The Top Five Keys to Good Curating

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If you’ve been to an art show, used a specialty library, or even had a subscription to a fancy magazine, you already have been the client of a curator who has worked on a collection of “content”.

The curator may not have known you personally, but there were certain assumptions made about why you would be interested if you showed up. From there, if you did show up, and you stuck around or saw something you wanted to keep, the curator’s job was a success.

One thing you didn’t know about the situation was what the Curator left out. There may have been a very much more additional amount of material available somewhere, but it just wasn’t offered by the curator.

Something you may have experienced when you showed up is that you were clearly interested in the collection presented, but you didn’t agree with the choices that were made.

But of course, another experience you may have had is that the collection made it more obvious to you why you were interested, perhaps in ways that you did not expect.

And yet one more experience might have occurred to you, in this case when the collection made you feel less interest in the material than before, because it exposed something that had not been clear before.

Finally, you might have noticed that a collection meaning quite a lot to you fell completely outside of the interest of someone else you thought you knew would also care.

Curators are generally expected to come up with some version of “The Best” of something. They are given access to large numbers of items, and usually wind up with a smaller number representing some kind of superiority.

But that expectation can be very basically misleading.

ORGANIZATION

The famous musical artist Grace Jones once came out with a song that flatly stated what millions of people really felt about romance: “I’m Not Perfect, But I’m Perfect For You”.

A similar appeal to quality has been captured and repeated very often in many fields: “Perfect is the enemy of Good Enough”.

When we think about the fact that something can have different meaning to different people, it becomes more obvious that eliminating things might be the wrong step, whereas assigning them correctly is almost by definition the right step.

It could be that in a collection of some number X of items, the first important thing a curator can do is determine how anything in it has value.

 CONTEXT

Value is an overused word that, nonetheless, has a good working definition. Value is “a distinction that has an importance”. That is, the only way to get “value” is to first declare what “important” includes, and then to find something that has – or even better, causes – a difference that meets the criteria.

In that collection of X number of items, it can be the case that every item in it has value in some way. The curator of a collection is constantly checking items to see if and how they have value according to some known kind of importance.

PERSPECTIVE

Often, it is the curator’s job to define “importance”, especially if the particular definition has been unproved, previously unnoticed, vague, or infrequently accepted. This can take some insight and some bravery; one person long ago took the risk of focusing on the strange idea of “things that revolve around the Sun” but, in the long run, got away with it and the collection of related ideas became quite popular.

RELEVANCE

Any item of content can be rich enough in its mix of parts and thoughts that these following two things become part of the deal. One, the item may be valuable in several different ways. And two, it may be difficult to “decode” the item enough to decide what kind of importance is most likely to be the primary one. Complexity in an item of content can even be a serious barrier to figuring out whether there is really any achievement of “quality” to rely on. This means the curator is also responsible for advocating characteristics of items clearly enough to show that they are good enough to represent the value being proposed. Abstract art took a pretty good beating in many quarters, until enough people learned how to look at it and decided that it actually fit its purpose.

CONSISTENCY

When a curator is doing things well, regularity starts to set in about the way items are handled. Said a little differently, the curator virtually establishes “rules” that represent how something is noticed and correctly identified for value. But imagine that the rules kept changing while the curator was trying to finish working through the collection. Well, we’ve seen pretty good fights break out over things like college admissions, who gets bonuses, or who gets picked for the team. If there don’t appear to be rules to rely on, there is not much expectation that the choices are the best ones either. And like in science, if a curator realizes that the evidence doesn’t fit the claim, then it’s time to either look for better evidence, or it’s time to change the claim. The “results” are not published with inconsistencies blended in. Curating a collection is a process that requires meeting the standards for value that have been advertised.

This all adds up to five ways that being a curator amounts to doing the right thing with the collection of content. Individually they are important. But they also rely on each other, so it one of them is missing or defective, the others may suffer as well.

  • Organization
  • Context
  • Perspective
  • Relevance
  • Consistency

The good news about it all is that it neither prevents very unusual collections from being handled, nor does it mean that a collection can provide only one desirable kind of value. The main effect of curating is to expose and clarify value that is already available from the content collection.