Source: Social Media and the Changing Role of the Curator

Sorry everyone, my blog posts are getting a little out of order the past few weeks. This post refers to Week 12: Public Engagement/Crowdsourcing. Will post entries to make up for the gaps here soon.

This week we are talking about not only the transformation of the word “curator” and its implications in general language, but the changing role of the curator in an age of increasing digital projects in the galleries and social media as a tool for outreach, education, and crowdsourcing projects. Within the past few years we see the word used in pop culture as kind of a trendy stand-in for “editor” or “designer”, or, in some examples, simply a, “picker-outer.” You curate your iTunes playlists, your garden, your Instagram account. It isn’t exactly that this terminology is wrong, but the popular usage seems to have overtaken the museum/gallery-specific use as of late. I think this actually reflects the fact that the work a “traditional” curator of art does is in a state of flux in response to the rise of social media.

Nancy Proctor’s article “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Campion, in the Age of Social Media” [1] was particularly helpful in hashing out the changing nature of curatorial work and perception of curatorial work in museums today. Proctor serves as a Digital Editor of the Curator journal, and has a decade’s worth experience implementing digital tools in the New Media Department at the Smithsonian. The table from the borrowed list of Smithsonian curator David Allison on the first page gives us the basic gist: Change is “In”; Stability/stodginess is “Out.” “Curators as experts” gives way to “Curators as collaborators and brokers.” Instead of the published monographs, telling stories. In place of Control, Collaboration. And taking advantage of all the Web has to offer in terms of social media is very much “in.” One analogy Proctor cites from Steven Zucker, dean of the School of Graduate Studies at FIT, also gives us the gist of the shift: “[Zucker] has described it as a transition from Acropolis – that inaccessible treasury on the fortified hill – to Agora, a marketplace of ideas offering space for conversation, a forum for civic engagement and debate, and opportunity for a variety of encounters among audiences and the museum.” So what does this look like in practical terms for museums and the jobs of curators? According to Proctor, it means user-generated content, “crowd curation”, forums for online discussion, and highlighting social media exchanges. In short, curators are facilitating, both in the “analog platform” of the museum and online, the incorporation of many voices for selecting art, performing art, and engaging in discourse.

I think even to those of us who have studied art history and museum studies in school for a few years, maybe volunteered, interned, or worked in museums, may have still had a certain expectation of what a curator’s work is or isn’t, and that expectation may be challenged and continue to shift as the field does. In my opinion, it is challenged for the better and on to more interesting, relevant, and collaborative work – both interdisciplinary as well as between the institution and the public. Actually, on a more personal note, part of the reason I went into Library Science (and hopefully remaining in an art museum or university art department, fingers crossed) is that I wanted to continue to do curatorial work (the content knowledge, collection development, collaboration with curators if I’m in a museum setting) in a capacity that fit my interests and skill set more than the old “stodgy” model of the curator who focuses mostly on gaining a wealth of knowledge on a niche of expertise. My conception of curatorial work changed, and could align better with my motivation to reach outward with a public always in mind, rather than more inward, with my research at the forefront of my career. Of course museums are shifting from this model, and I think collaboration with librarians, archivists, and tech-focused employees makes museums all the nimbler in instituting these changes and dealing with them creatively.

A few years ago I happened on the article, “The Power of Non-Experts” [2] by Desi Gonzalez, for Hyperallergic, one of my favorite art blogs. I re-read it today in light of this batch of readings about crowd sourcing and social metadata, and although the article is only 3 years old, it strikes me as kind of quaint that Gonzalez was hired to stand around in the galleries and gather responses, face-to-face, from museumgoers a few years prior to the writing of the Hyperallergic post. The idea that a lot of the public finds art, especially contemporary art in general, baffling, is not a new idea, nor is the resentment about “not getting it” and being condescended to by an “expert.” Part of the point of the article, that museum goers each bring their unique experience to art viewing and form their own opinions and interpretation of the work that may or may not be informed by past art knowledge, a curatorial vision for the exhibition, a docent-led tour, or wall labels, is nothing new either. But now, seeking out and valuing this input from visitors is revitalizing engagement and interactivity, and hopefully inclusivity (see any number of critical pieces on the museum as a space of privilege). I think the ongoing challenge will be deciding how to incorporate that valuable expertise (read: content knowledge and original scholarship) of the curator, who can hopefully retain their voice while in conversation with all the others. It is certainly exciting to learn about examples of the types of programming, exhibit design, and web-based interactives that are being implemented, but I think the impetus behind it all (the above mentioned education, inclusivity, respect for diversity of visitors) reflects a positive change in the role of the curator and in museums as a civic space of inclusion.

With regards to a GLAMwiki project idea, I have learned through my Kress project that the Ackland has a number of pages of printer’s marks from books published by Northern Renaissance printing houses. While there is of course a Wikipedia page dedicated to explaining what a printer’s mark (or printer’s device) is, it would be interesting to open a Wiki up where the Ackland could partner with institutions that have Rare Book Collections (which encompass museums, archives, libraries, maybe even dealers of rare books?), to put all of these images in one place in order to compare them and also seek knowledge from book experts, as these pages often end up in art museums without a dedicated curator of incunabula (books printed before 1501) or old books generally. I have to give credit to Heather Aiken, my Education partner of the Kress Fellowship, for this idea, but there could be a creative element with a section dedicated to users uploading their original designs of their own personal printer’s mark.


[1] Proctor, Nancy. “Digital: Museum as Platform, Curator as Champion, in the Age of Social Media.” Curator 53/1. 2010. 35-43.

[2] Gonzalez, Desi. “The Power of Non-Experts.” Hyperallergic. January 3, 2013.