Once almost exclusively the realm of experts within a museum or gallery setting, over that last few years the concept of curating has become a social media trend. In 2016, almost anyone can become a content curator, by digitally curating a playlist, their twitter feed or facebook page. Similarly, shops fronts, menus and ambience have all been carefully curated for us; even the act of making a salad has become a chance to ‘curate’ in what has been described as a ‘curatorial culture’. This liberal use of the term has been the source of much anxiety (and some amusement) for proponents of traditional curatorship, who argue that this proliferation of curation has led to a devaluation of the academic processes and the profession of Curator. ‘Curatorship’ claims Lucy Worsley, co-chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, is not just ‘choosing nice things’, a comment which reflects the ever growing concern within institutions over the appropriation of the term.
However, by viewing popular mass digital curation as intrinsically incompatible with traditional curation practices, heritage institutions and museums are crucially missing a trick. Self-curation is at an all-time high, due to the use of social media and the nature of web 2.0, making it increasingly easy to share our lives and the things we love online. What if we took this idea of self-curation and considered it as a continuation of this traditional curatorial framework? What if we asked a digital ‘audience’ to create and curate the content of a virtual exhibition based on sharing the things that they value. By highlighting the objects that we personally value and looking at why we do so, we can also engage in a wider dialogue on the ways in which museums and heritage institutions carry out the same process.
These are the thoughts behind the #CurateMyLife project. #CurateMyLife is an experiment conducted by a group of Cultural Heritage Management MA students at the University of York. We are an international group, with different backgrounds, areas of interests, levels of experience, and fields of study. We are united by a common desire to inspire the public to become involved in the active production of heritage. #CurateMyLife is a social media campaign designed to encourage the individual to think about his or her own life within the wider context of heritage and curatorial practices. It’s about giving a voice to the individual, and valuing their contributions in the same manner that we would within a museums context. People can participate by sharing images of something from their lives that they would like to ‘curate’, with limited guidance or direction as to what that would mean to avoid dictating any specific approach. What is shared, therefore, could be almost anything.
The produced content will be completely reflective of what is actively valued by the participants, perhaps they may share a photograph of a family heirloom, a baby’s first shoe, a family pet, an object used everyday, or a favourite scarf. It might be a picture of a person in their lives, a meaningful place, or even an image to represent intangible heritage such as a memory or an experience. The ideal result of the project would be the formulation of a dynamic, digital gallery, full of images of the objects people value in their lives, which can be updated frequently to include things that have been shared through use of the hashtag. Each image would also have a short caption, akin to a gallery label, to explain why the original poster chose what they did, why they value it or what is it that makes it special and important to the individual enough to ‘curate’ it.
Amassing this information allows anyone viewing the gallery (or the #CurateMyLife hashtag feed) to see what people find interesting or important to ‘curate’. This will help us discover how people today identify with the concept of cultural heritage. Doing so would not only create an ‘active museum’ of objects with vested personal importance, but could also lead to a greater understanding of what evokes an emotive response in people, facilitating an examination of the content that museums display or emphasise.
Generally, once an object is placed on display or becomes part of a museum collection, it is no longer valued for personal reasons but instead for their artistic or evidential value. Objects in displays, no matter how well integrated, are divorced from their original purpose and lose their personal meaning and connection, with it therefore becoming the work of experts to attempt to reinterpret the collections to provide that for their audience. By displaying personally valued objects still in use and by presenting a snapshot of life in 2016, the #CurateMyLife digital gallery contextualises itself using human emotion and experience.
When we talk about personal experience it is, by its very nature, subjective. It is not something comprised of empirical truths or single narratives. Similarly, when discussing heritage in this context, it is not just about the past, but about how we are shaped by our experiences and how we choose to record these and share them with others. Our own experiences vary wildly, just as the emotional responses one has to a heritage site or object will differ depending on the person. Whilst some may be moved by a particular exhibit or story, others may feel no connection or interest with the information.
However, considering that heritage is for all and should be enjoyed by everyone, it is important to appreciate individuality and allow people to share their appreciation of whatever they feel a connection to. #CurateMyLife provides a method whereby people can share their interests and personal responses, allowing people to publically acknowledge what intrigues them and the reasons for this.
Social media is the ideal platform to carry out this project as the opportunities for multi-directional participation that it presents, as suggested by scholars such as Nina Simon, provides a crucial opportunity to reverse what is traditionally a top-down, authority led form of curation and begin to democratise the process. Capitalising upon this aspect of democratization of the heritage experience, there is a great deal of work that has been undertaken on placing the individual visitor, or non-visitor, at the forefront of accessibility.
Social media is an integral aspect of networking and, nowadays, a way of interacting with material displays, or else, as an augmentative follow-up experience to an exhibition. Furthermore, this dissemination of information and heritage issues, via forum based web interaction and web 2.0 activities, facilitates a more diverse range of feedback and allows exhibition and heritage sites to expand upon the demographic that they can appeal to. This aspect of a system of online forums is already being explored by heritage bodies, such as CBA Yorkshire, and others, through advertising campaigns on facebook, twitter and more frequent updates on youtube, alongside greater communication between heritage amenity and interest groups. This would allow the perception of heritage, and by extension, heritage sites, to shed whatever antiquated air of exclusivity remains and allow a greater participation by any individual with even a minor interest in heritage.
By using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds #CurateMyLife would allow a more personalised extension of this aspect of democratised heritage, and would help to remove what stigma remains of the staunch and unyielding sense of heritage, locked up behind the walls of a museum. This would thereby help all generations of people to view heritage as a truly fluid aspect, which surrounds and encompasses every aspect of life, and, by sharing this personal heritage, it would help to blur boundaries between different individuals and maybe even usher in new forms of educative liberalism and awareness of life, in addition to providing new inspiration for future exhibitions.
We invite you to join in and participate in this project by including the hashtag #CurateMyLife in your own posts on Twitter, on Instagram, or other social media sites. We encourage you to be as creative as you like, feel free to include pictures and descriptions of people, places, and the things that you feel define your cultural experience and your identity. Do you have any items that are particularly significant to you? Who are the family and friends that have played an important role in your life? What couldn’t you live without? Where are the places you’ve been that meant something special to you, and why? What would you want to share with future generations?
We look forward to seeing what you post using the #CurateMyLife hashtag!
Lucie Fletcher, Emma Grange, Ana Paz, Margaret Perry, Ben Philips & Eleanor Styles