The Changing Definition of the Word “Curate”

Let’s begin with an aside, to catch your attention and present an alternative meaning of the word that I am interested in today: a curate is a “member of the clergy engaged as assistant to a vicar, rector, or parish priest.” Coming from the Latin cura, meaning care, a curate’s job is to care for the souls belonging to a parish. This flows nicely into the term’s other meaning, of primary interest to my current exploration: to curate is to “select, organize, and look after the items in a collection or exhibition,” traditionally in a museum or gallery. To care for objects of art, to care for human souls.  In these traditional definitions, both terms are warm, sheltering, dedicated, and passionate.

Yet all language always morphs to reflect social reality, and the term curate has recently acquired various other meanings. Did you know of biocuration? I didn’t, until today. One can curate biological information and data, to select, organize, and look after it. I do know that the owners of many blogs claim to “curate” their collection of photographs, quotes, and works of art… unfortunately, through reblogging and linking to google. Undoubtedly legitimate web-based curation exists, but there remains very much room to doubt the legitimacy of very much of it.

I do doubt the legitimacy of many types of contemporary “curation.” By expanding the meaning to a very general term society is robbing the original, professional, educated curators of their title’s credibility. A tumblr user does not curate their blog, neither does a homeowner curate their wall display, and a small child does not curate a collection of dry fall leaves in between the pages of a book. Christine Sciacca, however, curates the exhibit on Early Renaissance art at the AGO, to give one example.

What the bloggers, homeowners, and curious children do is instead called collection; or decoration, self-expression, the presentation of personal beliefs and ideas, the forming of arguments, the sentimental-holding-on-to-something-beautiful. Thoughtful examination. These are all such worthwhile endeavors, and I believe that anyone pursuing them, while not curating anything, is living well.

And perhaps one day some of us collectors and curious organizers will become in-depth researchers and true caretakers of the art and the ideas that we are passionate about, and become curators. Until then we can rest assured that there is still virtue in the simple assembly of bits and pieces of inspiration, at a level of detail and knowledge that we see fit, and at one that should not be held up to professional standard – or to professional terminology.


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