Curating Empty Museums

My best friend and I are fond of “curating.”

It started when she was decorating her room and wanted to arrange her framed photos like those artsy gallery walls you see on Pinterest. It felt as if the description of every pin we found had some derivative of the word “curate” in it. So “curated” became our term for good decorating skills.

“Those succulents are so curated.”

“I love those curated quotes.”

“Look at my vase of flowers! I’m curating!”

Eventually, our definition of the word got a little out of hand. Like all overly-beloved words and phrases, “curating” and its various forms has become a general term for anything nominally attractive.

“This coffee is so curated.”

“I love your curated outfit.”

“Look at our beautiful breakfast! We’re curating!”

curating
A still life-style food spread, coffee, quotes on a napkin, and all the Starbucks advertising I can muster. A classic example of millennial “curating.”

Hopelessly millennial as it seems, I think our throwing around of the word “curating” is rather harmless. For my part at least, I find it helps me find beauty in ordinary things (how’s that for hopelessly millennial). Also, it’s a fun inside joke.

But it’s interesting, because the traditional sense of the verb “to curate” creates connotations of being selective and intentional, of prize and value. We picture stuffy professor types showing grubby kids around a museum.

These days, we’re all encouraged to be curators of our own lives. There’s so much mental noise we come across day to day, from the myriad voices on social media platforms, to email, to texts, to phone calls, to ignored phone calls, to voice messages we keep putting off listening to. We are encouraged to manage all this noise, to intentionally choose what we see and do not see.

You hate the political tirades your one Facebook friend keeps posting? Unfollow him. Spotify is playing a song you dislike? Skip it. You keep seeing ads for ___ and you hate ___? Tell the internet you hate ___ and the internet will show you ads for stuff you don’t hate.

We only hear from the Facebook friends we agree with. We only listen to the songs we like. We only see (and most likely buy from) the ads we’re interested in. Slowly, our lives are becoming curated to our own interests.

curating

I realized this most jarringly when driving home from work this week. The radio was playing one of my favorite songs, and so of course I sang along and bobbed my head and generally looked dumb while driving home. Then as the end of the song approached, I found myself reaching for the radio’s nonexistent “skip” button.

Usually, when I play the song on my phone, I skip the end, because I know what the end sounds like and I want to go on to the high of a new song. Skip skip skip. Curate curate curate.

Unfortunately, the sheer amount of mental noise makes some amount of curating absolutely necessary. I’ve personally found it very easy to become emotionally over-invested in all the stuff out there that I have to mute or block or unfollow certain people so I can maintain my sanity.

Perhaps the danger is not in curating, but in being so used to curating that we forget we’re even curating in the first place. Instead of being intentional about what we allow into our sphere, we become used to a life that is user-friendly. And then, when life doesn’t meet our expectations, we become frustrated.

But the reality is, you can’t unlisten to a friend who’s talking about politics right in front of you. You can’t skip a song on the radio. You can’t tear down billboards on the side of the highway just because you don’t like seeing ads for funeral homes. In real life, you deal with these little foils to your curating. You learn from them. You learn how to get over them. You might even learn that you like them.

Sometimes listening to a friend you disagree with makes you smarter. Sometimes listening to an entire song makes you enjoy it more. Sometimes an advertisement… okay, advertisements are trash. But sometimes you have to deal with trash.

If we’re so used to curating our life experiences we can’t function without that high level of control, I’m afraid of where it might lead us. I wonder if in the end we’ll each find ourselves alone, curators of our own empty, sterilized museums.

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