Once upon a time a curator was a person who worked in a museum or gallery. They were in charge of looking after noteworthy items and displaying them in an appealing and informative way for public consumption. They might even have had a curation qualification.
Today everyone is a curator. Fashion designers ‘curate’ their collections; musicians ‘curate’ records; boutique owners no longer stock up, but, you got it, ‘curate’ their wares. Curation is the go-to activity for those hawking luxury and fashionable brands, but it’s also being applied to less glitzy walks of life like learning and development and human resources.
What to make of this etymological shift?
On the one hand it seems designed to make things sound better than they are; a reconstructed, zeitgisty verb equivalent to a nice polish and buff. As Nicholas Booth puts it in this excellent post, ‘people do it as a form of self-aggrandisement’. And where does this end? Slather some marmite on toast and consider your breakfast ‘curated’?
Then again, there’s something quite apt about applying a word that denotes sorting the wheat from the chaff and making it more digestible. In an information-heavy world perhaps that is why the word has found such popularity.
Besides, according to Mark Macleod, head of The Infirmary museum in Worcester, the term is dying out in the his industry anyway. ‘Really curator is a term used by universities and national [institutions], or traditional organisations and in America. “To curate” is very much in public use now and I guess has been lost by the UK museum and gallery sector for good,’ he observes.
Perhaps it is not only churlish, but foolish to rail against the great curation. After all, it’s a chance for my own profession to boast a new job title: ‘Curator of words’.
Post script -
The OED notes that in 1969 The Daily Telegraph reported, ‘All London Zoo’s mammals were being curated with tremendous flair.’ Wherever you stand in the great curate debate, I am sure we can all agree that this is a pretty splendid use of the word.