Curating the Digital World: Past Preconceptions, Present Problems, Possible Futures


Susan Cairns, USA, Danny Birchall, UK

Abstract

Is the role of museums to curate the web as well as their own collections? How does ‘curating’ as an activity relate to a digital world? This paper looks at the history of museum curation as a profession in order to understand the emergence of ‘curation’ as an activity that happens outside museums in relation to a growing and hyperconnected world of digital information. It examines the source of curatorial authority in both connoisseurship and filtering, asking how that authority might be affected by in an era of abundant information and abundant human cognitive capacity, then looks at the Walker Art Center as an example of an institution that has focused its curatorial energies on the world beyond the museum. The role of algorithms as an alternative to human curation, both as personal filters and generators of public experiences is examined, and the relationship of curation to both material and digital objects questioned. It looks at how taking participative forms of curation can be taken beyond the gallery floor; how networks can enable the collaborative creation of history; and suggests that on a larger scale both algorithms and humans might contribute to an expanded museum catalogue that offers the necessary external context to museum objects. Finally, it proposes that rather than either contesting or abandoning the idea of ‘curation’, museums and their curators need new approaches, tactics and skills to effectively make sense of both their own collections and the digital world.

Keywords: curation, curator, algorithms, emerging trends, new approaches

Curating the Digital World: Past Preconceptions, Present Problems, Possible Futures

In some corners of the Web, a semantic battle is being fought for the meaning of the word “curate.” Once a term describing the activities of museum professionals, in the early twenty-first century curate has come to be applied to a wide range of online activities involving the choice and presentation of other people’s content. Technology evangelist Robert Scoble sees “real-time curation” as the bundling of social microcontent (Scoble, 2010), while Maria Popova refers to her selection and contextualisation of online material as “curating interestingness” (Sweeney, 2012). Meanwhile, many from the museum and art world defend the “age-old skill” and “meticulous practice” of fine art curation against an activity they see simply as “fancy choosing” (Ahn, 2013) or even just “filthy blogging” (Sicha, 2012). Still others monitor the usage of the term as it proliferates and mutates (see Curating the Curators, http://curatingthecurators.tumblr.com/)

In this paper, it is not our intention to settle or even join this battle (or to discuss “digital curation” in the sense of the maintenance of digital archives), but rather to use this particular moment as an opportunity to examine what curation might come to mean both inside and outside museums in a world of ubiquitous digital objects. Traditional acquisition patterns of material objects are being disrupted; a superfluity of digital objects exists to be arranged and filtered both inside and outside museums; and museums increasingly find it necessary to share the authority of meaning-making with their audiences and other communities. New methods and meanings of curation might also offer a common ground where the work of the museum can be done both both within and without its walls.

Though curators now might stand for a certain intellectual authority and authenticity in museums, the emergence of the curatorial profession has certainly been a troublesome process. As museums emerged as major public institutions in the nineteenth century, control of collections still rested with the collectors, with museums staffed by amateurs and enthusiasts; the role of curator was often more like a “caretaker-servant to those in authority.” In the United Kingdom, establishment of the Museums Association (MA) went some way to establishing both a professional ethos for curatorial employees and their centrality by displacing collectors and artists in the new museum hierarchy: as the president of the MA declared that year, “[T]he soul of the Museum is the Curator” (Teather, 1990). Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the curatorial role, with its many responsibilities, and overlap with academic disciplines in subject knowledge have hindered its development as a distinct profession with its own structure of qualifications and professional hierarchy. Even Velson Horie in codifying the profession of curator primarily distinguishes it by its separation of responsibilities from other museum roles (Horie, 1986, 269).

If professional establishment was hard, the role of the curator came under new scrutiny in the 1990s with the development of an academic museology that looked at both the historical emergence of the museum as an arbiter of cultural values, and the museum’s role in embodying dominant social values. The continued relevance of museums in a changing world, argued critics like Eilean Hooper-Greenhill, was dependent on recognising the political nature of the museum’s authority and giving new credence to voices from outside the museum. In the process, this also offered curators a “chance to invent new definitions of curatorial professionalism” that bring audiences and museums closer together (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000a).

