If words had patina then a word like ‘curation’ would be have a surface so shopworn as to be unrecognizable from its original form. The concept of curation in its unreconstructed sense is intimately connected to institutional authority. If ‘curate’ as a noun in an archaic sense, refers to the ecclesiastic duties of a church pastor, and ‘curator’ in a more modern sense, is one who acts as an institutional overseer that preserves the contents of a museum or collection, then the entire concept of curation cannot escape its roots as part of a process of cultural conservation. Fundamentally, the act of curation is conservative, hewing to tradition or institutional continuity. But when we reduce the idea of curation to an act of list making, the cataloging of objects and ephemera, the conservative impulse is upended. Curation then becomes an act of proliferation, a reduction to the most basic element of any creative process. Any list can be potentially interesting, even arbitrary or random lists of things will eventually generate interesting associations purely by the act of serendipitous permutation. It is too easy to point to any number of social networking or web-based tools as the source of this shift in emphasis from genealogy to catalog. Technology is merely symptomatic and obscures larger institutional and discursive shifts in thinking about curation. What is in need of closer examination is how curators and designers understand curation and in particular how they define it as a means of framing exhibitions about graphic design.
Full essay in Modes of Criticism 1 – Critical, Uncritical, Post-critical (2015)