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What ‘curating your research’ really means

March 16, 2023 #Insights
What ‘curating your research’ really means
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‘Curating’ has become a marketing buzzword, devoid of much of its real meaning. Drawing on her experience in contemporary art curation, Natallia explores how the core principles of the practice can be applied to research and policy communications.

A few days ago, I walked into a second-hand bookshop and left without buying anything. It was a cramped little store and was filled with books. I did a few circles around the displays… classics, crime, frigates and aircrafts… but nothing caught my attention.

Their display made me think about the crucial role curators play in the information age. 

Today we have fast-paced lives and short attention spans, and we suffer from digital overload. Because of this, researchers must communicate information with greater intention. We must be engaging and evocative in our information exchange. We must connect with audiences in a more personal and selective way.

This is where the curator’s trade is important. Otherwise, you run the risk of your intended audience being uninspired and overwhelmed. And, like me in the book shop, they’ll walk away with nothing.

Communications experts as curators

You may be asking yourselves: isn’t this the job of the communications experts? And it’s true that curating and communications are two surprisingly similar jobs. Strangely enough, all curators are communicators but not all communicators are curators – bear with me on this one…

How are they similar?

Both professions participate in knowledge production through mediating, interpreting and connecting the public to research and artistic or scientific investigations. Both work with texts, ideas and thinkers (e.g., researchers, scientists and artists).

What’s the difference?

There are a few. The difference that I really want to focus on lies within the etymology of the word ‘curate’, which comes from the Latin ‘curare’. This means ‘to take care of, look after’. 

The art of curating lies in responsibility and curiosity towards ideas and concepts, artists and their stories, audiences, and objects. It’s about caring enough to see the potential of an idea and finding the best way of communicating it. This could be through making connections, spotlighting carefully selected elements, or through taking a participatory approach. 

Seeing curating as meaning-making

Curators must first address the questions of ‘where?’ and ‘why?’ before they can move onto the question of ‘how?’. They must think about how to place the object or information in both time and space so that they make connections that will engage the audience. 

Much of curating is about feeling. It’s about the intuition and personal engagement of the curator with the artwork. And it’s about their ability to respond to impulses that can be hard to put into words. This is because we don’t always connect with each other through words alone. Just weeks ago, I spent four hours in La Cinémathèque française – even though my knowledge of French is limited. I was drawn in by the careful and thoughtful way that the exhibition was put together. 

Curating is about caring enough to see the potential of an idea and finding the best way of communicating it. 

Sadly, ‘curating’ has now become an overused marketing buzzword, devoid of its intrinsic meaning. And this lack of care is often evident in policy and research communications. 

Policy and research organisations regularly put so much effort into producing evidence that they forget to consider whether their research will be understood once it’s finished. Instead, they upload lengthy PDFs on already overpopulated websites, thinking that the rest is for the readers to figure out. It’s not.

Curating research and policy evidence

As soon as data are involved, communication becomes very serious – data are treated as pieces of self-evident, pure knowledge. The thing is, the meaning of data is actually down to how we interpret them. This relies on how we place our data in broader contexts and how we connect them to actual people. 

With so many global challenges, we can no longer equate a single piece of research or a single set of calculations with a definite truth. We’ll only be able to make progress in these challenges if we create connections and curate our research in relation to other issues, other people, and our history. 

There’ll still be gaps in this knowledge – tangible connections that we can’t yet explain – and that’s okay. To paraphrase Socrates: I know that I know something, but it’s not everything. But through honesty we can encourage others to engage in these discussions. 

Curatorial practice is less about the outcome and more about the process, so it allows others to participate in our thinking. Maybe one day, this will help to fill in these knowledge gaps, moving society one step closer to solving these global challenges.

Curatorial practice is less about the outcome and more about the process. It allows others to participate in our thinking.

Forensic Architecture is a fantastic example of how this can work in practice. It shows us how carefully curated data can help us to protect communities that are affected by conflict.

How can you curate your research effectively?

Imagine that your research is an exhibition. You’re in a room. You’ve got a couple of walls, and maybe the floor and the ceiling. You’ve got all the tools in the world that you need. But what should you do? How should you tell your story? As we know, a blank canvas is exciting but daunting.

Here are some simple tips to help you curate your research effectively:

1. Figure out what excites you

This will tell you why others should care about your research. My first curatorial project was based on a massive research archive for the first nuclear power plant, in Obnisk. At first, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it. But I was so fascinated by the idea of Obnisk being a secret ‘science city’ that it allowed me to find a way in.

2. Collaborate with others

Curating is always a process of co-creation. So is communication. It’s not about hanging paintings on the wall or writing solid descriptions, it’s a process of discovery, inspiration and curiosity. Work with different people who can do something you can’t. This is how we do it at Cast From Clay.

3. Produce ideas, don’t illustrate them

I’m borrowing this advice from the person who conceptualised curating as we know it: Hans Ulrich Obrist. Don’t let data speak for itself, suggest what it could mean. You don’t need to have all the answers in the world, as long as you inspire others to look for them.

4. Be selective

There’s no curation without selectivity. So, it’s not a recommendation, it’s a requirement. You’ll have to leave some things out.

5. Connect issues, contexts, and people

Curating, storytelling, and communicating are all about relationships – about how we connect with each other. Considering what they do, policy organisations can be weirdly egocentric. For example, clearly referencing another organisation’s research in their own publication just isn’t as common practice as you’d think. But what’s the world supposed to do with this multitude of disjointed research? To help your audience understand your research’s broader context, illustrate how it connects to the research of others.

A version of this article was originally published by On Think Tanks.

If you need help implementing this in your organisation, we can help. Get in touch.

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