Meanwhile, in the world of contemporary art, a new breed of curator as auteur was emerging. Harald Szeemann and Walter Hopps eschewed permanent collections for an exhibition-making practice outside the museum, working with artists directly using the blank canvas of the kunsthalle for exhibitions structured around idiosyncratic new ideas rather than conventional art history (Levi Strauss, 2006). Hopps compared the role of the curator to that of the conductor of an orchestra; Szeemann saw himself as “more conjuror than curator” (Obrist, 2008). For both, the act of curating was less about the presentation of collections and more about the creation of new forms and experiences using the raw material of art. The influence and inspiration of independent curators has created an understanding of the contemporary art curator as an entrepreneurial auteur, a “free agent, capable of almost anything” (Levi Strauss, 2006). Today we have superstar “name” curators like Nicolas Bourriaud, whose 2009 “Altermodern” Tate Triennial came replete with its own curatorial rhetoric about a new wave of artistic production (Tate Gallery, 2009). Contemporary art curation has become a form of artistic authorship itself.

The emergence of the idea of curating as a digital activity seemed to come from contemporary art’s understanding of curation as an authorial act. One of the earliest mentions of “curating” outside the art gallery was by media theorist Steven Johnson in a New York Times roundup column of the underrated ideas of 2003. Regarding Apple’s newly introduced celebrity playlist feature in iTunes, he proposed the idea of a “curatorial culture” where a music industry traditionally polarised between makers and listeners would come to focus on an “unrewarded group in the middle: people with great taste in music” (Johnson, 2003). The idea of professional filtering also came easily to another old media titan—journalism—with pundits like Jeff Jarvis exhorting journalists to curate information rather than generate content (Jarvis, 2009). If in the early 2000s the Internet had held out the promise of disintermediation, the removal of “old media” gatekeepers like publishers and record stores, by the early 2010s a new culture of mediation flourishes. At its core, this new curation is a concept borrowed from museums and contemporary art, yet functionally stretched well beyond it to include ideas like a “globally networked consciousness” emerging from the links created by humans between different pieces of content (Van Buskirk, 2012).

But why has the concept of curation risen to such prominence beyond the museum, and why now? For Steven Rosenbaum, curation “addresses two parallel trends: the explosive growth in data, and our need to be able to find information in coherent, reasonably contextual groupings” (Rosenbaum, 2011, 5). This latter need, to be able to find information, has been complicated by the horizontal organisation of the Internet. Rather than relying on hierarchical methods for prioritising and categorising information, all data on the network is linkable to other data, creating “a vast network of information, all of which is equally accessible and none of which is privileged” (Dreyfus, 2009, 12). Not only has the information landscape been reconfigured; a priori tactics for negotiating it cannot cope with the emerging terrain. New tactics, both algorithmic and social, emerge to help make sense and meaning from the swaths of hyperconnected, hyperflexible data. The algorithmic approaches use the processing capabilities of computers to sort and manipulate the data according to human-created rules, but frequently do so in ways invisible to the eye. Meanwhile, social tactics such as curation of digital content, whether on a personal scale or via broadly curated websites, rely on personal arbitration to discover, draw attention to, and contextualise the interesting and useful. The curator of the digital world is positioned as mediator and tastemaker, using content created elsewhere as raw material for the making of meaning.

Such proximity to information and audience gives the curator of the digital world an opportunity to wield substantial power. Influential online leaders gain credibility because, over time, they establish themselves as competent and credible through demonstrating a commitment to a group’s goals or purpose; by being centrally placed within a network (or multiple loosely connected networks); and because their online communications use affective, assertive, and diverse language (Huffaker, 2010). Such online leaders can frame a conversation or shape the way a subject is discussed. This shift is reconfiguring the operation of power over information, particularly around questions of who owns and controls its spread. Being the controller or broker of information is a powerful position to hold, and just as collecting institutions (and the curators within) can affect the marketplace for collectibles or indeed the perceptions of science, history, art, or other subject matter, the curator of the digital world can impact the marketplace for news and ideas.

