What is Curation?

What is Curation? What does a curator actually do?

Confession: Even in this industry, when I hear the word, “curation,” my first thought isn’t always about digital content. My first thought is about the chairs in art museums.

I’ve always been fascinated by the chairs and benches in art museums. To be able to really appreciate certain artworks requires a chair: it takes time to let oneself absorb a work of art, to reflect, to be affected by it. But not all artwork has a bench nearby. Those chairs don’t get where they are by accident, and the art that’s in front of them is there for a reason.

Curation is the secret behind the placement of the artwork in front of those chairs and benches. Art museums curate their collections constantly. The curators at a museum research and add artworks, but more importantly, they rotate what’s in front of the public to keep interest high and to better showcase the works. A curator will take the space and the artwork and the audience into account, to best display selected elements of what’s available in the collection. Good curation doesn’t just show you art; it shows you art that’s interesting to you, in a way that’s approachable and lets you best appreciate it. The lighting, the artwork, the timing of when a work is displayed, and even the chairs and benches, all operate together to improve your experience.

Curating well means knowing your audience: who they are, what they like and are familiar with, and what new things you can place in front of them that they will also appreciate and be delighted by. Curation takes the location into account, whether it’s a mobile screen or a laptop or a wall, and puts the content out there in a way that makes it inviting. This means adjusting the lighting or the signage or in some cases, the typeface and the image size, to best feature the content.

Curation is thinking about all of these things, and creating a display of content that people want to visit, combining standard features that they will come back for time and again, and new exhibits that they come in particularly to see.

This is true for all curation, whether it’s paint or pixels, sculpture or news.

David Palmer