The Curated Self

My first stop in any city is the art gallery. I’m passionate about great art, I like to buy works from local artists when I travel (a habit my financial planner is desperate to break!), and I’ve often fantasised about going back to university to study art history.

What fascinates me most about art galleries is the curation. The process of deciding what pieces to include and what pieces to leave out; whether to present the pieces chronologically, by theme, or by medium; how much information to include in the accompanying description; what colour to paint the walls; and how to promote the exhibition.

Curation is, itself, an artform and I often use the language of art when I talk to academics and students about social media and their online presence. Deciding on the what, where, when, how, and why of the information we present to the public is an act of curation.

My Twitter account, for example, is carefully constructed. I work hard to keep 70-90% of my content ‘on message’ – that is, tweets about dementia, carers, suicide, health, ageing, and research – and to ensure that only 10-30% are general interest or personal. I also keep the personal content suitably generic. Enough that people get a sense of who I am and feel they can connect with me as a person, but not so much that they  know which brand of toothpaste I use.

When it comes to my tweets, I’m constantly mindful of the fact that Twitter, just like an art gallery, is a public space. My tweets can and will be seen by current or prospective employers, funding bodies, students, colleagues, industry partners, and journal editors. And, whether I like it or not, I will be judged by my tweets.

This website is also an act of curation. I realised there were parts of my personal exhibition all over the web. A few journal articles here, some media coverage there; a slideshow over on that site, some tweets over on this one. By bringing them together in one place, I had an opportunity to curate my self. I got to decide what parts of my self to include and what parts to leave out, how to group my works, and what colour to paint my walls. And in doing so I was deciding how to promote my self.

Most academics are bad at curation. It’s not something we’re trained to do and we often learn by trial and error. But if we can learn to do it well, we increase the likelihood that our research will lead to meaningful changes in practice and policy. In its first week online, for example, this site had more than 900 views (from people in 30 different countries) and I’ve had requests from clinicians around the world to use my research to support their practice. Carefully curated content can also help to breakdown the negative stereotypes of researchers and scientists and increase community engagement.

So the next time you’re at an art gallery, don’t just look at the art. Look at the walls, the lighting, the descriptions, the sequence and the promotional materials. And then, like all great artists, steal those ideas and apply them to your own work.

15 thoughts on “The Curated Self

  1. I’m happy to see your connections between artistic and public presentation, that both are actions which cannot avoid public judgment. I wonder, though, what do you mean by “most academics are bad at curation”? Don’t you consider the people who design those museum exhibitions academics? They also publish articles, write books, and do research. Most if not all of them hold either a Masters or a PhD. Did you mean academics in your field, or academics in general?

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    • Not to speak for Dr O’Dwyer, as I’m sure she can do that herself, but most academics are not people who design museum exhibitions, so even if they’re all excellent at curation they’re still only a small percentage of the overall academic population,

      Self-curation is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, as I grew up with the internet almost from birth so I’m spattered all over it. It is much harder to curate retrospectively.

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      • Hi May,
        I guess what I meant was that “academics” as a category of people–the people who run our classrooms, write our textbooks, get interviewed on NPR and often deliver our commencement speeches–are people who make a living off of their public image. Sure, not every academic will curate a public exhibit in his or her lifetime, but it is not uncommon for a professor or researcher to do so. I know at least 5 full-time professors who’ve contributed to or independently designed museum exhibitions over the last four years.
        As I understand it, academics have survived for centuries by tailoring their public image to conform to certain notions of “the scholar”. If you don’t look and sound smart, in touch with your field, then you’re out of a job. Monitoring that image is self-curation, don’t you think?
        I guess my question is what kind of self-curation is Dr. O’Dwyer addressing by the comment? Is it “how do we monitor our public image” or “how to academics learn to prove their own relevance?”

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  2. Pingback: The Curated Self | Antique Discoveries

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