The New Curators

Via A Repository for Bottled Monsters (“An unofficial blog for the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC.”): The Washington Post has a story up about the Smithsonian’s efforts to join the digital age, starting with “Smithsonian 2.0,” a gathering of Smithsonian curators, staff, and such digital luminaries as Clay Shirky (we wrote about an interview with him here), Bran Ferren (co-chairman and chief creative officer of Applied Minds Inc.), George Oates (one of the founders of Flickr), and Chris Anderson (editor in chief of Wired). [Update: Dan Cohen was also there, and wrote about his responses here.]

Probably the most provocative point raised in the article is the role of the curator, or expert, in the Smithsonian’s digital future. Institutions like museums (or presses) have traditionally occupied the role of gatekeepers (to steal a term from mass communication), choosing “the best” from the masses to display (or sell). For example, less than 1% of the museum’s 137 million items are on display. As many have pointed out, digital technologies change how information is generated and shared, and within the context of 2.0 technologies, crowd-sourcing, and remixing, the role of the expert and conceptions of authority are also transforming – transformations actively “promoted” in the digital humanities imagined in the forward-thinking “Manifesto” from UCLA’s Mellon Seminar in Digital Humanities:

Digital humanities promote a flattening of the relationship between masters and disciples. A dedefinition of the roles of professor and student, expert and non-expert. (paragraph #20)

For those involved in historically curatorial institutions like museums, archives, and the ivory towers of higher education, an identity crisis looms. Anderson’s message to the Smithsonian is that gatekeepers “get it wrong,” the influence of curators will never be the same, and that in fact, the “best curators” have not yet emerged from the crowd.

“The Web is messy, and in that messiness comes something new and interesting and really rich,” he said. “The strikethrough is the canonical symbol of the Web. It says, ‘We blew it, but we are leaving that mistake out there. We’re not perfect, but we get better over time.’ ”

The problem is, “the best curators of any given artifact do not work here, and you do not know them,” Anderson told the Smithsonian thought leaders. “Not only that, but you can’t find them. They can find you, but you can’t find them. The only way to find them is to put stuff out there and let them reveal themselves as being an expert.”

Compare this optimism, emphasis on shared knowledge, and confidence in the hidden expertise of the public with a new project called brainify.com, a social-bookmarking site only for academics, or more precisely, those with university email addresses (which already excludes a great number of academics in the position of adjuncts, who often don’t get university email accounts). The Chronicle of Higher Education just ran an article about the site’s debut (“‘Social Bookmarking” Site for Higher Education Makes Debut”), and cites creator Murray Goldberg’s rather different take on the value of public contributions:

Mr. Goldberg said that he wanted to focus on solidifying the site’s functions for students and faculty members before exploring the possibility of expanding membership. “As soon as we open up membership for bookmarking to a broader audience, we risk dilution of the quality of the site.”

Hm, so Anderson sees expertise revealing itself from within the public, while Goldberg fears a dilution of “quality.”

In general, I agree with Goldberg’s assertion that “the world needs an academic-bookmarking tool.” Filters are important; they allow users to manage and control the overwhelming amount of information available on the web. Clay Shirky asserts that the charge of “information overload” is actually a problem of inadequate filtering. And as a graduate student and instructor, I can understand that academic needs and interests might vary from that of the general public, necessitating different sets of tools. But ultimately, I question whether the deliberate construction of a “walled garden” (as Melanie McBride calls it) is the best way to meet the varied needs of academics. That is, using exclusivity to order and manage the “messiness” of the web – trying to avoid the strikethrough – is not truly engaging the huge potential for networked knowledge.

I’ll leave Anderson with the final word:

“Is it our job to be smart and be the best? Or is it our job to share knowledge?”

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