Sunday, 14 February 2016

A Pound of Curation

“[B]andaging 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.” (2011, Hermitage Museum) 
Dear anonymous curator. Take a deep breath. Your job is safe. Have confidence. You’ll be ok.

A professional curator attacking bloggers and Pinterest users for not being ‘real’ Curators is akin to a professional Engineer barging in on grade school students constructing popsicle stick bridges and berating them with “but that’s not REAL engineering!”. Not incorrect—an engineer’s duties are most certainly more rigorous, comprehensive, and complex—but the protest is kind of misplaced and needlessly defensive.*

In Defence of Curation
While the Hermitage Museum blog presents offense and outrage, a more helpful breakdown of the actual duties of Curator lie elsewhere, here for example:

So our anonymous blogger's major point is undeniably true, there are many aspects and functions of a Curator. Major functions include acquisition (what to include in a collection) and exhibition (what to present). Both involve selection informed by knowledge. Surrounding all this are aspects of preservation, storage, cataloging/indexing, and fundraising roughly translating to making an object available (it exists!) and locatable. A 'Curator' may be someone who manages/oversees these activities or they may take on a hands-on role in all of them themselves. These traditional aspects translate to the digital world as demonstrated by Lambert and Frisch (2013).

Pinterest Curation
So how does Pinterest meld with all of that? There are two aspects to this: function and materiality.

Two basic functions of curation are collection and exhibition. Curation may occur at the acquisition phase when assembling a collection. In this function, maintenance and preservation of the collection are not insignificant. For exhibits, a curator may only be concerned with the preservation of material while it is in their custody—during the run of the exhibit—until such time as items are returned to their home collections. These curators need not be permanent custodians of the material. Perhaps it is helpful to think of Pinterest curation as more like the latter and not at all like the former.

The next difference is materiality. There is a difference between physical and digital artifacts. Keepers of collections might not see that difference, there are a multitude of challenges in keeping digital information preserved within an ever changing environment of hardware and software.  The curatorial function of Exhibit is perhaps slightly different. Digital is not a single object to cared for, but something infinitely replicable. A Pinterest user pinning an item is not the temporary custodian of the object but instead multiplies its footprint. What does preservation mean in the realm of a Pinterest exhibit? At best, making sure links are working?

The overarching purpose of any collection or exhibit, digital or real, is ultimately impact. The collection is merely a store of potential unless it connects in the real world. It may inform, educate, challenge, or inspire through the purposeful selection and presentation of content. It is not entirely ridiculous to think of Pinterest (or a subset of it) in that context.

The part of the blog post where I blow up my entire argument
While a Pinterest pinboard seems like an avenue of curation for micro-exhibit there are some things that work against it. Pinboards are experienced in three main ways: 1) the pinboard itself (the exhibition); 2) as pins in a timeline (dis-aggregated and personal); 3) through search. 2) and 3) decontextualize pins and erode the 'Exhibit' function of Pinterest. It might be argued that those are the primary modes of consuming Pinterest content too. Within the Pinboard, Pinterest does a lousy job of allowing a creator of sequencing content. There is some facility of rearraging pins, but it seems that an algorithm will ultimately arrange pins so they fit nice on a grid. This hampers the presentation aspect of a Pinterest 'exhibit'.

* A non-scholarly response to a non-scholarly blog post might be something like this.


Douglas Lambert & Michael Frisch, (2013). “Digital Curation through Information Cartography: A Commentary on Oral History in the Digital Age from a Content Management Point of View,” Oral History Review, (1), 135.

Careers in Photography: Sarah Meister, Curator at MoMA. (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2016, from 

Hermitage Museum, (May 2012). “An Open Letter to Everyone Using the Word ‘Curate’ Incorrectly on the Internet,” Aboriginal Curator in Residence,


  1. Mark -- I could't agree more with your reaction to the Hermitage museum's post about curators.

    Indeed, I kept thinking that the word curator was being used differently in the digital context than we had known it in the 20th century. Any good philologist will tell you that deep-seated affection for one version of a definition is misplaced; as definitions derive from usage. If usage changes, then we must adapt. Perhaps museum curators should select a different articulation of their professional status by adding additional words, perhaps "archivist and curator?" or "exhibit director?"

    Title bloat is an important way that not-for-profit groups can retain high quality talent on the cheap. Indeed, as a designer, titles on business cards are possibly the least meaningful metrics of life status. When I opened a pop-up coffee shop a couple years ago, we gave our head barista the title "Director of Coffee." I didn't notice a backlash from the world's directors.

    But I think the point that curation is more than a basic selection of links or mere taste-making is misplaced. There's something about curation in the professional sense that is lost on the light-touch digital version; though I am not sure how I would refine human digital choices in presenting material to distinguish from the phenom of algorithmic curation....

  2. You rightly point out my bias toward librarians/archivists and the 20th century. I do think capital-C 'Curation' is more than just selection or taste-making. That's the crux of the Hermitage argument and I attempted to wrestle with it on that basis and within the context of our readings. One tortured analysis later I think it's safe to say Pinterest is not in-of-itself 'Curation' though it might conceivably be used as a tool of/for curation (in the 20th c sense).

    To further torture/beat that dead horse, Pinterest might be seen as a combination of crowd-sourced collection, micro-exhibits, and an accompanied shift in authorial POV from exhibit/collection managers to the audience/individual.

    That said, you're absolutely right. Words take on new meanings and 21st century curation is a different beast. Preservation has fallen by the wayside and selection now dominates. The new formula is an ounce of preservation and a pound of curation, as it were.*

    Lastly, an interesting take on human vs AI curation:

    *ok that was just awful. I'll stop.

  3. Ok, I've come to reconcile taste-making curation with the medieval notion of curatus, a priest devoted to the caring of souls (Morton, 2011). In a secular world, taste makers fulfill this role. Through lists, pinboards, selection, playlists etc. they promise to nurture one's soul or enrich lives through the sharing of their knowledge and experience. To that extent, curation is more than just a list or a set of links. It is a list with a purpose or a promise.

    By that measure, Pinterest is chock full of curation and mostly devoid of Curation.

    Morton, T. (2011, September 9). A brief history of the word 'curator' | Art | Agenda | Phaidon. Retrieved February 29, 2016, from