Monday, May 21, 2012

An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet

Stop it. Just stop. Do you have a business card? Read it. Does it say “Curator” under your name? No? You are not a curator.
Harold Koda: Actual Curator
If anything has ever moved me to punch my fist through my computer screen, it is the recent gross misappropriation of the word CURATE, most particularly by a certain type of blogger. The flagrant misuse of this sacred (to me, and I assume to other curators) word has spread like wildfire through the precious world of home, craft and decor blogging and is infecting the internet like a virus.
The very meaning of the word is starting to change, and that makes me crazy.
What makes a curator? This seems to be up for interpretation. I have a masters degree in art history. I worked as an intern, as an assistant curator, at an auction house, as an art history instructor, and, finally, as a curator. I did not sit at my computer and passively click on images that appeal to me.  I did not flip through a stack of shelter magazines and fold down the corners of pages that caught my eye. I did not write a blog post entitled “Things I want to buy!!!1!!” and include a list of links. The phrase “carefully curated” — oh yes, I understand the appeal of alliteration, for I was also an English major — makes every inch of my skin crawl. “Carefully curated” is redundant and implies there is such a thing as sloppy curating, which is ridiculous.  Curating, by its very definition, is done carefully. Care is implied. 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.”
Before we go any further I think we should back up and establish the true definition of curating. This excellent blog post by Elizabeth Brown establishes that definition better than I could, so I urge you to click through and have a read (the comments are spot-on, too). Ms. Brown manages to approach this issue with a genuine curious circumspection. I felt that way a few months ago, but lately my rage has started bubbling over into lunacy.
Will Kelly and I are on the same page. He writes, “I am all for changes in the English language as long as they are for the positive. What I am not in favor of is the hijacking of words to make something sound more important that it actually is.”
This article from 2010 makes a feeble stab at defending the word’s application in the fashion industry, but also includes this gem: “Harold Koda runs the Costume Institute at the Met, so he’s allowed to describe himself as a curator—it’s his professional title. For everyone else, though, it’s just a highbrow way of saying “one who picks things out,” which describes all style bloggers, retail buyers, and people who get dressed in the morning.
The comments on that article include this apt reply from a textile historian: “I think the thing that annoys me about the use of this word is that the way it is used leaves off half of its job description. To curate doesn’t just mean to carefully select items, but also to look after and care for them. One who curates an exhibition is responsible for the preservation of the objects used while they are on exhibition and after (very few real curators would “curate” an exhibition in a window because of the effects of light). Someone dressing a store window is not charged with the same level of care.” Love it. 
If you’ve read this far and still don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve selected (CURATED?!) a list of the top offenders:
Pinterest: Oh, pinterest. The vessel for my fury.  Pinterest is a way to collect the images you see online into one virtual “pin-board.” Each pin board you create has a title and a line that proudly announces: THIS BOARD CURATED BY ____. The site is host to millions of images, and at least fifty thousand of those are of hipster interiors. If I see one more pin board of cavernous concrete rooms punctuated by one mournful shell chair I will pull all of my hair out.  I just… can’t. Anyways, all these collections are curated by somebody and they are usually named Xander or something.
Etsy: The Etsy Treasury is particularly vexing. Click through to view the “member-curated shopping gallery” where you can buy, and this is verbatim, “PURPLE GIFTS FOR HER BECAUSE EVERYONE LOVES PURPLE!!!” [Side note: one exclamation point will suffice, forever. But that is another post entirely.]
Design*sponge: A particularly noxious post includes this house tour where the owner states, “I like to think of decorating as curating.”  See also this post on an “artfully curated bedroom.” (?!)
And finally, this post on You might say it was the final straw. The concept of “curating” an online sale is just the worst. THE WORST!
They seem like nice people, so… I don’t know. The whole thing makes my head hurt.
In sum: bandaging a wound doesn’t make you a doctor. Snapping non-digital photos of empty train tracks doesn’t make you a photographer. So, guess what? Assembling a group of tangentially related things and publishing them online does not make you a curator. So what does it make you? A blogger? A list-maker? An arbiter of taste? Sure, I’ll take any one of those. Just stop calling yourself a curator.
I understand the ways in which the internet has democratized art and design, and I applaud the application of new media to staid cultural institutions (i.e. museums and galleries). What I vehemently reject is the cheapening of a word that carries much more weight in the museum, gallery and library science fields.
I believe curating is the passing of a torch. It is the care and protection of cultural property. It is something not to be undertaken lightly, and it does not happen with the click of a mouse.
Now that you know (emphatically) where I stand, I would love to know your thoughts on this. What does curating mean to you?
Edited to add:  I am happy to post comments that include an email address and/or a website. I will not approve comments posted anonymously. 


  1. On one hand, I agree that the English language is constantly being battered by stupid people who don't know the meanings of the words they use. People use words incorrectly all the time, but I'm not super inclined to join the ranks of those who get a kick out of correcting those people.

    For example, you referred to Design*sponge's post as "particularly noxious". I'll admit this irked me a little because you really meant to use the word "nauseating". Look them up and you'll see that I'm right. It's no big deal though because I knew what you meant, and I know what everyone else means when they too use the word wrongly.

    I guess in my opinion there's no need to correct people unless the misuse is so egregious that the word in question has been abused to the point that it can mean anything. Kind of like the word "ironic"- I actually fear that is has become so misused the dictionaries will be forced to include wrong definitions just because of mass misuse. Such is language!

    In the case of "curate", I don't think the line has to be drawn just yet...

    Interesting post, I enjoyed it.

  2. Curation seems on one hand to be merely the latest trend on the 'Net - marketers are jumping on the bandwagon with their feeble attempts at offering "Curation Methods" and "Curation Apps"; house-moms re-pin a picture of a dead rose on Pinterest and refer to themselves as "curators", and here we find ourselves discussing the pros and cons of the English language.

    On the plus side, curation - specifically, content and social curation - is a new field for the Internet, or at least a rechristened old one. Yes, "curation" implies "care", and in the birthing struggles of this new field you can already differentiate between the serious players and the wanna-be's, the ones who take the honorable art of curation seriously and those who merely want to wear a new name tag.

    Give it time - as in any new field things will shake-out and the best of the best will remain.

  3. Oh, I agree! I immediately had a terrible gut feeling when I heard all of these ridiculous outlets such as the Canadian magazine Chatelaine use the word curate a collection....Chatelaine would advertise over and over about curating this and curating that....

    I would think to myself, "since when is a woman's fluff magazine going to curate anything".

  4. Thanks for the articulate, funny article!

    No joke, I once happened upon an Events page on Facebook promoting a "curated selection of" -- wait for it -- "food trucks."

  5. seems most people should be saying "created" the way they should be saying "february". others just like the way it sounds, like when they say something is "ironic" when it's really a coinscidence.
    great article! in a time where everything is disposable we are reminded that the things that last aren't preserved by accident (maybe a few exceptions, like falling into a tar pit).
    there may be non-degree holders who look after their families' heirlooms, for which i have worked to assist in preserving, possibly being the closest fo which referring to the term might be consdered "curating", but i would never call myself an assistant curator. i am a tailor.

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