Monday, December 14, 2009

a curator's perspective: do you have it?

Are you ready to ask your information curator, "Where the hell did you find this?"--and then let her share it with others?

I heard Studio 360's interview with artist and director Tim Burton as a retrospective of his work appears at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show's full of the flotsam and jetsam, seemingly, of Burton's dark-tinged and fantastical career: high school drawings, pages pulled from sketchbooks, published illustrations and the movies that resulted from them. What caught my ear in this interview was how he described the show's curation. The interviewer asked how much of a "push-pull" there was between him and the two curators. Turns out he just opened the doors and let them in.

"It's hard for me to look at my own stuff," Burton admitted, then said he let the curators dig through his collections to choose what they wanted, without interfering. "It helped me...rediscover many things I hadn't seen in many years," he says, adding that his general reaction to their choices was along the lines of "Where the hell did you find this thing?" He also notes in the slide show interview, above, that the process of letting a dispassionate but appreciative observer choose from among his works has reenergized him. Much of what they chose to display "was not meant to be seen" by the public originally, Burton said, noting it represents "my own mental process." And he's appreciative that the show doesn't categorize his work as drawings, film, and so on: "they've done a good job of blurring the lines."

Curation's the new term of art, so to speak, for how organizations--nonprofits, government agencies and companies--serve up their information on the web, particularly through social media applications. For some, it sounds like a fancier, more elegant way to say "we're retaining control of our information" in an age when sharing your data and making your facts freely available are becoming the norms. But real curation--the type that engages your audiences--needs to be more like letting the kids into the candy store than polishing the candy store's windows. After all, if your "museum" of facts, data and news keeps its best stuff in storage where no one can get at it, you're more mausoleum than museum.

Inspired by MOMA's curation approach to Burton, here are some ways you can take advantage of curation and make it work as part of your communications strategy:

  • Don't choose your own show's contents: Getting an outsider's perspective makes your curation more authentic--and more likely to appeal to others. Too often, our communications tools (reports, websites and more) are designed to please our organizations rather than their audiences. Use crowdsourcing, make data available with an invitation to let others curate it and share the results, or at least ask a colleague who doesn't work on your issues help lend a different view.
  • Don't let the new blind you to you: Communications focuses on having news to share, but, as in Burton's case, that approach would have limited the show's depth and appeal--and failed to provide perspective. Don't get dazzled by only your latest achievements; set them alongside your historic milestones to enrich your offerings.
  • Bring out the long- and well-hidden items: "Where the hell did you find this thing?" might be the clue that your curation's hit upon a gold mine. And since the people closest to these gems often don't recall them, you may be more likely to find them with the help of a dispassionate observer.
  • Share your doodles as well as your daVincis: Just as MOMA included sketchbook pages in its presentation of Burton's work, consider sharing some of your draft or source material creatively. It's one thing true curation does well: Showing the thought process behind the finished result, rather than just the result.
  • Blur the lines between your traditional categories and see what happens: Burton's never boxed himself in creatively, so why would his curators do it? If the information you're curating can be sliced or seen from a variety of themes or perspectives, use one you don't normally use. You may find new audiences or re-engage longstanding fans.
  • Let curators wander where they may: Doing the electronic equivalent of letting curators search your attic might involve making more data available publicly, inviting mash-ups that combine disparate data sets or asking your audiences to choose what's presented and how. You'll learn more about how your organization or company is seen, and you'll be creating a new group of people who can appreciate your work in a unique, deep way.

You can hear the Studio 360 interview with Burton in the MP3 recording below. Special thanks to the program for making it easy for me to curate this post using embeddable and share-able sound and visuals.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Nice post. I think the move toward curation will continue to grow. I'm not sure our organization is quite ready to open the candy store doors full-swing just yet, but we're working on it.