Erasure of the curatorial voice…

This is the text (without the not v. interesting images) of a short paper I gave at the Defining Curatorial Voice workshop in February 2019, which was part of James Baker and Andrew Salway’s excellent Curatorial Voice: legacy descriptions of art objects and their contemporary uses project at the Sussex Humanities Lab.

Has the digitisation of museum collections erased the curatorial voice?


My question is obviously a provocation. Perhaps what I want to address is better expressed as: why is the curatorial voice largely absent in digitised museum collections, specifically those published online? Further, why does the promise of the vast project of digitised and online collections – perhaps one of the areas of largest investment of curatorial resources over the last 10 to 20 years – repeatedly fail to represent the curatorial voice, much less amplify it, and what are the implications of that absence? Despite the promise of the digital, the practices of museum documentation, collections digitisation, and subsequent online publication has perpetuated and compounded the absence of curatorial input/output, inadvertently rendering online collections a digital performance of what we have, rather than what we know, why we know it and why that might be interesting.

My current research looks at how online museum collections, catalogues and databases work, and why their impact is limited, considering the numbers involved. I’m not focusing on institutions on the national scale where they are able to maintain a variety of publication streams from the scholarly catalogue, catalogue raisonné and online exhibition, as well as being able to experiment with technological advances (BM, V&A, Tate, Metropolitan NY, Chicago IA), but on the many other museums, galleries and collections, where an online database may be their only published collections output for reasons of finance, expertise, or inclination.

A recurring theme for me has been what is missing from the records, practices, technology and content, that makes online museum collections underused, poorly evaluated and largely unexplored in most legitimated forms of discourse. What’s missing ranges from the prosaic: information accuracy – that is mis-information, out of date info, lack of image, IPR; to the evidential: use, reuse, engagement, and impact; to what might be termed the ethical: that is transparency about authorship, authority, bias.

However, the absence from the online records that is most striking is that of people. There have of course, been numerous endeavours to re-insert diverse human experience and voices into museum collections information, and to exploit the affordances of digital technology to achieve this. Perhaps the most obvious efforts being tagging, crowdsourcing and folksonomies in attempts to make the museum and its collections relevant. But these initiatives have been almost exclusively outward looking. My suggestion here is that there is space, and a need, for the curatorial voice to speak through the records and to make this available online; not in order to reassert authority or traditional, western cultural hegemony through the performance of expertise, but the imaginative and transparent articulation of experience, reflexive practice and discursive accounts. And that there may be benefits to this shift in focus.

Curatorial voice

What do I mean by the curatorial voice? (Possibly we should also unpick what we mean by curate, a word which gets bandied about all over the place as you can now curate coffee pods, savings vouchers and lunch [1])

I would take curatorial voice to mean the expression not only of knowledge, but the relating of the intimate physical experience of working with artefacts and the practices that surround handling, preserving and managing them, a different type of knowing. This is not the shadowy, and privilege-laden, skill of connoisseurship, but a specific type of historical method that arises from direct experience of material culture. It encompasses awareness of materials, surfaces, and weight, as well as the relationship to the body, in addition to understandings of transaction, commerce, emotional attachment, and the social life of things. Additionally, it involves an acknowledgement and account of the work that goes into the keeping of artefacts. Curatorial expression of this has traditionally been through the exhibition and the exhibition catalogue. But exhibitions are the big prize and catalogues written by curators are increasingly the expensive exception rather than rule.

What does curatorial knowledge consist of? Where and how is it voiced? What happens in cataloguing and what do we get to see online? My thinking is informed by Linda Sandino’s work recording oral histories from curators of the V&A, which reveals the potential of moving outside the official, institutional narratives of object and collection that are codified in the online record, (and incidentally the value of oral history as a mode of transmission).

The interviews document aspects of everyday museum work that are usually not told in official histories, possibly because they are seen as dull: accounts about working practices such as cataloguing, the introduction of computers, exhibition planning, acquisitions, attitudes to de-accessioning, the minutiae of museum bureaucracy [2] .(Sandino, 2012)

Below I have listed the main areas that I think capture what curators think about and do.

