I first noticed the strange new use of the word curator when the King’s Place performing arts centre at Kings Cross in London opened a few years ago. They began a tradition of devoting Monday evenings to the spoken word, calling it Words on Monday. But I was baffled to see that the initial round of lectures, poetry readings and interviews with authors was described as being ‘curated by The Guardian’ (whose sparkling new offices are on the floors above). What did this mean? And who was doing this actual curating, whatever that was? Did it mean that The Guardian newspaper was sponsoring these events, or arranging them? How could this have anything to do with the honourable profession of being a curator, a title earned because of deep and specialized expertise involving objects crucial to cultural heritage?
I have since seen publicity material for film, poetry and music festivals allegedly curated by some person or institution. Where does just being an impresario, organizer, director or producer stop and curating start? When I went to the Barbican recently to hear the London Welsh Male Voice Choir, I was relieved to see that no one claimed to have curated this enjoyable event, though they might have, since someone needed to have chosen the programme and the running order.
And when, exactly, did the noun curator become a verb, to curate? Maybe pretty recently because typing this I see that my up to date version of Word does not recognize it and adds wavy red lines to all its verbal forms.
But my suspicion is that it is only a matter of time before the word curator is annexed in even more provokingly pompous ways. Maybe in the same way that a local council decided to call its lifeguards Wet Leisure Assistants or how bin men have become Waste Disposal Technicians, and museum guides, who obviously need to watch out for jealous rivalry from Curators, have become Coordinators of Interpretative Teaching. People who devise and sell pornography could probably make themselves seem a lot more respectable as Adult Entertainment Curators; Transport for London could re-badge their useful travel advice as Journey Curating.
That this development is possibly already true came home to me when I was making my way through the vast fashion department of John Lewis’s Oxford St store in London. A selection of clothing had been put on elegant hangers with fancy tags and labelled, yes, Curated. These were, allegedly, not just quite nice bits of up-market clothing from a variety of brands that someone from the merchandising team rather liked, they were precious objects worthy of being handled reverently by virtue of being curated, in order to justify their high prices.
So I think now I’d better do a bit of curating of my own. I can start with my wardrobe – that can do with some serious curating which will involve a trip to the already very well run Cancer Research charity shop where they might helpfully re-label their more expensive designer donations as Curated to Cure Cancer. Then I am giving a supper party for my family soon and there are some needs that are difficult to reconcile: the two veggies, the roast dinner addicts, the person who claims that anything ‘spicy’ makes her ill, the one who never eats vegetables, the baby who is still on stage 1 of solids. Clearly only a very expert Food Curator could possibly sort this out so I’d better get down to it to see if I can make the cut.