That an individual can him- or herself shape the way people understand the world is not itself radically new; however, concomitant with the rise in data has been what Clay Shirky has called a “cognitive surplus” (Shirky, 2010), whereby the connection and aggregation of humanity via the network also makes it possible to aggregate humankind’s time and energy to capitalise upon the opportunities the network makes available: a kind of collaborative creativity. Such accretion enables the multiplication of labour (Ridley 2011, 38), which additionally enables more people—more curators—to sort, organise, and distribute networked information, and to do so without institutional affiliation. The opportunity for influencing the world by controlling the flow of information has scaled alongside the data itself, and that is novel. As individuals and societies we are, as Shirky proposes, living through “the shock of inclusion” (Shirky, 2011, 4). He explains:

…surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

The surplus now facing humankind is multifold. It comes in the form of a radical increase in hyperconnected data, and similarly linked people. What has not scaled, yet, is the capacity of our institutions to cope with such changes.

Museums act as filters for cultural abundance. Only so much can be kept within museum storerooms or displayed in exhibitions. Limited word counts on exhibition texts require the winnowing down of very large topics to the small and essential. Many core museum functions, from the selection of what objects and information should be kept through to decisions about what information should be shared about objects, seek to do precisely this. Indeed, Ann Rigney, in an analysis of Michel Foucault’s concept of a loi de rareté, discerns that culture always operates according to a law of scarcity; that it “is always in limited supply, and necessarily so, since it involves producing meaning in an ongoing way through selection, representation and interpretation” (Rigney, 2005, 16). Scarcity, therefore, exists at the core of museum practice. Not only are rare objects frequently perceived to have greater value than if the same objects were common, the limitations on time and space within the museum proper require that curators and other staff must employ regular tactics for reduction in the face of abundance. The critical roles of selection, preservation, and dissemination are all linked to the core requirement of deciding what of a culture to keep, and how best to do so.

In Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Eilean Hooper-Greenhill documents how museum work “has involved the establishment of a canon” through which order is created “by giving authority to certain texts, figures, ideas, problems, discursive strategies and historical narratives” (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000b, 20). This process of “boundary maintenance” by experts and those with grounding in an academic and professional school of thought has had brought to prominence certain voices, or objects, through filtering and elevating. It has been through this filtering of information and culture that, for David Weinberger, museums and other knowledge institutions have drawn much of their authority (Weinberger, 2011, 10). However, the sheer scale of the problem now creates new challenges for museums and the public alike. Whilst previously the process of filtering information and culture could be trusted to curators and academics, to publishers of books and editors of news and journals, the continuously burgeoning data has broken the informational floodgates. The influx of new voices, of new curators of information, that has arrived in response threatens the very notion of a canon of knowledge with established common languages and understandings of the world. How can any single frame of reference shape a discussion about what will be important to history, when so many individual and self-appointed curators now control flows of knowledge? How can museums make sense and meaning of such inordinate amounts of hyperconnected data, organised flatly and without a clear hierarchy for establishing value? The algorithmic and social curation tools that have been adopted by the wider connected population in response to just such questions may provide some answers, but uptake is still in its nascency within museums.

The Walker Art Museum’s website, launched in late 2011, is one site built with the shifting informational landscape in mind. Director Olga Viso (2011) writes, “Understanding that we exist as part of a diverse media ecosystem, we’ve instituted a feature called ‘Art News from Elsewhere,’ which provides a curated list of annotated links to relevant stories about contemporary art that provide greater context for the work we host and produce.” Characterised as an “idea hub,” the site has a full-time editor, whose role includes the generation of original content, as well as sourcing content from both within and external to the museum. Such a response to the problems of surplus information created elsewhere draws upon new models of curation and moves the institution’s website closer to that of a news site than a traditional museum website. Early results have been positive. By May 2012, the Walker’s site had become a destination website, meaning that people went directly to it rather than accessing it only via searching or links. In addition, it received 50 percent more links in, and had greater on-site engagement, visitation, and repeat visitation (Dowden and Solas, 2012).

