Verbal Energy

Really? We're all curators now?

A competition intended to identify 'curatorial talent' points up a new use for an old word.

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Are you a curator? If an enticing video from the Qatar Museums Authority and the Fondazione Prada has it right, "we are all curators."

The two entities are sponsoring "The Curate Award," described as a "global search for curatorial talent." Competitors are to submit, as a video, a proposal for an exhibition. The winner's idea will be "realised" – their word, their spelling – as an exhibition in Italy or Qatar and maybe elsewhere, too. Entries close New Year's Eve. A panel including Dutch "starchitect" Rem Koolhaas will judge them. A winner will be announced in the spring.

"Everything we choose and collect to surround us has meaning. Great curatorial expressions and ideas on how to exhibit can be communicated in all artistic forms and media, by anyone, whether in the art world or not," according to the website.

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

One might note that the name of the prize seems to suffer from part-of-speech confusion disorder. The sponsors might have called it "The Curatorial Award" or "The Award for Curation," but no; and it falls on the ear as if it were something like "The Write Award." Crankiness aside, the award is an example of new life for an old word.

Curate, as a noun, comes from the Latin curare, meaning "to care for." Curator came into English in the mid-14th century. It meant an overseer, manager, or guard, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, and was originally used "for those put in charge of minors, lunatics, etc."

The museum/library sense of the word ("curator of prints and drawings") dates from 300 years later, during the scientific revolution of the 17th century. For instance, Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was the first "Curator of Experiments" at the Royal Society.

(If you're remembering curare as a poison Latin American natives used against European explorers, you're right. But that word was a corruption of an unrelated native word said to mean "he to whom it comes, falls.")

Curate, as a noun, meant "spiritual guide" to speakers of late 14th-century English. Readers of English and French novels of a certain period will remember running into various "curates" – clergy of various stripes – in their pages.

Curate as a verb is what lexicographers call a back-formation: The noun form got there first. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the verb usage as originally American and dates it only to 1934. Oxford's earliest citation from the press is from the Daily Telegraph of 1969, "All London Zoo's mammals were being curated with tremendous flair." (I can barely imagine what that was supposed to mean. How do you break the news to an elephant that henceforth he's going to be "curated"?)

But a lot of us have a lot that needs curating nowadays, and I don't mean just all the knickknacks on our desks. People "curate" their images and self-expression on the Web, haunted by the thought that they aren't as scintillating in real life as their Facebook presence makes them seem.

In the news and information world, the public function of journalism may be less about gathering material and more about weeding out what's less important. The Curate Award seems to be getting at the idea that the arrangement of elements is a new kind of creative product. Juxtaposition may matter more than mere accumulation or even in-depth knowledge of the field.

And the uncurated life, some may argue, is not worth living.

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