  1. Descriptive, factual – data/information

Records, analogue >> databases and db records >> versions published online. The science of classification and categorisation made manifest.

What happens online? This ‘tombstone’ data is the most common presentation. It looks uncannily like the labels in a modernist gallery space – white walls and minimal information. The object record is rarely authored; and changes to the field content from spelling corrections, or changes to dates, to major shifts in attribution are often not acknowledged as having been changed.

2. Historical/cultural/socio-political context – scholarly knowledge

Relatively little space or time is given over to this in the record in smaller institutions. Research often tends to exist outside of the online record – physically in files or in other publications and institutions, and be referenced or cited in the record, if you are lucky. Often the scholarly writing is done not by the by the curator responsible for the objects, but by visiting experts/academics and required to be “more academic” and published elsewhere.

What happens online? the perception was that long-form text is not suitable in digital form – be it databases or online records. When “voice” is inserted it’s the voice of an external “expert”.

3. Experiential/interaction/physical/practical interaction – praxis

Internally the recording of the processes and practices of collections management is done regularly and systematically. The static nature of paper records wasn’t great for this – multiple changes to location, condition etc required a great deal of annotation and amendment. However, databases are really good at this, repeating fields, automatic dating and attribution, and the systematic articulations of key processes, work flow, recording risk, damage, loss etc – the data of management and accountability have transformed the management and care of collections behind the scenes. The articulation work[AR3]  of curating goes a long way to revealing the life of objects in museums and the human interventions and interactions with the objects and collections. This information captures the relationships between display and use and the material reality of the artefacts. Further, as Sandino describes from her oral histories

Passages that describe duties and responsibilities are intermingled with reflections on how personal values are embedded in the curatorial project and the meaning of the institution. (Sandino, 2012)

What happens online?: Very little of this information is ever made public, for fear of exposure or perhaps being dull?

4. Diverse/discursive/contested accounts: opinion and representation

The traditional, normative record organisation, data structure and cataloguing practice, which is then selectively replicated in online publication of museum records, has only really begun to address the structural racism, sexism and effectively the writing out of diverse and marginalised groups in the past decade. However, progress has largely been in the form of insertion or overlay of new categories, alternative ontologies, and missing data within the existing software, documentation, and digital infrastructures.

What happens online? While this type of issue is often dealt with in display, labels and exhibitions, it does not seem to fundamentally shift in cataloguing practice, and thus a supposedly neutral, objective object record is presented online and the ‘facts’ codified in publication and the record structure itself combined with the institutional authority of the museum and the ubiquity of the internet as source.

5. Imaginative/creative/emotional/narrative

Lastly there is the poetic experience, the romance of curating (nobody does it for the money) – the love of the objects, materials, of stuff – the relationship that develops through caring from something, from concern for its future as well as its past. Creative writing about museums, objects and curators often focuses on the intimacy of the relationship with things (Peter Carey’s The Chemistry of Tears for example). There is also the associative power of objects – nostalgia and memory which is incorporated into a great deal of museum outreach work, but is also part of curatorial practice. (The most beautiful expression in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn).

What happens online? Professionally this is rarely captured, acknowledged or published and there is certainly little room for it within the structured data of the official object record.

Erasure / absence / never present?

What we begin to see is that the process of creating digital versions of object records is not set up or perhaps never intended for expression of the curatorial voice. The standards of recording, tools, process, and professional expectation require distance and a quasi-scientific approach to museum cataloguing practice, all in the name of a kind of pseudo-objectivity. This goes directly against the principles of openness, redressing structural privileges of ownership and power, and the democratisation of access that the intersection of digital and cultural heritage is meant to provide. In the manner of their publication and presentation online collections effectively replicate the space of the Modernist notion of the white cube gallery, with little interpretation and only tombstone labels.

