ICHORA 2020, DAY 5: Margaret Hedstrom, “The Provenance and Perversion of Curation”

Note: This presentation was one of three Keynote Addresses delivered at ICHORA 2020.

In the keynote address, “The Provenance and Perversion of Curation,” Margaret Hedstrom (University of Michigan) explores different meanings of the word “curation” and the ways in which the verb “curate” has been utilized in common parlance beyond its technical meanings. Asking what does the term curate mean, Hedstrom aims to trace how the term evolved into a common buzzword applied to “absolutely everything.” 

Hedstrom discusses the use of the concept of curation and its use in advertisements and product naming. Offering examples such as in names of a beauty store (Beauty Curators), a mobile healthcare application (Curate Health), a Spanish cookbook (Curate), and a restaurant (Curate), Hedstrom explains that the term is used with little value to what it means. To confirm this point, in 2020, the Lake Superior State University included “curated” on its List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-use, Over-use and General Uselessnes in the category of “Words that Attempt to Make Something More than It Is.” [1]

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Margaret Hedstrom, speaking on Zoom, recorded by University of Michigan iSchool, October 2020.

Discussing the history of the word “curate,” Hedstrom explains that there has always been ambiguity around the word and what it seeks to describe. Hedstrom presents the early clerical history of the term curator meaning someone responsible for the cure of souls. Modern usage has an association with caregiving and subservience. Hedstrom expounds that art curators began to dismiss the idea of invisibility in the late 20th century and instead have insisted on recognition for their roles in creating exhibitions. In the archival world, similar ideas have spread with a call for more transparency and shared authority in appraisal, selection, arrangement, and description.

 In attempting to discover what the word curate means, Hedstrom argues that we must first look at the contemporary usage of the word by both professionals and researchers but also by social media and mainstream advertisers. Curation is now immersed in the act of content delivery and attention management, especially with concepts like network connectivity, profiling, feedback, and surveillance. Hedstrom insists that the idea of autonomy of content that social media platforms, like Facebook and LinkedIn, give is a ruse. Further, Hedstrom studies the ways in which curation is linked with algorithms and argues that there is no such thing as genuine content. Like the art curators before them, the human players behind the algorithms remain silent. 

Hedstrom _ Curationism by David Balzer_front cover and quote p. 33 (1)

Hedstrom warns against curators turning curation into something less than it should be in reaction to its over-saturation and cautions against policing the use of terminology within the library and archives profession. Hedstrom also voices the need for an interdisciplinary relationship between the disciplines of archives, library science, museums, computer science, auditing, digital humanities, and digital media studies to explore the behind-the-scenes processes of online curation.

[1] The entry for “curated,” written by the English Department at Lake Superior State University, reads as follows: “Like ‘artisanal,’ this seems to be another attempt at making something more than it is, especially when used in reference to social media (or Banished Words Lists).” See “Lake Superior State University’s 45th Annual List of Banished Words”, accessed on December 29, 2020.

Natalie Worsham, MLIS, MA

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