July 25, 2010

Curating on the Web

I keep noticing a lot of “curating” on the web. Here are just a few examples:
  • Writer and Author Scott Berkun seeks an “Editor/Curator” for his latest book project.
  • INVENTORY magazine’s is described as “A Curation of Ideas in Product, Craft and Culture”.
  • In his advice to industrial designers assembling portfolios, Raph Goldsworthy, of blog Design Droplets, recommends the step to “Collect & Curate Content.”
  • Daily Discoveries of Design is “curated” by Karen Horton, co-founder of community website design:related.
  • Felt & Wire is a “curated collection of beautifully designed paper goods” from designers they admire.
  • Brain Pickings was created by Maria Popova, who calls herself a “cultural curator.”
  • Graphic designer Frank Chimero gives an upfront take on a Curation Culture, both the positives and negatives.
  • Link Drop Today is an experiment in “hand curated content” by Michael Surtees.
Curating: not for some, for everyone
At the Fifth Business Innovation Factory Summit, held in Rhode Island, Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art, said, “In the future, some curators will sift through information to make it accessible to people.” The future that she envisions is happening now. But, as the previous examples show, curators are not confined to a privileged “some.” Or as architectural discourse magazine Loud Paper’s Mimi Ziegler put it: “Um, yeah, except we are all curators now.” This was in response to Architect Reinhold Martin’s statement that curation is “the next form of contemporary practice” during the conference Architecture in Public.

In contrast to Paola’s and Martin’s aligned projections, Steve Rubel, Director of Insights at Edelman Digital, depicts the current and increasing state of web-based curating, which is open to everyone: “Digital Curators are the future of online content. Brands, media companies and dedicated individuals can all become curators. Further, they don’t even need to create their own content, just as a museum curator rarely hangs his/her own work next to a Da Vinci. They do, however, need to be subject matter experts.”

From a curator’s viewpoint
Websites are like installations in a museum, but without the limits of physical space and attendance. And site creators are not only gathering and showcasing exhibits, they are writing and doing it with passion. Curating is: One part collecting, one part creating. These actions constitute the two best advantages that the web medium offers. They are also expressed in the answers of Paul Gehl, a Curator of the History of Printing Collections at the Newberry Library, and a colleague of mine:

Can you describe what you do at The Newberry Library
and the role of curating in your job?

My job description says I should collect for the Newberry in printing and design history, help readers use the collections, and do research of my own. I consider all of these properly curatorial functions, even my own research (which I am allowed to define and develop myself), since an active researcher can get to know the collection in a unique way and so better help others do research. Collecting, of course, is the most fun; but processing materials, helping with cataloging, and meeting researchers are all important too, and in some ways more rewarding. Collecting, even on behalf of an institution, has a rather selfish and competitive dimension, while making the stuff available once it is at the Newberry is a pure social service. In recent years, I have tried to combine the research and access functions through some online publishing projects that put images of Newberry books, with my own interpretations, on the web. I like to think my historical perspectives are value added, but many artists and designers seem to think that the images also speak for themselves. That’s really exciting to me.

What is your definition of curating?
Well, the word comes from the root for taking care, so I tend to think curators gather and care for things first (in the sense of conservation). They also arrange them in some logical way that makes them accessible to others. And, finally, they interpret them for a broad public that may not otherwise know they exist or care about them. I suspect that many curators think of this last, interpretive function as the primary one; others think of themselves primarily as collectors. But I prefer to emphasize access. That is what makes the other work worth doing.

What is challenging about curating and how do you deal with it?
Ah. There are many challenges. Seems like a new one every day. But they all come down to not having enough money or time. And you deal with a lack of resources in a library or museum the same way you do anywhere else: by doing less or taking shortcuts. The trick is not letting the shortcuts mean you do “less well.”

What individuals or places do you recommend
for their curating practice?

This is hard, because I rarely get behind the scenes anywhere else but at the Newberry! I can say that as a researcher in printing and design history, I have had really great experiences recently at the University of Iowa Special Collections and at the University of Illinois/Urbana. To the degree that a good research experience indicates good curatorial work behind the scenes, I can recommend those collections.

What is your advice to people who want to curate,
not only professionally, but as a personal passion?

Well, your question implies the answer I would give. You have to start with passion, not for a single subject but for the variety of subjects that you will inevitably encounter in an institution. If you are going to work professionally as a curator, you have to be able to get excited about other people’s passions. It is fine to develop a specialty or two, but don’t ever let it get in the way of sharing enthusiasms.

There looks to be a few types of web-based curators:

Web-based curators share their collections. There’s a lot of regurgitation, but it echoes Gehl’s stress on access. It’s no different than finding out that your friend also collects wooden ducks or a friend who also collects comic books and on and on. I liked the fact that my co-worker also collects stamps. I may never actually see his collection, but viewing others’ collections online is an option—like the rich collection of vintage books collected by Designer Shawn Hazen, whose blog Book Worship “represents the obsessions of an atypical book collector.”

In addition to viewing the collection’s objects themselves, reading stories or histories behind their importance or rarity—whatever makes them special—adds to their appeal. Dave Cuzner shares and gives background to a majority of work from his collection of “classic design work from the 1950s–1970s” at his blog Grain Edit. Designer James Phillips Williams’ writes wonderful stories about the printed matter from his “manic collecting” at Amassblog. Stories allow collections to escape a flatland fate.

Creating feeds curating and vice versa. Justin Knopp, of private press Typoretum, collects “lead and wooden types, printing machines and other paraphernalia,” which naturally feeds his immersion with letterpress printing.

Then there are those who help guide the curatorial collections of others, like Joanne Molina, Editorial Director of The Curated Object, a “non-profit media project interested in the exhibition and display of decorative arts, design and objects and those who find our engagement with them compelling.” When asked why she created her blog, she describes curating as a way to channel curiosity: “Honestly, I want people to go to museums, galleries and other public spaces to think about the ‘things’ that surround them and discuss—it’s that simple.”

Curating is sharing enthusiasms
Whatever the curatorial type that a person embodies online, they have the common purpose to “share enthusiams,” to borrow Gehl’s phrase. This is the takeaway with each website visited, like an installation in a museum or gallery. You arrive at the space with interest and you leave, hopefully, with a different perspective. Websites are installations, with room to grow. Great to see many people curating their passions on the web, where curating isn’t beholden to only a few but to many.

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