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Check Out: 'Curation' versus 'Curationism'


I had just finished reading Adam Grant's Think Again when I decided to pick up the Royal Botanical Garden's publication Paradise Found that I had tossed on my desk when it came in the mail a few days ago. I flipped through information on changes at the gardens and coming events and then landed on a page that outlined the career of Freek Vrugtman, the Registrar for the International Lilac Society and curator at RBG from 1968 to 1992 and Curator Emeritus from 1992 to 2022. I have to admit that I might have made some jokes about how flower people might take this flower stuff a little too seriously (saying that I like flowers, but come on - which is actually probably code for I know very little about this so I must put it in the "mock it" category).

Then I turned the page and saw an article entitled "'Curation' versus 'Curationism'" by Curator of Collections Alex Henderson. Of course I made a remark again that these flower people are taking all this too far and something along the lines of "I'm sure this is going to be an exciting, riveting read (insert eye roll)." Maybe it was because I had just finished Think Again and was primed for the whole rethinking process, but man was I gobsmacked by how very off the mark I was. This is an excellent article that I just had to write about right away. I couldn't find a link to the article online to share but hopefully I can sum it up well enough here for you.

Henderson opens with pointing out how many things are said to be curated nowadays - from menus to playlists to wardrobes to what you decide to put in your salad for lunch. He points out that the word has been turned by consumerist culture into meaning something that is supposedly selected just for the individual, bringing with it the possibility of purchasing meaningfulness and identity, which makes it more desirable. As Vrugtman was known to point out, the word 'curate' comes from the Latin word curare, which means 'to take care of.' Curators are knowledge specialists who steward collections for cultural and scientific institutions - telling our history and forming our future. Henderson goes through all the duties of a curator, including acquisition, development, documentation, preservation, interpretation, writing, teaching, presenting, safeguarding, and collaborating.

The article closes with "Curationism as high-end consumption simply means choosing or picking things, for example things for your social media page, a music playlist or that salad I mentioned earlier. This should not be confused with curation, which refers to preserving cultural, artistic and scientific human endeavor with a deep understanding and application of duty of care. My carefully curated salad defines my lunchtime. The work of curators would-wide such as Freek define the fabric of our society, our species foundation, the present times we inhabit and our journey towards the future." I've left out a lot of the case that he makes for the curation efforts that go on at RBG - let's just say he certainly made his case and made me realise how little I really understand.