An explosion of curation

« previous post | next post »

From June Teufel Dreyer:

Have you noticed that suddenly “curated,” previously almost exclusively used to refer to museum exhibitions, is turning up everywhere? A talking head recently said she was “curating [her] thoughts,” the floral arrangements for a society wedding were described as “curated” by a local florist… and so on.

I have a feeling I’m going to soon dislike the word as much as I do “the perfect storm.”

I have curated museum exhibitions (e.g., Bronze Age and Early Iron Age mummies from Eastern Central Asia), but I don't think I've ever curated anything else.

I bring flowers for the department office approximately two times a week and arrange them carefully in various vases, but I would never think that I was curating those bouquets. Similarly, I spend an awful lot of time thinking, but I can't imagine myself ever curating my thoughts.

Somehow I can't help thinking of bacon….


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 9:49 am

    From Chris Atwood:

    I've noticed the same thing — Starbucks is all curated now. Seems to be replacing "chosen" as in what used to be a "carefully chosen blend" is now a "carefully curated blend" and so on.

  2. Anthony said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 10:09 am

    Subscription series for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra season are now called "curated subscription series" in promotional material.

  3. djw said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 11:21 am

    I'm with you on the bacon–"curated" has always seemed to me to have something to do with preservation, with "displayed" sort of a side note. (Okay, no, I'm not knee-deep in etymology here; just good ol' central Texas usage over 6 decades.) So I'd be suspicious of "curated" wedding flowers being [maybe really good] artificials (maybe "artisanal artificials"?), and I'd be really afraid of curated coffee.

  4. Dave said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 12:05 pm

    "awesome curated" is the usage I remember, but then again, there's always the Curate's egg…

  5. DCBob said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 12:09 pm

    You've uncovered a perfect storm of curation!

  6. Ralph Hickok said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 12:42 pm

    Speaking of the curate's egg, curated foods and curated dining experiences are also available. And there's this website:

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 12:56 pm

    In 2006 and 2007 I worked for a computer games company where a number of rôles were described as curation. In fact, one of my rôles was curator of the word list for the word games. So this may be another example of the recency illusion.

  8. Jim said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:00 pm

    It means "selected with skill and forethought, typically by someone whose specific job role is to do such selecting." Anyone can make a "choice", but only someone properly trained can "curate".

    Or if you prefer, it is "privilege signalling".

  9. Chris said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

    "I curate children's parties"

  10. Rube said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:14 pm

    I had not noticed this. If experience is any guide, I will not notice anything else for the next week.

  11. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

    I feel like I first saw "curated" for stores that have few varieties of a product and compete with stores that have a large number of varieties of the product. They needed a way of presenting the lack of choice in a positive light. I think they got the term "curated" from art shows in galleries, where objects are selected in the same way that a museum might select objects to keep, but the objects are for sale at the art show. Then businesses that don't have wide-selection competitors (e.g. Starbucks) started using the term to not sound less high-brow than soap stores.

  12. djw said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:27 pm

    Peter Taylor, that fits with my sense of "preserving, classifying," which somehow doesn't need a museum, in my mind.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:28 pm

  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 1:39 pm

    selection but specifically as a result of expert nurturing/cultivation/caretaking

  15. Mark Meckes said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 2:17 pm

    Here's one from a column in the NY Times, dated May 20, 2018:

    "Through a series of thoughtfully curated and expertly executed performances, the world came to see Ms. Markle as she wants to be seen and, arguably, has always seen herself."

  16. Elonkareon said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

    Steam (the gaming platform) has had "curators" for about 4 years. My naive guess at the origin of the current trend would be that the term spread from Steam, to gaming YouTube channels, to the broader YouTube community, and from there starting infecting popular culture.

  17. Alexander said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 4:04 pm

    Like Daniel Barkalow, I think a trendy ("hipster") boutique, which, despite being in the USA, might have an "assortment" or offer "bespoke" options.

  18. Scott P. said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 5:07 pm

    I don't see this as particularly new. In the archaeological literature, this use has become common over the last 10 or so years, and in general writing, within the past five years.

  19. peterv said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 5:11 pm

    I have been using the word in this wider, non-Museum, sense since first starting to blog in 2003.

  20. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 6:02 pm

    Somebody had to start the trend. A spike doesn't arise instantaneously, nor is it 90º vertical. There always has to be a buildup. And then, whammy! At a certain point, the larger public start to notice the new usage. It becomes conspicuous to people who are unaccustomed to it.

  21. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 22, 2018 @ 8:49 pm

    Checking the archives of my facebook account I see that I was mocking or deprecating this usage (at least in the context of use by an institution that seemed like it should not, from a marketing perspective, want to sound like a hipster boutique selling overpriced artisanal soap) back in December 2011.

  22. peterv said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 1:43 am

    Vic Gundotra, then head of the Google+ project, speaking in 2011:

    “There is a reason why every thought in your head does not come out of your mouth. The core attribute of the human is to curate how others perceive you and what you say. Even something as simple as music – I don’t want all my music shared with everybody. I’m embarrassed I like that one Britney Spears track. I want people to know I like U2. That’s cooler than saying I like Britney Spears. If that’s how I feel about music, how will I feel about things I read?”

