My Word for the Year 2024


More than 40 years ago my friend David Kaetz noted that I was one of the rare collectors in our generation. I'm not sure I had ever thought of myself in such terms before his tag, but it's been TRUE for as long as I can remember. I collected words from an early age... and books, and stamps, and merit badges, and rocks, and bits of obscure and recondite INFORMATION about all sorts of things I encountered. I was always the kid who knew stuff, who sought out knowledge, and retained facts and connections ...and retained physical objects that embodied ideas and notions. Such activity, material and immaterial, was considered praiseworthy but not particularly remarkable by the culture surrounding me: most New Englanders make a fetish of keeping (things, ideas, etc.), not discarding or wasting ["waste not, want not"], and extracting all possible squeezings from whatever is retained. Frugality is another facet of the New England mind ["eat it up, make it do, do without"]. It's considered a virtue to be organized in mind and matter —to know where things are, to prize orderly arrangement, to make and retain and elaborate maps of the territory ["a place for everything, and everything in its place"].

Collections demand curation, but cura- needs to be repatriated from the buzzword trivialization that has infected it over the last decade or so, when "it has become like 'artisinal' and 'iconic', way over-used... a vogue word...".

"It's mainstream jargon now," Ms. Stewart said. "It's used because it sounds fashionable. It sounds like it's for ... the aesthetically conscious." As zeitgeisty as other oddly specific and much hashtagged words like "wanderlust" or "journey" or "empower," "curate" is spreading. The word's overuse has left it almost devoid of meaning, and curators themselves — the traditional, museum-dwelling kind — are up in arms.

...Its sister word is "content." The spread of both is, in part, an issue of linguistics. How does one summarize the relatively new act of creating, collecting and displaying a bunch of digital "stuff," whether e-commerce pictures or Tumblr posts? One doesn't pour olive oil on a salad; one drizzles it. One doesn't arrange an Instagram feed; one curates it... (Lou Stoppard, NYTimes, via Language Log)

I wonder if/when I started using the word 'curate' ironically, to dignify to my own collecting activity, and now I seem to be trying to grow that moniker into a respectable and praiseworthy activity. And then it occurred to me that my life and perceptions changed pretty abruptly in January 1991 (basically 33 years ago), when I started Library School at Simmons. Previous to that I'd been an enthusiastic library user, but I hadn't paid much attention to the back-room workings and organization of the library: to the cataloging and collection development that saw new books added, and to just what reference librarians did in the scheme of daily operations, and to the Archives and Special Collections, and to the liaison role with professors in supporting the use of library resources. Curation is clearly all over that territory: one of the primary things librarians DO is to curate Knowledge and Information, to make accessible, to serve as guide and agent to the forests and groves and jungles of ... all of human knowledge and information. It's a Priesthood, and I came into it in the last years of 'book custodian' as the primary job description, and rode the advancing wave of computers in library operations.

At Simmons I realized that my penchant for knowing recondite stuff was an actually-useful skill, and a respectable place to put the curiosity that had always been with me, looking over my shoulder. So I gradually spliced in the Librarian as an essential part of my identity, and realized that I had found a sustaining Vocation that has been with me ever since.

Curating in the Art World

See A brief history of the word 'curator' (

...By the end of the 20th century, 'curator' came to describe a broad category of exhibition makers, from museum employees who spend years working on modest, scrupulously researched displays of Sumerian pottery, to freelancers who approach large scale Biennales of contemporary art as an opportunity to clear their auteurial throat.

Here in the third millennium, the word curator has undergone a further shift in usage. Appropriated by the marketing departments of businesses keen to imbue their products with an air of hard-won distinction and borrowed avant-garde cool, it is now used to describe anybody from the celebrity programmer of a pop festival to a fashion stylist who puts together a 'capsule collection' from a department store's fall/winter stock. A curator, here, is essentially a paid selector of stuff for sale, whether it be concert tickets or cuff links.

In brief, the prersent-day term Influencer seems a good fit for this race of 'curators'.

So I began with David Baltzer's Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else

