I was appalled to hear that the National Trust plans to ‘dial down’ its role as a cultural institution and focus on the open spaces in its portfolio instead, claiming that the Covid pandemic has merely accelerated an already difficult situation. Even though the Trust has £1.3 billion in reserves, it proposes to keep only 20 of its 500+ historic homes and castles open to the public, to put its collections into storage and to make properties available to people who are prepared to pay more for ‘specialised experiences’. Furthermore, it plans to make 1,200 redundancies, which would include dozens of its specialist curators in areas such as textiles, furniture and libraries, as well as conservation. As Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, observes, ‘the Trust’s senior management have been making a mess of their historic properties for some time, dumbing down presentation and moving away from knowledge and expertise’, adding that it was reckless to abandon expertise built up over generations as ‘once gone, it will be impossible to retrieve’. The Trust has been accused in the past of ‘Disneyfying’ its properties and this latest news will do nothing to dispel alarm. The running of the properties should be handed to an organisation willing to run them according to the founding principles of the Trust. In the meantime I, and probably many others, will not be renewing my membership.
Restaurant menus are “curated”, fashion shows are “curated”, playlists are “curated”. So, when everything is “curated,” what does the word even mean? The term has become a fashionable buzzword, but its ubiquity has left it almost devoid of meaning. It is used to suggest reassurance, implying that the thing curated is meaningful yet, mostly, its use in these contexts is meaningless. Even worse, is use of the phrase “carefully curated”, which is tautological.
The origins of “curate” lie in the Latin word “curare”, meaning “to take care of”, which is what traditional users of the term, in museums and galleries, have done for a very long time. But, the idea of curators as creative agents in their own right is new, signified by the move from vocational work to independent and critical engagement and reflected in the move in recent years by museums to credit the curators of their exhibitions. According to Hans-Ulrich Obrist, artistic director of Serpentine Galleries in London “The current vogue for the idea of curating comes from the proliferation and reproduction of ideas, processed information and images in the digital age [and that] this contemporary resonance risks producing a kind of bubble where the word in itself loses meaning.”
For me this has parallels with the archive sector and the hijacking of the terms “archivist” and “archiving”, initially by IT, but now used in a wider context to simply mean collection or storage, and not just of documents, whereas the classic definition is of records selected for permanent preservation for their historical and informational value. With the dilution in meaning and value of this professional terminology, what then can those working in the arts and heritage sector use to reflect their skills and training?
Inspired by an article - “These days, everyone’s a curator” - in The New York Times, 3 March 2020.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture