When is curating, not curating?

Putting photographs of beards on the internet isn’t curating.

Emma King, museum curator.

Everything is curated these days. We’ve all seen it. The Curator restaurant, Curators’ snacks, Curator clothes labels, beard curation and even curated ears–which has nearly 40,000 posts tagged on Instagram. By comparison #museumcurator is tagged in 4700 posts. But when is curating, not really curating at all?

In this post we explore this question with museum curator Emma King, Director of the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre and Holocaust Survivors’ Friendship Association at the University of Huddersfield.

Tell us a bit about your background and journey into curating. 

I started working in museums in the late 1990s and took a fairly typical route into the sector for the time. A degree in Archaeology and History, an MA in Museum Studies at Leicester, and a period at Kirklees museums working front of house and in various volunteer roles. However I didn’t really learn about curating until I got my first ‘proper’ museum job at National Museums Liverpool. I was very lucky to work with people who matched their subject expertise with a passion for communication. I learnt about the technical aspects of collection management and research but also about consultation, interpretation and the importance of multiple perspectives.

At what point did you start self-identifying as a curator?

Only in the last couple of years. My museum career has been quite diverse and much more focused on public engagement than on objects and collecting. Perhaps I wanted to avoid being stereotyped as an obsessive hoarder of stuff. However in recent years I’ve taken responsibility for a significant collection and curated a major exhibition and found a bit more confidence to claim that title. At the same time the museum world’s concept of what a curator is has evolved and broadened so it’s no longer just about collections (if it ever was). 

We’ve seen a great increase in people using the term curate or curated to describe everything from ear piercings to beards to canapés. How would you define a curator?

There’s a trend towards people using the word ‘curating’ when what they actually mean is programming, or ‘choosing’. I do see this as a compliment even though it winds me up. I think what they are laying claim to is the kind of connoisseurship that is associated with traditional curating particularly in the context of art – that combination of taste, expertise and quality that your marketing needs to convey if you are selling earrings at £300 a time. I’d say a ‘proper’ curator (in a museum sense) is defined by what you do and how. 

What features, activities or characteristics do you recognise as genuinely curatorial?

I like your 50/50 model of a curator as part knowledge creator, part communicator. Both these traits are essential. There’s a set of collection management standards that have evolved over many years and that I think are necessary for a curator responsible for a physical (or digital) collection to understand. Curators in UK museums operate within an ethical framework that should underpin every aspect of their work. But curatorship isn’t static. There is a move towards activism in curating and museums more generally which is really exciting. 

What definitely isn’t curating? Can you give some examples?

Putting photographs of beards on the internet isn’t curating. Neither is choosing your earrings or eyeshadow shades. Neither – my personal bugbear – is creating a playlist. All these things might fulfil the aesthetic, selective and perhaps the communication aspects of curating but not much else. 

Can curators exist outside the art world, museums and galleries, in your opinion? If so, what do you expect it to be like?

It’s a fascinating example of language evolution and cultural differences that a bank can now be put into curatorship. So can a person. Who knew? [a term used in South Africa for going into administration or to denote power of attorney–Ed.]

Finally, what message would you like to give to any wannabe or self-styled curators?

Be curious. Hone your expertise. Learn from others – ask, listen, watch. Know your own motivations and values – understand what you are doing and why. Your earrings look great, by the way. 

Curator Emma King caring for a museum showcase display.