The Walker’s approach to curation of the digital world relies on individual curatorial and editorial judgment. But other solutions to the surplus information online are surfacing within the museum and art sector. In 2011, Will Brand of ArtFagCity asked “can computers curate?” He writes, “If we strip out the myriad social and administrative tasks of the real-life curator—the connections, the negotiations, the shipping and hanging and lighting and writing—we can arrive at a pretty simple job description: good curation is the discovery and display of unexpected or heretofore unknown patterns and flows in visual culture. So why can’t a computer do that?” (Brand, 2011) Brand argues that an algorithmic curator can counter the “certain tyranny” of the curatorial voice, and that a “convincingly unique curatorial voice is counterproductive,” a perspective that leads him to propose that “algorithmic curation may well be the most democratic method of curating possible.”

Arguably, algorithms already curate the information that we encounter online. They are, as Kevin Slavin puts it, “like an invisible architecture that underpins almost everything that’s happening” (Slavin, 2011). In doing so, they reshape how our culture works and how we understand the world. Unlike Brand, whose view of the curating done by the algorithm is that it is democratic, Slavin holds that the algorithm can actually be destructive and create a monoculture, which is far removed from how human culture actually works. “The pernicious thing about algorithms is that they have the mathematical quality of truth – you have the sense that they are neutral – and yet, of course, they have authorship” (Slavin, 2011). Additionally, there are frequent strong ties between a capitalist, consumerist society and the mathematics of search algorithms (Mager, 2012). danah boyd (2012) writes

…those who can control the flow of information and those who can control people’s attention are extraordinarily powerful. The only folks more powerful than those who control the networks are those who can make the networks… If you want power in a networked society, you need to orchestrate control over the ecosystem.

The algorithms that make sense of and manipulate the vast digital ecosystem are already becoming powerful forces in the mediation of information.

In 2009, Clay Shirky explored a similar topic when he proposed that algorithms are increasingly treated as authoritative, and that this opens the nature of authority up for grabs. “Algorithmic authority is the decision to regard as authoritative an unmanaged process of extracting value from diverse, untrustworthy sources, without any human standing beside the result saying ‘Trust this because you trust me'” (Shirky, 2009). If authority is indeed related to acts of filtering, as Weinberger proposes, then it should come as little surprise that the algorithm itself is becoming increasingly trusted. Eli Pariser (2011) sees that our increased faith in algorithms has moved the act of gatekeeping from humans to algorithms. However, for Pariser, this presents a new hitch. He writes (of the Netflix algorithm):

The problem with [the algorithm] is that while it’s very good at predicting what movies you’ll like — generally it’s under one star off — it’s conservative. It would rather be right and show you a movie that you’ll rate a four, than show you a movie that has a 50% chance of being a five and a 50% chance of being a one. Human curators are often more likely to take these kinds of risks. (Popova, 2011)

The end point of an algorithmic filter need not always be the tastes of an individual. The algorithmic curation of historical and visual objects can also be used for a very public purpose. The National Maritime Museum’s on-site “Horizon” interactive allows users to navigate five categories of museum objects on a three-dimensional immersive canvas, which uses an algorithm to organise objects by their visual similarity, offering an immediate alternative to their historicised classification and interpretation elsewhere in the museum (RenderHeads, 2011). Privileging the visual and formal as a way of breaking through the classificatory rigidity of historical and ethnographic museums is a tactic previously used by artists including Eduardo Paolozzi and Martha Fleming (Birchall, 2012). While an algorithmic performance of this task lacks some of the wit or sensibility that an artist delivers, it also offers the possibility of new discoveries by the viewer, of sensing new patterns in a field of data, provided by computation, but previously unseen by human eyes.

Outside the museum but within the realm of visual culture, Flickr’s “interestingness” algorithm is used to generate “Explore,” a browsable selection of the “best” of the photo-sharing service. Interestingness uses various patterns of behaviour among users on Flickr to create its photostream, but it is not personalised, like Netflix, and indeed few other photo-sharing services such as Picasa or Instagram offer any kind of exploration function that isn’t based on a user’s network of personal contacts. “Explore” offers the same experience for all users, and has often been derided for doing so, providing no more than “mediocre cliched photographs by complete strangers” (Hawk, 2011); nevertheless, achieving global exposure through Explore is still a highly sought-after accolade for Flickr users. While both Horizon and Explore cede the function of curation to algorithms, both also hold true to the vision of the Enlightenment museum: to provide a common experience of culture for all. Objects are filtered and arranged, but in the sight of all: algorithmic curation can generate not only relevance, but also importance and insight.

