Curation and Mediation at the 2013 Arts and Culture Conference at the University of North Dakota

I’m pretty excited about this week’s Arts and Culture Conference. Its theme is Cultures of Curation (and features a super snazzy poster). Archaeologists (and historians) love curation. In fact, one could argue that archaeology is primarily a discipline of curation. We not only spend significant time fussing with publications, but we also are obsessed with the archival aspects of our work. This extends from how we plan to conserve and present the physical artifacts themselves to our interest in the distribution and archiving digital artifacts.


And, yes, that is a sexy poster design by Joel Jonientz.

Curation is a hot topic these days (as this Ngram view shows):

Google Ngram Viewer

So, to get myself in the spirit, I thought I’d offer up three things that I want to think about at this week’s festivities.

1. Curation as Mediation. One of the most interesting aspects of curation in archaeology is how much it involves the archaeologist moving objects from one system (or context) to the next. This shift from one system to the next serves to make the objects of archaeological study accessible to different kinds of questions. In other words, an object located on the floor of a collapsed building has a different meaning than one on a museum shelf. In its “archaeological context” the object can speak to it use during the lifetime of the building, the history of building, and the formation processes that contributed to presence of the object on the floor.

The act of curating prioritizes some aspect of the object’s context – whether it be the object’s form, the object’s context, or the standing of the object as an example for a larger process – and recontextualizes it according to this value. The curator translates the objects from one context to the next (in both the Latin meaning of carrying across and the Medieval context of moving a sacred object from one site to the next). Curation, then, is the act of mediation as it emphasized the middle zone between one context and the next and how this unstable middle zone both imparts meaning and captures the inherent instability of meaning.

2. Curation and the Dynamic Archive. In my thinking about curation, I tend to think of it in the context of the object. I know, though, that the days of stable objects subjected to mediating influences are behind us. New digital objects are unstable, constitute and reconstitute themselves at the demand of the curator, the researcher, the querier, or the audience. The spirit of the linked-data movement see databases, for example, as entities that stretch extend beyond single creators, datasets, and users, and reconstitute themselves constantly and new data constructs new relationships.

In keeping with the idea of the curator as a mediator, curation become a decentralized practice the curator focuses on relationships rather than objects in a traditional sense. The managing of relationships within curatorial systems allows for decentralized collections to emerge and to constantly produce new contexts for existing material.

The most obvious example of this is a site like Wikipedia which houses perhaps the single largest collection of linked data in the world. The line between curator and contributor is blurred completely, and the links between entries and between the entries and other large datasets on the web (most notably spatial datasets) ensures that the structure of Wikipedia data is a significant as the actual data present in the entries.

3. Curation and the Web. As innumerable web-pundits have argued, the web is the single greatest curatorial enterprise (perhaps) in human history. Social media, blogs, wikis, and the like provide a constant space for individuals to assemble, collect, and mark web content for secondary consumption. With the massive expansion of Facebook and Twitter the web has continued the process of democratizing the culture of curation. Each individual curates a dynamic museum of content and shares it with a complex network of friends, followers, and readers. 

With this new environment for curation, the curator becomes both more secondary to the act of curation (we’re all curators, after all) and more individualized as the standards of curation drift across the varying tastes and practices of millions of users in the web. So the title of this year’s conference “cultures of curation” is particularly apt way to describe the practice of curation on the web. Culture perhaps best describes the distributive practices of curation in the 21st century. 


Just for fun, I ran a Google Ngram on the words “curate” and “curator”. Curator is in red and curate is in blue. Both show a slight uptick in frequency over the past decade, but nothing like the dramatic ramping up that the word curations demonstrates.

Google Ngram Viewer 3

My temptation is to argue that the verb “to curate” and the individual, “the curator”, fail to capture the decentralized context of curation in the digital age. Curation remains a strong and persistent interest, but curating and curators are actions and agents of an earlier age.  

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