’s comfort’, or ‘curate’s friend’, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here.)

Instead, it is clear that the verb to curate is being used as a back-formation from the function of a museum curator, ‘The officer in charge of a museum, gallery of art, library, or the like; a keeper, custodian’.

But this is not what ‘riversutra’ meant — that s/he was in charge. Nor does Mike Shatzkin, in his interesting book blog (here). He talks about ‘The core challenge of bookselling’ being (horrible neologism alert!)  ‘curation’.

In a shop, that curation begins with what the store management puts on the shop shelves. The overwhelming majority of customers in a brick bookstore who buy something choose from what is in the store.

The second line of curation in a shop is in the details of the shelving itself. Is the book face out or spined? [Spined? Oh my God: this is worse than curation!] Is it at eye-level or ankle-level? Is it on a front table in a stack? Is it displayed in more than one section of the store, which would increase the likelihood it will be seen?

‘Curation’ (ick) here means ‘display’, or, if we want to stretch it, ‘looking after stuff’. But where do we stop? If ‘looking after’ is ‘curation’ (really ick), do people curate their stamp collections? Their dogs? When your socks need darning, do you ‘curate’ them?

I realize I’m being grumpily pedantic: if you want to curate your dog, why should old bossy-boots over here stop you? Now I mention it, I can’t actually come up with a reason why my own instinctive protest against the distortion of a word should count. So I’m registering it here, quietly; when you say you’re a curator, and you don’t work in a museum, I’ll try not to flinch.


  1. Philip Downer

    June 8, 2011 - 9:24 am

    Well, in my world – bookselling, and by extension general retailing – “curating” popped up to describe the process by which a range of books (or indeed frocks or designer saucepans) was put together for an internet shop.

    This may have been a reaction to the replacement of ranged and selected physical shops with online shopping, ie an infinite warehouse full of everything. As consumers were struggling with the everything (which I suppose bears some comparison to a museum’s storage collection), it was determined (by the unknown force that determines these things) that a selection would be made, and thus “curated”. By the way, James Daunt has stated that he curates the offer in his bookshops.

    So, a fancy new word for buying, ranging, selecting, highlighting. My preference is for the new-ish ceramics galleries at the V&A, where the entire collection is on view, packed into massive glass cases, with a selection made by the (genuine) curators for separate display.

  2. inspectorbucket

    June 8, 2011 - 9:30 am

    Tell me you don’t say ‘spined’, though. I’m begging you here…

  3. Philip Downer

    June 8, 2011 - 9:44 am

    “Spined” as in “spine-out”, as opposed to “face-out”, as in books on a bookshelf? I can’t say I’ve never said it, though “alphabetisation”, “flushing” and “cross-shelving” are terms that spring more readily to mind. But they’re all about simple organisation, rather than curating (curacy?).