Making a museum of your content — my problem with curation (and a possible solution)

For various reasons, I have spent a fair amount of time in the British Museum in the last couple of weeks. It is a remarkable and popular place to spend time. Thousands of people come here to wander and wonder at the exhibits every day. For curators, this must be close to the top of the tree if not on the highest branch itself. It is an environment for the curious to satisfy their curiosity. I suspect it is also the birthplace of a lot of coffee table books.

That meeting of curiosity and curation is rich yet fraught territory I think. Media companies and publishers have spent many years musing on the value of curation. It is a seductive idea on the supply side of the content equation; overcoming the need to produce anew for every need by arranging existing content in a fresh context for (re)discovery. This frees up resources (or saves them) for the next big new thing. (In the content business, there is always the next big thing). All of these curatorial exhibitions rest on the assumption that there is an abiding interest and utility in the content. A great deal of curated content satisfies a curious interest rather than a practical need or utility. For a learning curation this is a huge flaw. Learning content needs to be more than interesting it needs to be useful. Useful for something. For action.

Here is a classic case: The History of the World in 100 Objects. A rightly famous and lauded project using the museum’s exhibits as the steps in an ambitious narrative history. A highly successful radio how and popular book. And a very unhelpful gathering of digital content objects? Outside of the programme it is hard to answer the “what’s it for” question. It also has the producer hallmarks of the “By Theme” and “By Gallery” categories — the hand of the institution lies heavily on the navigation. Aesthetic and narrative scores are high, the curious are happy. Utility value is very low.

By way of contrast I would offer the BBC Food website (or cookery learning service?). This is immediately purposeful and speaks quickly and clearly to the user need. Making food. It is smart enough (in an editorially lead business) to place search in the heart of the product (although not quite across the home page where it belongs — editors always obsess about promo space on the home page). There is no better curation tool than an accurate search engine.

The site is all about recipes — all about the method of making food. Learning the method is supported by information on cookery techniques and ingredients. Even the programme and chef related content is in support of that “how do I?” goal. They offer a navigational prompt, nudging the memory and as content provenance. This is good quality food learning from recognised experts.

The recipe format is simple and straightforward. No need to figure out how to use each one when you find it. A few useful contextual navigational cues if the one you are reading is not quite right are to hand — related recipes and others with the main ingredients.

This site works (and the traffic data supports this claim), I believe, because it is not a curated set of content but a content product designed to meet a clear need — making food. It looks and feels like curation because it makes finding the instructions simple and intuitive. It is a well-designed too and for a clear purpose.

If it were a well-crafted collection for an exhibit, to satisfy the curious, it would be better off as a set of search results. Google is a great curator.

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Originally published at mylesrunham.com on April 8, 2016.

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