The misuse of the term "Curator"

Stephen Calloway. Curator- Victoria and Albert Museum

As someone who has a fascination with the English language I find it incredibly interesting how the meaning and usage of words changes over time. Unfortunately in some case this can lead to a feeling that words come to be completely misused. I’ve already mentioned on here about the misuse (in my mind) of the term designer; Used to suggest someone had designed a collection when they have not. Another of my bugbears is a misuse of the term vintage, which now seems to have completely lost its meaning. Although, my biggest annoyance, as the title of this piece suggests is the misuse of the term curator.
I will begin with a dictionary definition

\ˈkyu̇r-ˌā-tər, kyu̇-ˈrā-, ˈkyu̇r-ə-\

Definition of CURATOR
: one who has the care and superintendence of something;especially : one in charge of a museum, zoo, or other place of exhibit
The term “cura” (latin) means to care for. A curator by definition is a carer of collections.
Now it would seem a curator is simply someone who “selects”, especially in the social media sense of the word.
This latin origin suggest most of my problems with the misuse of the term curate. Curation is not simply selection but also (perhaps more importantly) is CARE. In the museum setting this of particular importance as evidently museum objects are valuable  (from a monetary and social history viewpoint) and must be cared for appropriately.
I’ve seen numerous shops described as “carefully curated”, which I feel is something of a misnomer and indicates that the person using the term does not understand its meaning, as by the words definition a curator IS a carer.
I think this has to be the BEST quote on the topic:
 “Harold Koda runs the Costume Institute at the Met, so he’s allowed to describe himself as a curator—it’s his professional title. For everyone else, though, it’s just a highbrow way of saying “one who picks things out,” which describes all style bloggers, retail buyers, and people who get dressed in the morning.
Now, as someone who wants to BE a curator I get angry. This is because I feel it diminishes the role an actual curator plays. I intend to complete an MA and possibly a PHD before I would even be considered as a curatorial assistant let alone a curator. The role of the curator is a challenging one, often caught up n bureaucracy of the museum world and also a considerably amount of trouble in ascertaining whether items are suitable or not for display.
The curator is a beacon for the public to not only look after items for them, so that they can see them, but also to educate. This complicated role of the curator suggests why simply selecting a few things (for example on a pintrest board) and suggesting it is “curated” irritates me so much.
But onto an interesting point here, the rise (and  the importance of) social media. Now we need to find new ways to “define” what we do. The only problem is that by doing this we diminish the roles of what people actually do.
Often, unfortunately I believe this misuse of the word curator suggests an over inflated belief of self importance, and trying to make whatever said person is doing sound more grandiose than it actually is. I think a more appropriate word in most senses is that a person in a social media sense is often an editor, or a selector.
My annoyance not only relates to the words misuse in the online world, but also in the real world. A key example being Wayne Hemingway’s doomed vintage festival which had areas “curated” by different people. I find this ever so slightly less irritating than the words use in a social media sense, possibly because I can see a level of care that would need to go into doing this. Although still this diminishes the importance of the work of the curator. Again though it is the egoistical personality suggested of the person who describes themselves in this way that immediately put me off. This suggests curator merely as a buzzword, and related more with fashionable trends rather than history and care as it should be.
I’d be interested to know what others feel about this use of the word curate. In a social media sense would you describe yourself as a “curator”. Or like me do you see it as a sacred world associated with museums professionals?

Essential further reading:

6 thoughts on “The misuse of the term "Curator"

  1. I pretty much agree with you here. Although I would say that it has also, naturally, come to encompass a wider definition as museums change with the times. Many people who are called the 'curator' of an exhibition are actually not those people who are looking after or 'caring' for the pieces. *Those* people might not have an official title of 'curator', but they are probably closer to the dictionary definition than the person who is selecting and designing an exhibition.I consider my personal collection to be curated, although I would never seriously called myself a curator – that's an insult to people I know who have gone through the long, expensive study process to get there, but I care for it and it is of historical significance – ergo it is curated? I call myself a 'guardian', seems more apt…Definitions such as this are interesting. Few fashion/costume designers ever actually design anything on paper. Inspirations are found/shown and copies made… But the definition of design doesn't actually demand a drawing on paper – it can be more intangible than that. It's like defining art.

  2. This was a really interesting and well written article. I can't say that my hatred of misused terms is a dear to me as it is to you, as i know far less about be a curator. I agree with you though that it is frustrating when the over exposure of a word and it's association with unrelated jobs lessens the importance of original role. Although i guess this is the nature of language… people will constantly push and pull it to fit their meaning. The real curators of this world shouldn't feel to disheartened as terminology doesn't change what they do or what it means to them as an individual. I do believe that a curator should have a vast knowledge of their chosen area and genuinely want to care and preserve historic pieces, although i do not think it is entirely essential to have to do this in education institution realm … as this means that people who can't afford the education will be denied this career choice, although this is the fate for career paths. I also do not mean this as a slant on those that do an MA or PHD (I think you'd be great! i hope it all goes well). I think if a person gains experience in their field in any way possible to them then they can hold the true meaning of their job.

  3. I agree that this word is badly mis-used these days. A curator should have knowledge of the items under her care and understand their significance in a wider context. Not just put some nice pictures into an album for everyone to see. Of course language is always changing and that is good but certain changes especially many which occur on social networking sites seem to stem from a combination of ignorance of suitable alternatives and inflated egos.(EG: I will sound more important and authoritative if I call myself a curator rather than a collector).

  4. I do think that this is the latest social-media and journalistic buzzword. However, though I do imagine that if I were in your position I would feel annoyed about it, I guess you have to accept sometimes that words change meanings as languages develop. It is irritating and sometimes this 'dumbing down' of an academic term IS just incorrect. Personally I get annoyed by how easily the term 'designer' is thrown around, in all spheres, not just fashion. But like all things to do with trends I think that it will pass. There are enough people in academia to ensure that the use of language continues to be pure and meaningful. Otherwise – what would everyone write their essays on ?! Academia is after all about categorising. (the number of times I have enhanced or expanded an essay by picking apart the question itself…)

  5. Hi and apologies for the late response. I have just found your blog and had to respond as I completely agree with what you say. I don't believe that the majority of people using the word actually give much thought to it's meaning. I think they see others using it and copy. I understand that some people think it doesn't matter but it does. Words are used to communicate and so being inaccurate means running the risk of being misunderstood. Generally what people who say they have curated mean is the they collected or selected meaning they are offering a collection or selection and not a well cared for exhibit. While the misuse of "curate" in this context is unlikely to be misunderstood it is a symptom of sloppiness with language which can lead to misunderstanding. I have lost count of the number of times when people have confused the term "vintage" with simply secondhand. I know there are arguments as to how old an item must be to be truly vintage and whether it is more than simply age, but most would agree preloved high street brands from the past 5 years are not vintage!!

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