Editor or curator?

When I researched, selected, acquired, arranged and commented on the 90+ works in the new Wellcome Collection book States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness, I identified my role as ‘editing’. Yet the same tasks are increasingly described as ‘curating’ (see the recent announcements of Audrey Niffenegger’s, Neil Gaiman’s and Malorie Blackman’s published collections).

Appropriation of ‘curating’ from the museums and archives sector is widespread: festivals and events are curated, music playlists and soundtracks are curated, outfits, wine, beer and holidays are all curated.  The word ‘curation’ is so ubiquitous an American university has even banned its use.

In the cases of Niffenegger et al, ‘curating’ is a straight substitute for ‘editing’ but, in an industry so  focused on language, this word swap raises important questions. For starters, if we no longer use the E word, are we undervaluing what an editor does? Does a ‘curated’ product somehow offer greater value than an ‘edited’ one? And if so, why?

Producers or carers?

In Roman times editors were the producers of gladiatorial games, impresarios (often the Emperor himself) who staged spectacles to wow audiences while keeping a close eye on costs. Editors held the power to decree whether gladiators lived or died. Curators, on the other hand, cared for, organised and recorded artworks, finances and even disadvantaged people.

As every good editor knows, definitions of words evolve through common usage, yet there is still a distinction between ‘editing’ (from the Latin edere: to bring forth), which the OED positions as a controlling and content-focused production task, and ‘curating’ (from curare: to care for), which is concerned with selecting, organising and keeping.

‘Curating’ rather than ‘editing’ implies a shift from the production of new content toward selecting and arranging existing content. Those activities have a place, particularly in bookselling and in the management of publishers’ backlists, but are they really what publishers are, or should be, focusing on?

Editing in sheep’s clothing?

More troublingly, ‘curation’ sometimes disguises traditional publishing power dynamics and the dated business models dependent on them. Despite its artsy feel, ‘curating’ an anthology or entire publishing list still involves making judgments about what should and shouldn’t be included. For commercial publishers those judgments, like those of the gladiatorial organisers, must still be audience-focused and financially savvy.

Museums and publishers alike now exist in a disintermediated world, but museums are moving away from the concept of ‘museum as authority’, instead empowering visitors to become active participants who make their own meaning from museum collections. Perhaps publishers should appropriate more than a word from the museum sector and find ways to help readers curate their own experiences rather than simply rebranding old practices in an increasingly reader-centric marketplace.

Anna Faherty is a writer, publisher and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers and major museums on digital, print, exhibition and training projects and has taught on publishing programmes at Kingston University, Oxford Brookes University and University College London.

States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness is published by Wellcome Collection and accompanies a major exhibition opening in February 2016, delving into the mysteries of human consciousness.