“Digital Curation” – What’s in a Word (or Two)?

In early October, 2015, Phyllis Hecht and Joyce Ray, both faculty in Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies program, hosted a summit meeting in Washington DC on the topic of Digital Curation. I was lucky to be able to attend this 2-day meeting and, since this was not a public conference, I wanted to share some of the experience with a broader audience.

The goals of the meeting were to:

  1. Highlight innovative practices supported by digital curation in art museums and discuss the opportunities and challenges that these present;
  2. Identify the roles and responsibilities of digital curation interns, faculty supervisors, and host organizations/mentors; and,
  3. Publish a summary report on the value of digital curation in art museums, the role of art museums in educating a new generation of digital curators, and the potential role of digital curation internships and research in advancing the art museum mission.

Attendees included about 30 museum directors, curators, museum CIO’s and technology staff, vendors, consultants, and foundation leaders. The two days were formatted in sections; each kicked off by a presentation, followed by broad-ranging open discussion. Presentations were offered by individuals below (that give a sense of the group’s professional diversity):

  • Phyllis Hecht & Joyce Ray, Johns Hopkins University
  • Diane Zorich, Consultant
  • John Ryan, Local Projects
  • Douglas Hegley, Minneapolis Institute of Art
  • Ben Fino-Raden, MoMA
  • Anne Goodyear, Bowdoin College Museum of Art
  • George Coulbourne, Library of Congress
  • Eleanor Fink, American Art Collaborative
  • Monkia Hagedorn-Saupe, Institue fur Museumsforschung

Of particular interest to me was a topic that could have been some semantic navel-gazing – defining “Digital Curation” – but was, in fact, due to the discussants, a chance to frame curating itself anew. “Digital Curation” was being used in the room much like it is elsewhere, very broadly to mean any act of selection, organization, and management applied to digital content conducted by any person (but most likely a cultural heritage professional, be they curator or IT manager.) Museum professionals in the room brought up the fact that “curating” as a term has experienced some dilution of late. These days, boutique shop windows are “curated,” craft beers are presented by beer curators, and everyone with an Instagram account is an image curator. However, rather than be caught up in this false dilemma of professionalism v. populism, discussants took the conversation in a more constructive direction. Anne Goodyear and Rob Stein (Dallas Museum of Art) discussed how – to paraphrase – quantitative shifts in the mass availability of information may lead to qualitative shifts in thinking. At the end of the first morning, that lead me to tweet:

“A new human consciousness emerged this morning at #jhudigcur @JHMuseumStudies & kinda blew my tiny mind. Had to leave to rethink curating.”

The next morning, having had a night to stew on that, I tweeted my proposed definition of Digital Curation:

“Digital curation may or may not use digital objects & tools but is curating in relation to network consciousness.”

I’ll have to see if that holds up to scrutiny or to practice. In the meantime, the folks at JHU are planning to publish proceedings from this meeting that will include, hopefully, not only more detail than this snapshot post, but also an index of suggested sources on the topic of digital curation. As you might have guessed, you can also find the event in tweet-archive form under #jhudigcur.

Richard Rinehart, Director, Samek Art Museum, Bucknell University