So can or should museum curators consider algorithmic methods as part of their work? Koven Smith at the Denver Art Museum has raised just such a question. In his 2012 presentation at MuseumNext in Barcelona, Smith proposed that a possible future for the museum curator was to “tweak an algorithm so that correct information is displayed” (Smith, 2012). Inspired by the work being done by Narrative Science, a Chicago-based company that automatically generates narratives and stories from data, Smith proposes that museums could use a similar approach for object records, drawing upon internal and external data to algorithmically produce collection-related narratives. He continues,

I don’t think that this is actually a radical redefinition of the curatorial role. It’s the same mission that they’ve always had, but refactored to work at web scale and speed. So instead of changing one line of text in a book to reflect current research, the curator is changing one line of code to affect a change in thousands of records at once. (Smith 2012)

How different might such an approach to curating be to current practice? How would this integrate with our understanding of curating as an authorial act? And could a move towards algorithmic narratives and curation impact upon not just the interpretation of culture, but also its collection?

Collecting is, as Russell Belk puts it, “consumption writ large” (Belk, 2013, 1), and is one of the primary roles of many museum curators. If curating is changing, will collecting and acquisition change, too? Ken Arnold writes that the museum building has a three-fold purpose in which it houses collections (objects and specimens), the people who work with these artefacts, and the knowledge that is produced out of that interaction (Arnold, 2006, 5). The museum object separates from its former life beyond the museum once it is acquired into the collection; however, the adoption of new forms of information curation raises questions about this practice. Will objects continue to be so comprehensively separated from life or their prior circumstances to be the subject of a museum’s attention? The curator of the digital world does not collect objects or information in the same way that a museum curator might, nor does he or she necessarily place the same value on care and maintenance of collated resources. This raises interesting questions for institutions that include preservation at the core of their mission. Is such a mission either relevant or achievable for museums in an era of hyperconnectivity, when the online collection—as digital document—may be more fragile and evanescent in both content and underlying platform than its counterpart in the physical museum?

For museum curators themselves, the reconfiguration of the information landscape might offer an alternative to working in isolation as a professional arbiter and guardian of collections. Hooper-Greenhill’s recognition of the necessity of allowing previously suppressed voices into the museum has been followed by explicit calls to open up the museum, and the role of curator in particular, to greater participation. Elaine Heumann Gurian suggests that the role of the curator should be transformed “from teacher and transmitter to facilitator and assister” in a museum environment in which “the visitor is intended to be the prime assembler of content, based on his or her own need” (Gurian, 2008, 6). Nina Simon’s manifesto for shared museums, The Participatory Museum, sees the need for museum visitors to “actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers” (Simon, 2010). Both Gurian and Simon take inspiration from the emergence of a participative and social digital sphere, one in which “curation” as defined by Scoble and others is an everyday practice, but largely limit their recommendations for change to exhibit design and physical access to museum collections. What might participative curation look like in its full digital extent?

Typically, museums’ invitation to participate in curation online has been to curate a selection of artworks from a digitised collection to save and share. Even in its very slickest manifestations, such as the Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio website (Rijksmuseum, 2013), this has been essentially no more than the creation of a list of “favourites,” reflecting back to museum audiences that the museum indeed sees curation (for them at least) as substantially no more than “fancy choosing.” Steps towards opening up the curation of actual exhibitions were taken with the Brooklyn Museum’s Click! photography exhibition, which filtered an open call through an online forum, experimenting with crowds’ wisdom to curate the consequent exhibition (Brooklyn Museum, 2008). Elsewhere, more sustainable crowdsourcing of social and material history has been achieved by local history projects like Toledo’s attic, a collaborative history project at the centre of a web of social media through which history of twentieth-century Toledo is discovered and told (http://www.toledosattic.org/). Toledo’s attic has evolved from an older “virtual museum” to what Arjun Sabharwal (2012) describes as “networked co-curation,” a model that is “democratised, visitor-centred, de-centralized and collaborative.” While problems of inconsistency may arise from a lack of centralized curatorial control, networked co-curation more effectively enriches public discourse, identifies emerging knowledge from outside the museum, and increases access to cultural heritage.