    From this blog post:

  23. Sven said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 3:38 am

    I first encountered the word outside the museum/exhibition context when I started to be exposed to work on scientific databases ca. 15 years ago. A curated database is not so much one that is very selective, but rather one where a human has checked all entries for consistency, etc. I have no idea how old this usage is.

  24. Ursa Major said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 4:33 am

    Jim's definitition, "selected with skill and forethought, typically by someone whose specific job role is to do such selecting", pretty well matches my understanding of what it means. A curated database is one for which humans (with the aid of automated tools) have applied a certain minimum standard of quality or reliability to the content, one that isn't curated will take and publish any relevant data without regard for its source.

  25. RP said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 9:03 am

    The OED shows that the term "curator" dates to the 1300s, although it didn't take on the meaning of "manager, overseer, steward" until the 1600s. In 1667 is the OED's first citation of the specialised museum/gallery/library/etc sense ("keeper, custodian"). The verb "curate" ("orig. U.S.") is much more recent, not cited until 1934 (although "curated" adj is cited from 1870.

    The "draft additions" from July 2011 have the new sense: "In extended use: to select the performers or performances to be included in (a festival, album, programme, etc.); (also) to select, organize, and present (content), as on a website." First citation 1982, N.Y. Times: "The Kitchen presented three different programs of ‘New Performances from P.S. 122’, curated by and including Mr. Dennis."

  26. Mark Metcalf said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 12:32 pm

    The WSJ also took on the curating epidemic last December:

    "Is There a Cure for the Curating Craze?"
    (alternative link:

    Next up: "I'm passionate about…"

  27. Mark Liberman said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 12:46 pm

    It's worth noting that "curation" has been widely used in the context of bioinformatic databases for as long as such databases have existed. Thus a Google Scholar search for {"database curation"} turns up about 82,000 results, and restricting the search to before 2000 still yields 1,730.

  28. Chas Belov said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 2:22 pm

    I have been using "curate" for at least five years to refer to plays which are selected by my playwriting group's literary committee for a public reading as opposed to plays which are chosen by random drawing.

    I've also used "curate" for over five years to refer to the process of deciding whether a particular transit-related bulletin gets its own separate web page or whether it is combined with similar other bulletins on a shared web page.

  29. Belial Issimo said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 5:48 pm

    Quis curabit ipsos curatores?

  30. Mick O said,

    May 23, 2018 @ 5:50 pm

    I can recall product strategy meetings at Yahoo! Music back in the early aughts where "curation" became a buzzword of sorts as a way to differentiate offerings in the online music space. When Apple bought Beats Music for 3 billion dollars, the quality of Beats' curation was considered one of the key factors to the deal.

  31. Ben Reaves said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 1:08 pm

    Well, what's a better term for "database curation" – would it be speech database organization? massaging? weeding?

  32. DTHughes said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 1:38 pm

    Hal Foster wrote an article that touched on this 3 years back in the London Review of Books:

    "The Surrealists liked to proclaim that everyone who dreams is a poet, and Joseph Beuys that everyone who creates is an artist. So much for the utopian days of aesthetic egalitarianism; maybe the best we can say today is that everyone who compiles is a curator."

    In Australia the groundsman who prepares cricket pitches (and fields) is called the curator. That's a long-standing usage.

  33. Keith said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 6:47 am

    Ralph Hickok's comment in this thread:

  34. Rick said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 7:27 pm

    I would guess that the trend started in library science. "Data curation" and "digital curation" are all over their literature at least as far back as the 1990s. It probably migrated with them as MLIS folks started working on information systems in the broader tech world, then from there to people creating the information managed in those systems as "content curation" and from there to everywhere…

  35. Victor Mair said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 12:38 pm

    From June Teufel Dreyer:

    This AM’s NYT came with an inset announcing that the articles had been “curated with my special interests in mind.”

    The odd thing about the “articles curated in line with my interests” was that it was part of the hard copy of the paper. I know how the Times knows about what I read on-line, of course. I left the house shortly after the paper was delivered, having waited for it so the torrential rains we’ve been having [VHM: in Miami, where she lives] wouldn’t drench the newsprint, so I don’t know yet what delectations await me.

    One can hope that, like other fad words (“artisanal” cheese, coffee; “boutique” law firms, it’ll disappear soon.

  36. Chas Belov said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 1:02 am

    At risk of self-promotion, an evening of monologues in Los Angeles this coming July, including one from a play of mine, is currently being advertised by the performance company as "curated, produced & directed by Jane Edwina Seymour." Given the process, that they workshopped various monologues in a closed process, then made the final selections, "curated" would seem to be appropriate here. Actually, I think it would be valid usage to say that a theatre has curated a season, although I don't commonly encounter that usage.

  37. BZ said,

    May 29, 2018 @ 10:42 am

    It's funny, but I would never describe what museum curators do as "curating". Anyway, the "new" definition of "curating" doesn't bother me (except curating thoughts. That's a new one for me). Are the people doing the curating called curators too? It seems logical, but I can't think of ever hearing of non-museum curators. And isn't bacon cured rather than curated?

RSS feed for comments on this post