2 thoughts on “WORDS/MATTER

  1. When I see – by which I mean literally observe with my eyes – the word in a context that invites reflection – by which I invite more figurative seeing – it invariably reminds me of “curare” which was an arrow point poison long before Indiana Jones and even before Sir Walter Raleigh who, says Wikipedia, mentioned it in 1596. It’s also the Latin infinitive form (which I already knew from taking Latin in 1962-64 because you didn’t have to speak it aloud and, thus, it was the easier foreign language) of the verb translated “to care”. Isn’t that a sweet little etymological irony!

    When my online dictionary sees – by which I mean some other figurative thing – the word, it identifies it as a noun denoting not a poisoner (Marxist opiate pushing notwithstanding) but a caregiver, particularly one in the Christian tradition. It also identifies it as being derived from the word “curator” and suggests – really! – that it means to do what a curator does. Not what a curate does. Not that a curator is one who curates. I think that the verb “curate” has taken on a new life in recent years.

    Our former student Diane Enobabor once suggested that her dream career was as a curator of something I can’t recall precisely, but that something was not museum-related as a previous generation’s reading of that word might have implied. It had more to do with caring for ideas and understandings of a culture or worldview (not excluding its artifacts by any means) but, I thought, more interested in recognizing and sharing, honoring and preserving certain things both abstract and concrete. Less interested in (though not opposed to) gathering, collecting, assembling. I think she was imagining herself as a curator of a more figurative museum, maybe even a digital one, certainly a researcher, critic, analyst, historian, presenter, interpreter, performer, …

    It is, perhaps, a fortuitous intersection where curate and curator meet. The curate – at best – is one who cares for people, though the language of “caring for their souls” and other absolutist Christian accretions have obscured that best sense or, pardon the modernese, best practice understanding of the term. The most vital quality of a curate must be caregiving – or simply caring. Not for the institution or the objects of the institution, but for the people; not for the doctrines, but for the ideals. A curate must care for more than objects, must seek not just to preserve what is or has been but to make it live and change and grow, not for itself but for the sake of, well, a better world. A curator who is not in some best sense also a curate is merely a collector.

    I so adore the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe that I fear to apply this lens to my thinking about it, but it is clear that if it is merely the place that preserves the eclectic collection of a very wealthy family, it cannot hold my naive adoration. I want to believe that its curators seek to celebrate the great diversity of ideas and art and people that exist beyond the museums of the “well-educated” academic elite of art and culture. As I think about it, I recognize the values on display in the temporary exhibitions that have share that museum space across the years, and I am comforted. To the critic of Santa Fe, there will remain an ineradicable smell of condescension, exploitation, and commodification everywhere, but there is more. Near Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is the Woolaroc Museum, a place that preserves the eclectic collection of the very wealthy Phillips family. It is a collector’s place which does not exhibit any larger purpose. Visiting one museum is like walking through some obscenely wealthy old man’s attic; the other, like walking in a wonderland. The difference is in the intersection of curare, curate, curator.

    A reader/writer/teacher/student who begins research with the mind/heart/eye/soul of a curator (not just a collector) will be driven, distracted, and driven to distraction by caring for and about more than a subject or topic, by caring about the value of learning and understanding and connecting, by caring about assumptions and consequences and implications and applications, by caring about questions and curiosities and rabbits.

    BONUS from Wikipedia: curate’s egg.
    The term derives from a cartoon published in the humorous British magazine Punch on 9 November 1895. Drawn by George du Maurier and titled True Humility, it pictures a timid-looking curate eating breakfast in his bishop’s house.[4] The bishop says: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones.” The curate, desperate not to offend his eminent host and ultimate employer, replies: “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!” (This clearly cannot be true of a bad egg.)
    The final issue of Punch, published in 1992, reprinted the cartoon with the caption: Curate: This f***ing egg’s off![5] Thus Punch drew a contrast with the modern era, implying that younger people have little concern for the niceties of Victorian good manners towards those once considered their social superiors.

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    • I wrote an in-depth answer and then hit send and it never posted and I can’t find it. So, the internet speaks and admonishes me to keep it simple. :-)Suffice it to say, as you can see from your own thoughts, the word has many different meanings in many different situations and I’m having to explore them all in order to use this one word in my dissertation in the way I hope to. It’s a little frustrating. And also fascinating.


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