Out of the Museum

"Curate” gets a new life

Thirty years ago, the only people who were “curators” worked in galleries or museums, deciding what pieces from the presumably vast collection would be shown to the public. The word itself had a slightly archaic air, conjuring visions of wizened old men or the rarefied art world.

Today, everyone is a “curator,” and journalism is urged to become the “curator” of record.

In the first four months of 1981, “curator” appeared fewer than 200 times in Nexis; in the same period in 2011, it appeared more than 3,000 times. (To be fair, fewer publications were archived in 1981, but still …) Wordnik’s handy occurrence chart shows that uses of “curator” peaked in the nineteen thirties (nearly all art-related), but is rebounding fast.

Most dictionary definitions of “curator” are similar to the one in Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “a person in charge of a museum, library, etc.,” or “guardian, as of a minor.” But they don’t accurately reflect how people are using “curator” today.

Today’s “curator” is in charge of information, deciding what to see (or send to others). In other words, a “curator” is an “editor.”

The word is used most often in its verb form, which appeared only twice in the 1981 period, but has exploded in the past few years, to more than 3,000 uses in the past three months alone. (“Curate,” of course, is also a noun, meaning a clergyman.) People “curate” their own Twitter feeds, for example, following and unfollowing people as their tweets become more (or less) interesting. They also “curate” what goes on journalism sites, too, deciding what their visitors will see.

“Curate” has legs, meaning it’s here to stay, unlike some other words. It’s used, for example, to avoid words with negative connotations ,like “aggregate,” which has come to mean gathering of information with less emphasis on quality or reliability. “The Daily Beast, whose motto is “read this, skip that,” explains itself this way: We carefully curate the web’s most essential stories and bring you original must-reads from our talented contributors.”

It’s funny how words change places, even when they shouldn’t. As we said, “curate” simply means “edit.” And “edit” is showing up more frequently in non-editorial uses, as in the fashion site that“offers the very best edit of womens clothing and accessories that are both on-trend and classic.” One article recently about a woman “closet-clearing guru” said: “Clients liked her eye, and soon they started inviting her home to curate their closets.”

Please, don’t “curate” your refrigerator. Just go shopping.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , ,