Bright Lights Project — Curate Like Museums Do

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I had the incredible honor to spend the second half of 2011 as a Goldman Sachs Senior Fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. This was a dream come true for me, since I’ve been a museum fanatic since I was 7 or 8 years old (I had fantasies of hiding in the bathroom at Chicago’s Museum of Science & Industry until it closed so I could spend all night playing with its humongous HO-scale train).

I’ve also become a bit of a student of museum history over the years, with a particular interest in the curiosity cabinets, or wunderkammer, that preceded them along with the Enlightenment. I’m fascinated by why and how smart people created cabinets with shelves and drawers filled equally with proto-scientific method insights and chips from Christ’s cross, unicorn horns, and the wings of swallows that migrated in the winter to the Moon.

So working with real historians and museum communicators was beyond a hoot for me. It was instructive. What I learned seems particularly relevant to my work with clients because of today’s fascination with content marketing and the apparent need to curate it.

Content marketing is one of those buzzword ideas that we’ll laugh about in a few years, if anybody remembers it at all. It’s based on the premise that consumers don’t want to be marketed to or sold, so businesses should propagate non-commercial stuff called content into the mediasphere instead. People will accept receipt of it since it has no obvious commercial value, and be so appreciative of it that they’ll think fond thoughts about the brand that provided it and somehow, someday, for some reason buy something from said business.

I know, it’s hilariously stupid when you think about it clearly, but there are books, keynote speeches, and lots of otherwise intelligent people wasting time and money on promoting it while keeping straight faces. I don’t know how they do it, but P.T. Barnum’s adage about suckers is a timeless truism for good reasons.

Worse, using words like “editing” and “curation” are in vogue for marketers who are busy assembling the content that doesn’t sell anything, because these terms are also void of any commercial implications. They might as well call what they do “root canal” or “particle astrophysics.” 

I know editors and curators. None of them are marketers. But my work with the Smithsonian got me thinking…if marketers really wanted to curate content, could it be put to real, meaningful use for brands? I think the answer is yes.

Museums possess far more credibility and sustainably authority than almost any other institutions in our lives, commercial or governmental. Exhibits, whether geophysical or virtual, evidence qualities that make them meaningful, such as:

  • Peer-reviewed substance. What’s on display isn’t there because somebody famous picked it, or because a committee of marketers though the stuff related to their brand most excellently. Curating means collecting based on established norms, sharing that substance with fellow experts who vet it for accuracy, developing it so it’s relevant to an ongoing body of work, yadda yadda.
  • Clear POVs. Curated content in museums is never about the museums, is it? It’s about subjects of interest or importance to visitors, and the collections are arrayed in such ways so as to make that relevance obvious to them.
  • Defined opportunities for interaction vs. open-ended conversation. Curated experiences that have lasting meaning aren’t glorified crowdsourcing or social conversations (so, what’s your opinion about what caused the Civil War?, or Why did Rodin like to sculpt? aren’t viable components of real curated content?). Engagement is based on mutual respect for what each party knows.
  • Dependability. Curated knowledge is amended and continued, not dropped for the next shiny new thing. So when a retailer like the Gap’s promises “four celebrity guest editors” for its “curated website,” it’s really just using those terms to glorify a marketing campaign that will be gone by next season. No wonder nobody believes this stuff.

There’s more, considering that museums have spent hundreds of years perfecting the craft of museum-ing.

I wonder what brands would look like…and accomplish…if they applied real curating to the content they provide to the marketplace. Perhaps they might even be able to ask for a sale?

I’ve created a consulting offering to do just that: It’s at CuratorCamp. Please check it out and tell me what you think?

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