Sunday, July 7, 2019

Review of 'Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess'

Rachel Burnham writes: I recently read ‘Curation: The Power of Selection in a World of Excess’ by Michael Bhaskar.  Published in 2016, this is an exploration of the very wide way in which ‘curation’ as an approach is being used.  In L&D, many people will be familiar with the concept of curation being applied to how we select, manage and share resources for learning.  You may also have come across the term curation in relation to content marketing, in the context where a marketing strategy makes use of content created by others which is selected and used to promote a particular business – you may even use this yourselves.  And of course, curation, has its origins in the world of museums and art galleries.

Bhaskar looks at curation in many different fields, as a business strategy, in retail, music and many other fields, in governmental regeneration and planning policies and in how we present ourselves as individuals.   He looks at how curation is being used to create value in fields, such as food retail, through specialist food retailers who bring together small niche providers of particular high-quality foods all under a single roof or fascinatingly in the way that a new city is being planned in Abu Dhabi, by curating a cultural district with top museums, art galleries, theatres and music venues. The book is full of examples of curation permeating all sorts of aspects of life – I think he sees curation everywhere – I wasn’t always convinced, though he does a great job of presenting examples to illustrate.

And I found the opening chapters with their emphasis on the abundance of everything for everybody, rather sickening and infuriating – you don’t need to look further than our city centres to see people living without a roof over their head, or open a paper to see the growing demands on foodbanks and that is within the wealthy UK.   But the book did make me think wider about what curation is and how it can be used. 

He describes curation as ‘using acts of selection and arrangement (but also refining, reducing, displaying, simplifying, presenting and explaining) to add value.  I found very helpful some simple diagrams he shares which describe different ways that curating can add value.

Diagram from Pg. 166

He identifies a number of benefits that curation can bring through the way it adds value including:

·         saving time
·         freeing cognitive resources 
·         sparing us anxiety
·         cutting down complexity
·         finding quality 
·         overcoming information overload
·         creating contrast
·         redefining creativity
·         channelling attention
·         providing context
·         beating overproduction. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that looks at both curation through the use of algorithms and also human curation and so it provides insight into our very current concern about how can humans and technology work together. This is sometimes described as ‘thick and thin’ curation.   Where ‘thin’ curation is the network of cataloguing and filtration mechanisms, recommendations and discovery algorithms found throughout the Internet and 'thick' curation is done by humans 'based on detailed personal choices, often for smaller audiences; it discuses its choices and comments on them, adding extra spin to its decisions' (Pg. 233)  Algorithmic curation can keep costs down and make curation scalable, but it is human curation that makes it personalised and personable. I like this quote from Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information at Oxford University 

'Curators are experts - you have to have a say to be a curator.  There is a practical side to curation that means algorithmic curation should be joined by a sense almost of ownership or custodianship.  The ability to intervene, to follow on, to ensure your curation has an impact is key.  It is a pragmatic relationship. ' (Pg 229)

What shines through is that effective curation is a highly skilled process.   Bhaskar says in the context of content curation in marketing 'But the term is often used weirdly.  Websites advise people to 'curate in the morning' or curate their way to success. Curation is seen as a shortcut, a defined thing, not a process.  … Good curation is more difficult and subtle than that.' He sees expert selection as at the start of good curation and quotes from Maria Popova, curator of the highly thought of ‘Brain Pickings’:

'The art of curation isn't about the individual pieces of content, but about how these pieces fit together, what story they tell by being placed next to each other, and what statement the context they create makes about culture and the world at large.  This is, she argues, a process of 'pattern recognition'.  Seeing how things fit together, understanding connections (which multiply in a networked environment), but then also, crucially, creating new ones by recombining them, is a massive part of curation.' (Pg 125) 

I love the sense of patchwork which her words evoke, making something new and fresh from scraps of the old or the familiar.  Another word for this would be ‘bricolage’ which Andrew Jacobs has written about.

Bhaskar argues that there are no shortcuts to becoming trusted as a curator – it is about ‘Authenticity, consistency, excellent selections - it is very hard to fake.' (Pg. 210)

I think curation is a useful skill for us to develop both as individuals to aid us in managing the huge amount of information we now need to navigate daily as professionals and also as a skill for us in L&D to share with others and use in our professional practice.   Bhaskar puts it like this:

'The more we understand how curation coheres with a network of new skills, strategies and capabilities, the better prepared we will be for thriving in the age of excess that is changing forever how we live and work.' (Pg. 165)

Rachel Burnham
7 July 2019

I help individuals and organisations to work and learn more effectively, particularly though using the tools of Sketchnoting and the curation of resources.  I make use of Sketchnoting to introduce people to using visuals to aid thinking, working and learning.  I help people to manage for themselves the information they need to stay up-to-date in their professional work.