To Curate--Not a Good Idea
Written by
Sheila Grinell
June 2016
Written by
Sheila Grinell
June 2016


Some months ago, while watching my favorite TV show, a contest for amateur dancers, I heard the judge say, “That’s a nice, curated improvisation.” Huh?  The contestant had done some acrobatics, a little bit of Broadway, and a touch of tap. Cute, but “curated”?  I spent forty years in the museum profession, and the curators I know do not improvise their exhibitions. Then, at the supermarket the other day, I spotted another brain-twister, a snack bar called “Curate” because it contains “a brilliant combination of unexpected ingredients.” The curators I know don’t proclaim their brilliance, they simply know their stuff. Was some misdirection going on?    

            I looked up “curate” in Merriam-Webster online:  it’s a noun meaning a person who acts as assistant to a priest in the English church; there was no entry for “to curate.” I looked up “curator”:  a noun used in museums meaning a person who organizes and maintains a collection of something—artworks, specimens, or artifacts of a particular kind. A curator spends years developing expertise through study and experience in the field. The institution in which the curator labors, and the public, rely on the curator’s expert opinion. We need experts to hold up the score cards at the Olympics; you wouldn’t trust lay people to know the difference between a toe loop and an Axel.  

             It seems that the English language has evolved a new usage. “To curate,” according to Macmillan, means to select items from among the many available in a genre, especially in digital media, and arrange them in a thematic fashion for other people to enjoy. Commercial outfits do a version of this all the time. I’m not concerned with them. I’m worried about the dance contestant, the shopper at the supermarket, the ordinary person at the keyboard.

            Think of all the hours people spend selecting items to pin, like, share, retweet, and send into the ether. As a kid, I used to spend hours at the library doing something similar. I would locate books by an author whose name I had spotted at my best friend’s house and move along the shelf from there. I would select eight books, the check-out limit, to take home and show my sister, who preferred not to read them. But internet scanning differs from library browsing because of its reach (into every library everywhere) and ease (nothing to carry). It’s qualitatively different, and so deserves its own verb. But let it not be “to curate.”

            Curators do more than accumulate objects. They scrutinize the social implications of their work. Because of what an art curator exhibits, certain artists or collectors could get richer. Because of what a natural historian does, certain scientists could win more research funding. A zoo curator can save a species from extinction. Curators scour their literature for new information that either confirms or challenges their knowledge and practices. They police themselves to enforce their professional ethics. They jealously safeguard the public’s trust. 

            When people “curate” their web experiences, it seems to me, they don’t worry about the broader impacts. Granted, some teachers make pin boards of reference material for their students, but most people are focused on themselves. They seek to preserve a moment in time, a mood, an experience; they want to be able to jog their memories at some future date, or to send a thought or a wish out into the universe, or to create a self-image that satisfies.

            I object to the use of “to curate” in this context because it devalues the hard-won expertise of the curator while inflating people’s sense of self-importance. Use “curate” for your electronic picking and choosing and you imply that you are a skilled analyst and a taste maker, that you are in the know. You may think there’s no real harm in appropriating the curator’s mantle, but there’s no real benefit in assuming you have expertise if you do not. You could easily lead yourself astray.

            We need more apt wording for the browsing and broadcasting web platforms enable, wording that celebrates personal choice without self-congratulation. Anyone have a good idea?

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  • Right? Like, clearly it's an adaptation, a verbification of a noun for which the proper verb would be something like assemble (i.e., "i am assembling a moodboard collage" ==> "I am collaging a moodboard") but it works i think because it's concise and appropriate. So, feel free to propogate. :D

  • Sheila Grinell

    Wow. Can we get your profession's use of collage as a verb out there for the general public? Sounds like a solution, unless the art world objects.


  • In my "day job" context (theatre/fashion/fine arts), we use "collage" as a verb. As in, "I need to collage a moodboard for my next collection" or "We're going to collage the textile repeat with old newsprint headlines."

  • Sheila Grinell

    Rachel, "collage" works as a noun but we need a verb! Sigh.

  • Thank you for this. It's been a peeve of mine for a while, this usage of "curate."

    "Collage" would be more appropriate, perhaps.

  • RYCJ Revising

    I had to read this post twice. One loosely, and the second time closely. 

    Curator, generally defined: a keeper or custodian of a museum or "other collection" is prima facie. The curator specializes in collecting a particular, or particular artifacts that builds trust among his or her audience. 

    I'm not clear about how the term applies in a virtual environment. Not to create waves, but I can't wrap my mind around curating something akin to magnetic waves... or air, and I'm not sure anyone else has been able to do so either. This is where, if I'm reading this correctly, you may be correct. There needs to be another word that; a word that whoever knows it, has curated it;-). Thanks for writing this post. This was a GOOD ONE.

  • Irene Allison

    Interesting post, Sheila, thank you! Yes, it certainly is interesting how language evolves and usages change. No doubt the biggest driver of that right now is technology. 

    I'm coming up short on an alternative for "to curate" in its newest techno evolution, but I'd love to hear what ideas others come up with!