'Curate' is now a buzzword applied to everything from music festivals to artisanal cheese. Inside the art world, the curator reigns supreme, acting as the face of high-profile group shows and biennials in a way that can eclipse and assimilate the contributions of individual artists. At the same time, curatorial studies programs continue to grow in popularity, and businesses are increasingly adopting curation as a means of adding value to content and courting demographics. Everyone, it seems, is a now a curator...
...which led me to discover Hans Ulrich Obrist and his Ways of Curating
...a compendium of the insights Obrist has gained from his years of extraordinary work in the art world. It skips between centuries and continents, flitting from meetings with the artists who have inspired him (including Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois, and Gilbert and George) to biographies of influential figures such as Diaghilev and Walter Hopps. It describes some of the greatest exhibitions in history, as well as some of the greatest exhibitions never realized. It traces the evolution of the collections from Athanasius Kircher's 17th-century Wunderkammer to modern museums, and points the way for projects yet to come. Hans Ulrich Obrist has rescued the word "curate" from wine stores and playlists to remind us of the power inherent in looking at art — and at the world — in a new way.
See also New Yorker Obrist, Harvard Obrist, White Review Obrist, and A Collected Man Obrist
... I think it's really interesting that there has been this strong period of separation through the modern age that moves towards specialisation. That wasn't always the case. Look to Hildegard of Bingen, this extraordinary nun of the 11th and 12th century who was this major composer of the Middle Ages but also a writer, a poet, a healer, an early environmentalist. She's been a major inspiration for me — I like the Hildegards who don't think in terms of that separation. It strikes me as an important thing, more than ever, to make the connections, to enable connectedness and relatedness.

...As a kid I had this insatiable curiosity and I would go to see visual artists by night train all over Europe, and then I did the same with architects, then with scientists and fashion designers, and wanted to bring these people together. An exhibition often has a great freedom as a format. A large part of my job is, of course, to look and look and look, but also to listen. We need to learn to listen to each other again.

...No, I don't collect. I have an archive of a lot of recordings and films, and I've written a lot, but I have a very nomadic life and I've always lived in small apartments. I have the greatest respect for collectors who do it systematically and it's super important, but that's another activity, I think. For me, it's not so much about ownership as sharing. I make exhibitions to share them with the world.

The Unbearable Lightness of Image Travel: The Work of Curation in the Digital Age (S. Ramaswamy, ASIANetwork Exchange: A Journal for Asian Studies in the Liberal Arts, 25(2), pp.29–44)

As David Balzer notes in his tongue-in-cheek book Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (2014), today we are all apparently curators: we "curate" in relation to ourselves, using the term to refer to any number of things we do and consume on a daily basis. What does it mean for the conferral of value when we talk about "curating" something as basic as our lunch? As importantly, what does this proliferation of the concept mean for the status of art and the fate of the image in our times? In response to this question, I revert to the Latin etymology of the word meaning to "take care," and ask "what does it mean to take care of the image" in the digital age...

...the value of digital scholarship in the humanities emerges from its capacity to interrupt the terms of our engagement with existing archives, to trouble the categories of analog analysis, and to compel our work to chart a different path, propelled by new questions...

The Library World

I probably developed my image of curators as librarian-like beings in the context of the museums I frequented from an early age, in which the back-room curators worked with collections, improving their coherence and accessibility. I was reminded of Orhan Pamuk's The Innocence of Objects, which details his process of building the actual collections for his Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, to display materials essential to his novel The Museum of Innocence: "...In his pursuit of Füsun over the next eight years, Kemal becomes a compulsive collector of objects that chronicle his lovelorn progress—amassing a museum that is both a map of a society and of his heart."

Via this Question I've been reminded of many museums I've visited, and how much I know I owe to their curators. I looked through the photographs I did on our 2015 visit to the Cluny Museum in Paris, and I thought of the Edward Gorey House and of my own Gorey holdings, and of youthful visits to Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (and Harvard's Anthropology Department ... and the attached Tozzer Library.) ... and lots of others. The Farnsworth. Hell, Liberty Tool is pretty much a Museum...

One of the essential elements of the work of librarians is Collection Development: discovering and importing print materials (traditionally), and then making them accessible. And the work is never done: the books keep rolling in, and now a Library is not basically a lot of shelves-for-books, but integrates multiple formats and form factors: images, sounds, video, realia, remote resources. The glorious challenge is to visit such lovingly-assembled collections and to make sense of them, and make connections among their subparts. New questions are forever being spawned.

Jeez, once you turn somebody into a librarian, it's hard to call 'em off...

Wouldn't it be a Good Thing to work within libraries and other sorts of Collections, discovering treasures and linking them up, traversing the mycelia that knit human knowledge... and isn't that just what I've been doing all along? Yup. Libraries and Wunderkammern and museums have been delights all my life, and in my own space I preside over quite a population of Objects that have seemed interesting enough to Collect and keep accessible, in various media and formats. They all populate corners of the Narrative that I'm continually at work elaborating/curating. Indeed, that Narrative is my own personal Great Work, as I now realize.

To fashion stars out of dog dung, that is the Great Work.
(Alexandra David-Neel, quoting a Bhutanese naljorpa ['holy man'])

So one needs to make order within the chaos of acquisition, and order is nascent within the collector's mind: the task is to facilitate orderly access to and display of the manifold richnesses of the collector's acquisitions: to coax from them the Narrative of the whole, via the stories that attach to and bind together the diverse items.

