Art vs. online: 2 dimensions of curating

Curating is a cool word, or trendy jargon, for what happens in web technologies and in art museums, but they are fundamentally different activities.

In this post, I want to add an alternative view to Rachel Potts who recently wrote about “When software UX met museum curation“. Where Rachel emphasises similarities, I’d like to focus on the differences, especially as they relate to art museums.

Your artefacts

One serious limitation and difference in curating at art museums, compared to anything in software and online, is that you need to care for original, unique works. If you mount a special exhibition, you need to procure them to begin with. And sometimes you cannot get them, no matter how much you want them in the show to present an artist or an era in history or to make your case.

  • Some works don’t travel because they’re fragile or because the insurance is too costly or because they’re centerpieces in the collection that owns them.
  • Some owners won’t lend works to you, because you cannot satisfy security requirements or because you’re too small a museum or because they don’t like your director.
  • Some works are simply lost.

Of course, you can always do with fewer or lesser works or, in the case of historic artefacts, with copies, but that invariably hurts the critical response and your attendance.

"Stalking Christina" - other people regarding my favorite painting

Your objectives

Another difference is that for many art museums “enabling users to learn” is one objective among many. And several other objectives are, unfortunately, at odds with it:

  • Some pieces are too sensitive to light or touch or movement to allow more than very few people to experience them.
  • Some museums need to please or placate donors (who may influence what’s shown and what not) and trustees (who may influence what gets paid for and what not).
  • Some museums don’t have the means: They lack the manpower to accommodate visitors more than a few hours per week. Or they don’t have the expertise to allow them to learn well.

Your audience

A third difference is that art museums who put on ambitious, critically well-regarded exhibitions find that attendance is surprisingly low. The reason is simple and disappointing: Many people don’t want to be enabled to learn in art museums. They don’t want to learn new things, much less have their beliefs challenged. Instead, many people visit an art museum, because of the way it makes them feel:

  • Many go to be in the presence of beauty or to be awed. Hence the success of any show whose title mentions a best-selling artist or any of the words “Impressionist”, “Gold” or “Gods” – even if the title is far-fetched and the show mediocre at best. “Dinosaurs” gets kids, and anything that flies or shoots gets their dads.
  • Some go to feel cool. Hence the success of after-work parties in modern art museums.

The words

Roger Hart once told me, it’s futile to try to stop linguistic change. And the web is a great change agent of language:

  • How many kids today know that women warriors (or a river) gave their name to an online store?
  • The German language has known about “email” for centuries (though we only spell it thus after a recent change in orthography); in English, it’s known as “enamel”.

But if language is to represent the real world, I advocate to respect the differences within one word, such as curating. Conflating two similar activities into the same word cheapens our experience of the stuff that surrounds us.

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One Response

  1. I wrote a big point-by-point reply to this and then my browser lost connectivity and I lost the whole thing!

    I have to run now, but in short – I still think that the ideas are very similar. You’ve made a list of ‘differences’ but many of them map right back onto content.

    Content gets lost. Content is difficult to transport and manipulate without destroying it. You have to balance what is ‘critically acclaimed’ or good according to your own measures with what the people really want and will come to see. You also need to learn what the contributors (donors) interests are and satisfy them to get the content you want. You can thrown in some content buzzwords and increase your audience and mindshare (with execs and stakeholders, as well as end users). Finally, other holders of content (other departments vs other museums) may not trust you, like you, or simply care to listen to you enough to share their content with you.

    Not a lot of difference in there…

    I agree you shouldn’t overload or throw words around. It makes me insane that “content management” has become so broad it’s effectively confusing just to say it. But, basically, “curation” is a good metaphor. So good in fact that under such detailed examination, it holds up just fine. It may not be a perfect metaphor, but perfection isn’t the standard by which art or metaphors are judged.

    Noz – http://lessworkmoreflow.blogspot.com // @nozurbina

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