We had a spate of responses on Twitter when we started the call for #citizencurators – asking why we were using the terms. What did the project have to do with citizenship and was it an appropriate use of the term curator?
All good questions. Firstly, why ‘citizen’?
The project is essentially asking how Londoners live through a major event. We thought of using the term Londoners, or specifying that we were looking for the involvement of residents, people who worked in London and people who had connections to London. But the term citizen made most sense. We want to connect with people who have a clear sense of being part of, and belonging to, London. And this is not just locational, it is also political. The Olympic Games is much more than a global sporting event, obviously. Packaged as London2012 it is presented as a manifestation of civic identity. Through funding, governance and marketing it is less held at less than an arms length from the national and city governments. There is no doubt that all Londoners are experiencing the event of the Olympics, and all its ramifications and its impact on their life within London through direct or indirect channels. And they are experiencing this as citizens of London.
The use of the term ‘curator’ comes about for very different reason. The genesis of the project was in discussions with Museum Studies groups about the future of curatorial practice and contemporary collecting: how far could curatorial processes be devolved to enable the voice of communities to be heard? Did participation in social history projects mean that some of the curatorial roles of selecting, gathering and establishing the value of material could be given over to ‘honorary curators’ who were working on behalf of a museum?
We considered initially calling the project ‘Citizen Collectors’ as our group would be ‘collecting’ tweets and objects. But it didnt quite ring true and indicate the depth to which we were trying to operate.
The term ‘curator’ has gone through many shifts in the past fifty years or so, and other people have documented this better than I can here. Obviously within the museum, the traditional role of the curator as responsible for a collection still exists, but so to does the more recent concept of ‘curating’ being to devise exhibitions that arose when it was modified into a verb. [I'd be interested if anyone with a knowledge of etymology could say when this actually took place!]. And more recently in the arts, the concept of curating (as in the ‘curatorial turn’) has taken a step beyond meaning the stewardship or organisation of cultural material to mean creating a critical context around an event, project or activity. New media has also taken language in a different direction and, in the way a huge number of terms are being adapted to mean something in the digital world that they hadnt in the analogue world, the term ‘curate’ is being used to mean to sift, sort, sample, decipher or re-present anything from raw code to any form of content on any platform. It has begun to mean something akin to ‘to make sense of’.
This is the rather complex layering of context that this project is placed in. It is a museum project, but it is also a form of online exhibition, and it is working with digital media through social networks. To call our project participants ‘curators’ therefore makes sense as it not only describes what they are doing but it brings together all the different bases.
But on top of that it needs to be said that this is an action research project. One of the characteristics of action research is that all the elements of a project can be made available for scrutiny. Through this project we are trying to discover what works effectively and what is viable practice to be repeated. If the terms and references we used aren’t appropriate they will be changed in future. If our way of networking with our participants and our community is flawed we will likewise change that. The project carries a lot of assumptions: finding ways to openly examine them is desirable.