A great deal of this comes out of the nature of collections digitisation work and the need for expediency. Certain areas of record information are systematically privileged over others – the ‘facts’, the structured, controlled data – who / what / where / when, and of course the supremacy of the image. But in this way, digitisation and digital collections have effectively reduced digital collections work to metrics – how many records, how many images. Is more better, or simply more?

In the metrics and accounting approaches that digitisation has instigated for collections access, there is less time to catalogue, to voice or consider voicing dissent.

Solution? Notes not fields, text not data.

Forays into re-using museum digital object records have been oddly disappointing, despite the huge wealth of material available. Public and scholarly engagement has also been somewhat underwhelming. Why is this?

While cataloguing creates an order, it does not allow for deviation from a predetermined scheme, but much of what is interesting about objects and people simply doesn’t fit [4] . Cataloguing is historically specific, socially inflected and necessarily reductive. People are messy, argumentative, and often wrong. Additionally, databases are not great for presenting narratives and argument, alternatives (they can barely deal with fuzziness around dates). We lose the current, recent annotations, marginalia, para-text and messing around in the digital record – meaning that the human interaction is harder to see [5] .

In continuing to replicate the traditional classifications of the nineteenth-century, in record structures of the twentieth, within the design presentation of the modern, and in digital systems of the twenty-first, the online catalogue is oddly retrogressive and unrepresentative of the objects and their rich interactions, relationships and agency in a human context – both for audience and practitioners.

I think there are some relatively simple things to address this online and in cataloguing practice (even using existing systems) for curators and cataloguers:

  1. Be transparent – say what you are doing and why
  2. Write in the notes fields not the controlled fields and don’t be afraid to publish it
  3. Own what you write – author it: be earnest and honestly subjective
  4. Describe practice and process and relationships with things and publish these as intrinsic parts of the records.
  5. Write critically
  6. Don’t depend on the image to allow an object to “speak for itself”
  7. Record response – public and professional
  8. Abandon neutrality, though NOT material reality, and be straightforwardly partisan. Describe the arguments and the evidence, make the case – quote, reference, respond.
  9. Work on digital systems that embrace messiness rather than attempt to write the world into structured ontologies with limited variables.
  10. Be brave and publish what you have, not just the “cleaned’ and truncated selection of what is safe or uncontroversial.

To answer my initial question: the systematic erasure of the expression of curatorial experience from the object record through traditional documentation practices, encoded in databases, and then redacted and reduced for online consumption has rendered the records’ online publication an inadequate source or stimulus in the digital humanities – it’s proved pretty useless for data visualisation, remains unreferenced in scholarly research and lacking in the rich content that literary texts provide, as well as failing to engage audiences. But, there is value to curatorial voice as mediator through experience, and curatorial writing as a resource and basis for the computational analysis of text.

[1] Has “curationism” led to its own demise…? David Balz, 2015 Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else

 [2]Sandino, L. (2012) ‘For the Record: [un]official voices at the V&A’, Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, 10(1), pp. 54–58. Available at:

 [3]I want to extend the notion of articulation work as defined by W Kaltenbrunner to encompass the labour involved in collaborative digital scholarship, to the work of curatorship which is always collaborative and analogous to the digital literary studies work he describes.

Kaltenbrunner, W. (2014). Scholarly Labour and Digital Collaboration in Literary Studies. Social Epistemology, 29(2), 207–233.

 [4]Joanna Drucker on ‘capta’ in 2011 – Drucker, J. (2011) ‘Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 5(1). Available at: (Accessed: 25 April 2014)

 And more recently on her thinking about 3D data visualisation for the humanities – in which a creative or poetic element is also potentially enriching to data viz…

 [AR5]Fyfe, P. (2016) ‘An Archaeology of Victorian Newspapers’, Victorian Periodicals Review, 49(4), pp. 546–577. doi: 10.1353/vpr.2016.0039. And Mak, B. (2004) ‘Archaeology of a Digitisation’, Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. doi: 10.1002/asi.