The meaning of curation

The term is ever-changing, especially now with the advent of technology

Updated - December 25, 2017 12:21 am IST

Published - December 25, 2017 12:15 am IST

Curation is a much-maligned term. What does it actually mean? In ancient Rome, senior civil servants in charge of various public projects were identified as curators. In the medieval period, priests who were devoted to ‘the care of’ souls were given this distinction. Today, as journalist Alex Williams writes in The New York Times , curation seems to have become a fashionable word for anyone who is culling and selecting. He writes: “In more print-centric times, the term of art was ‘edit’ — as in a boutique edits its dress collections carefully. But now, among designers, disc jockeys, club promoters, bloggers and thrift-store owners, curate is code for ‘I have a discerning eye and great taste’.” Poetry evenings have curators. So do flower shows and garage sales. Perhaps lunches and dinners are curated too. I also met someone recently who had the enviously cushy job of being ‘speaker curator’ for various art festivals. Curators today are often self-proclaimed custodians of knowledge of which there could be various ways of presentation.

However, merely displaying art objects in galleries does not amount to curation. Nor does inviting three Thumri singers to perform in quick succession. Why not? Because the question to ask is this: What is this curatorial project leading to? Is there any dialogue that transpires between the performers through their recitals or the works of art on display and the viewers vis-a-vis the curation? Successful curation should enable new ways of seeing, it should create new methodologies. But if this is the case — if initiating dialogue is the purpose of curation — are teachers curators too? After all, the texts they choose for their classrooms and the discussion that ensues thereafter is no less a curatorial enterprise. There could be both merits and demerits of such a selection, but that’s a different discourse altogether. It at least activates a certain sensibility in the readers.

The term curation also smacks of a certain elitism. Curators have to be amidst the people, not distanced from them. The curatorial note, which is invariably written in obtuse, jargon-ridden English prose in India, doesn’t help either.

Further compounding the confusion now is the new dimension that curation has acquired with the advent of digital technology. Curation is no longer restricted by physical space. We are deluged with curated news lists, music, films, podcasts, and interviews on various digital platforms. Technology has led to the creation of a more democratic space, which has permitted many new entrants. The quality of online curation will eventually improve, but at least a beginning has been made. The news items we retweet and the photos we upload all amount to a curatorial sensibility expressing what we want to see and show. We are constantly curating digital identities. Perhaps, at least this will eliminate to some extent the elitism surrounding the term.

Kunal Ray teaches literary and cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune

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