Curating the ordinary

Museum, New York City | Photo by Garrett Ziegler via Flickr

Today, a freight elevator containing found objects is a museum, and everyone is a curator.

The traditional meaning of  the verb to curate is to select, organize, and look after items, usually of some antiquity and/or value, in a collection or exhibition of a museum or art gallery.

But have you noticed how it’s being used these days in all sorts of non-museum contexts?

The herald of this trend, for me, was a line from the song Whatever You Want by Vienna Teng that arrested me with its powerful imagery: “She goes on curating your domestic museum/she disappears in her loyalty.”

Maybe because the metaphor was so startling and evocative, all my subsequent encounters with the word curate in new contexts have rather paled in comparison.

“I turned to some established success stories and carefully curated their secrets,” writes the author of this Huffington Post piece on how to make the most of your twenties. “Check out our collection of curated artisan and vintage products,” urges a gourmet website.  “Usher ‘curates’ Macy’s fireworks show: Music to feature Kanye West, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Kelly Clarkson, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert,” announced The New York Times last July 4th.

To me, it all sounds rather too pretentious, and not even strictly correct. But I am a vocabulary nut, so I did a little research and it turns out I’m not alone in my discomfort.

“I’m beginning to squirm when I hear a lot of people talk about curating because it seems to suggest that organizing your sock drawer — or choosing what hats, shoes or lipsticks to arrange in a store window — calls out the same creative imagination as cataloging and collecting the 1,000-plus works of Johann Sebastian Bach, or preparing and protecting the contents of King Tutankhamen’s tomb to display for the ages,” writes NPR’s Scott Simon.

“How long will this new use of ‘curate’ last?  We suspect it will go away once it’s no longer on the cutting edge,” predicted the Grammarphobia blog — in 2011.

But  it looks like the trend has become firmly entrenched in modern language. Even the online Oxford Dictionary has expanded its definition of curated items to include “acts to perform,” for example at a music festival, and “suitable content, typically for online or computational use, using professional or expert knowledge.”

“Remix culture is a form of creative expression in its own right,” claims Scott Plagenhoef, the editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, a music web site.

Does this mean that the mix tapes my friends and I used to exchange are actually bits of curated culture? It would seem so. Perhaps our eagerness to style ourselves as curators indicates an increasing appreciation for the beauty of the ordinary, and that could be a good thing.

As for me, I will go on compiling lists, collecting earrings, saving recipes, choosing clothes to wear and books to read, framing photographs and hanging them—just so—on my walls.

There are so many words to select from all the richness of the English language, and much as I try every day to see the beauty in the mundane, I think it’s going to take me a while for me to comfortably refer to myself as a curator of anything.


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