Even in larger institutions, an understanding of how authority and knowledge are distributed across the network in the form of both people and algorithms is shaping a new generation of digital museum presences. For the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, the process of redesigning an online catalogue from the ground up has taken into account not only that museum collections are now as likely to be accessed by the general public as researchers, but also that that public might be more capable of offering context and interpretation to those collections than curatorial professionals. “We are having to deal with the fact that someone else might be breathing life in to our collections for us or, frankly, despite us. We are having to deal with the fact that it might not even be a person doing it” (Cope, 2012). Cooper-Hewitt’s alpha catalogue in development offers the potential for crowdsourced interpretation via Wikipedia, and uses machine-tagging to draw in photographs and other types of interpretation from social and distributed content networks. “This is where the collection site will really begin to take shape as well not only be displaying the ‘thing we have’ but its relevance in the world. It puts a whole new spin on the concept of ‘collecting'” (Walter, 2012).

All of this raises many questions for museums and museum curators. Is it the museum curator’s job to act as a filter for a world of digital content? Does curating digital content, rather than just creating it, actually bring “authority” back to the institution, as Nate Solas has asserted? (Dowden and Solas, 2012) And if so, how can museum curators begin to incorporate this work with their existing practice? Do current curators require new skills and expertise, such as the writing and manipulating of algorithms, on top of their subject-specific expertise, or is the curation of the Web as it relates to the museum and its collection a new job altogether?

Writing of the Walter Art Museum’s website, The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal (2011) proposes,

In a networked world, people and institutions become valuable by becoming important nodes. That means taking on some (but not all) of the attributes of a media company… They have to learn to exist within different, overlapping ecosystems—Tumblr, Twitter, the art blog networks, cultural institution sites—and figure out how to receive ideas and content from those places, not just broadcast to them.

Such an approach raises more questions of the museum than just how these tasked should be incorporated within organisational structures (no small question in itself).

Regardless of how each institution negotiates such questions, what is clear is that the superfluity of hyper-connected information now online requires new approaches and new tactics to make meaning. In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault writes that history “organizes the document, divides it up, distributes it, orders it, arranges it in levels, establishes series, distinguished between what is relevant and what is not, discovers elements, defines unites, describes relations” (Foucault 2010, 6). The Internet, too, demands organisation and distribution, discovery and contextualisation, and recontextualisation. Although museums cannot be wholly responsible for this process, neither can they neglect it. Failure to connect that which is within the museum to the broader information ecology beyond is a failure to understand the context in which the institution’s offerings are found.

From a museum practice with uncertain beginnings and recent crises of confidence, curation has been symbolically thrust into the limelight as a means of dealing with a new order of digital information and objects. In the process, it has mutated: curating a digital world requires more than the transference of museum connoisseurship onto the realm of the Internet. At the same time, this has thrown back onto museums both possibilities and necessities for changing the way in which curation happens within the museum: which is to say that museums must deal not only with the problem of a newly flattened and connected world, but they also must deal with it through the recursive filter of their core method being adapted as a paradigmatic way of dealing with that information, even to the extent of that work being done by machines.

We might simply throw our hand: the flipside of the passionate defence of the term “curation” by the likes of Sicha and Ahn would be to abandon curation altogether; to find the museum’s true mission in education or participation and turn our backs, temporarily at least, on the museum’s role as filter and organiser of culture. More bravely, we might admit that a museum now needs to know as much about algorithms as art history; that influence is earned not given; and that interpretation is of necessity a collective activity. From there, we can begin to join others in curating the digital world.

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Cite as:
S. Cairns and D. Birchall, Curating the Digital World: Past Preconceptions, Present Problems, Possible Futures. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published February 6, 2013. Consulted .
http://mw2013.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/curating-the-digital-world-past-preconceptions-present-problems-possible-futures/


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