It's curiosity that drives this chariot. One of the imps that betimes perches on my shoulder suggested that I should see if Montaigne had anything helpful to contribute, and my copy of his Essays fell open to this passage (no, really, it did):

Our ordinary practice is to follow the inclinations of our appetites, to the left, to the right, uphill and down, as the wind of circumstance carries us. We think of what we want only at the moment we want it, and we change like that animal which takes the color of the place you set it on. What we have just now planned, we presently change, and presently again we retrace our steps: nothing but oscillation and inconsistency... (pg 240)

and elsewhere (as I leafed through, seeking on-ramps):

I knew a gentleman who gave knowledge of his life only by the workings of his belly; you would see on display at his home a row of chamber pots, 7 or 8 days' worth. That was his study, his conversation; all other talk stank in his nostrils.

Here you have, a little more decently, some excrements of an aged mind, now hard, now loose, and always undigested. And when shall I make an end of describing the continual agitation and changes of my thoughts, whatever subject they light on, since Didymus filled 6000 books with the sole subject of grammar? What must prattle produce, when the stammering and loosening of the tongue smothered the world with such a horrible load of volumes? So many words for the sake of words alone! (pg 721)

(Montaigne is referring to Didymus Bronze-Guts and not to Didymus the Blind or Didymus the Musician)

Craig Axford on Curiosity, at Medium:

In an article published in Life Magazine shortly after his death, Albert Einstein advised readers "The important thing is to never stop questioning." He continued, "Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he [or she] contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day."

Curiosity is an act of engagement. Initially it requires observation at a minimum to begin answering the questions that Einstein urged us to ask throughout our lives. Ultimately, however, it is communal because learning the answers to our questions sooner or later involves engaging others either indirectly through books, articles and stories, or directly through personal communication and cooperation.

...Engagement is demanding. It is a process that does not end after a brief encounter. It continues. We reflect, seek out new experiences and knowledge to gain an even better understanding of whatever it was that first captured our attention, and discuss the web of experiences, feelings, and ideas produced as a result with others.

...We are what we pay attention to, and what we pay attention to reflects the depth or shallowness of our curiosity. If, as the naturalist John Muir contended, we live in a universe in which any tug will necessarily be on a thread that is connected to every other, then what matters most is not what captures our curiosity but the extent to which we actually engage with the world through it. We can't avoid paying attention, but we do have a choice between brief and shallow and dedicated and deep.

And here's Orhan Pamuk again:

The power of things inheres in the memories they gather up inside them, and also in the vicissitudes of the imagination, and in our memory. (pg 206)

What I found most enthralling was the way in which objects removed from the kitchens, bedrooms, and dinner tables where they had once been utilized would come together to form a new texture, an unintentionally striking web of relationships. I realized that when arranged with love and care, objects in the museum —an old photograph, a bottle opener, a picture of a boat, a coffee cup, a postcard— could attain much greater significance than they had before...

The more I looked at the objects on my desk next to my notebook —rusty keys, candy boxes, pliers, and lighters— the more I felt as if they were communicating with one another. Their ending up in this place after being uprooted from the places they used to belong to and separated from the people whose lives they were once part of —their loneliness, in a word— aroused in me the shamanic belief that objects too have spirits. (pg 51-52)

Yesterday I did curatorial work to update my list of 2023 book acquisitions, imagining the subject map I might make as a guide; and I hatched a scheme for making more accessible the hundreds of accumulated "rightclicksave" images I've snagged on several different computers... which could be arranged thematically, or chronologically, to tell rather different versions of the stories they stand for.

And I recognized that I've more or less continuously been perusing, organizing, making distributable materials out of, indexing, and being enticed into bouts of Collection Development. I just haven't tried to imagine the Whole Thing and how it's laced/knotted/knit/macramé'd together. A recent acquisition may help:

Collections I hope to exert curatorial influence and serious negentropic mmmmph over in the coming year:


A whole different facet of 'curate' is to be found in Victorian novels: the rather junior Anglican clergyman is the curate of a parish church, in effect an apprentice vicar: "In the Church of England today, curate refers to priests (or, in the first year, transitional deacons) who are in their first post after ordination (usually for four years), and are completing their training (not unlike an apprenticeship)...." While this has nothing to do with the sense in which I am exploring 'curate', the phrase "the curate's egg" is too wonderful to leave out:

The Curate's Egg (

The Real Meaning of the Phrase 'Curate's Egg' (interesting;

The Curate's Egg: Parts of It Are Excellent

The bishop says, "Dear me, I'm afraid your egg's not good!"
The curate, desperate not to offend his host and superior, replies,
"Oh, yes, my Lord, really — er — some parts of it are very good."

w ====

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
— Juvenal