Book Review: ‘Curation’ by Michael Bhaskar

I had the pleasure of reviewing Michael Bhaskar’s book ‘Curation‘ for Oxford Today.

Their short version is on page 51 here, but here’s a longer version.

curation

‘Curation.’ The word is everywhere these days. Its definition seems to have slipped its moorings. When people start calling football managers ‘curators’ of their teams, something is up. Museum or gallery curators trying to reclaim it for high culture are struggling against the tide.

If this book were just a lovingly curated collection of examples of curation, it would invite the response – ‘so what?’ Luckily, it’s far from that. The task Michael Bhaskar sets himself is to make the case that the rise of curation is consequential for the future of business, the economy, and society, and to have some fun doing so.

That case goes something like this. We live among unprecedented abundance. The internet offers more writing than we could ever read, more music than we could ever listen to, and more news than we could ever keep up with. Shops offer more choice than we could ever process – to the point where we live amongst clutter. One study found that families had, on average, 139 toys, 438 books and magazines, and 39 pairs of shoes each. The result of all this abundance is that there are now massive business opportunities in helping us filter. This isn’t about searching; we don’t always know what we’re looking for. It’s about curation; ‘selecting, refining and arranging to add value’ on Bhaskar’s definition: someone using their hard-won expertise to put in front of us only the good stuff, the stuff we haven’t yet discovered but will want when we do, and doing so with style. Bhaskar sensibly accepts that the term’s meaning is still evolving, and concerns himself with the consequences of its rise. “One of today’s most important business models,” as he puts it, “is creating the tools and means for others to curate.”

For example, take the battle between Google, Apple and Spotify over music. As they all offered a near-limitless supply, the contest was in part about which company could provide the most effective curation. Startups like Canopy and Paper.li have sprung up to curate Amazon or online content. The selling points of Eataly, an Italian food retailer, or The Wine Society, a wine selection company, are the expertise they bring to the selection of their produce.

But the book’s argument is bigger than that. Bhaskar also argues that because curation is a high value activity by nature, it can also be a strategy for companies and countries to move up the value chain. He cites a medical information business which increased its value by deciding to make the curation of its stock of information a key selling point. He also tells the story of Abu Dhabi – which put its Cultural District, with a Guggenheim museum, a partnership with the British Museum, and the first foreign Louvre, at the heart of its development – a bold and successful bid to bring higher value employment and investment to the city.

There are objections to the book’s arguments, of course, but the book has a happy habit of leaning directly into them. Bhaskar realises that “much curation isn’t integral to the economy and has only limited impact, usually amongst cultural elites.” He knows that curation isn’t new, he’s just arguing that it’s becoming a bigger deal than ever before. And he knows that there are plenty of companies to whom curation won’t be relevant any time soon. But he is surely right that whilst the idea of business opportunities built on curation might at first glance sound a bit peripheral, perhaps even a bit middle class, the global middle class is ballooning, so the opportunities for new businesses based on curation will surely boom in the coming years.

As a guide to this landscape, Bhaskar is well-suited. He has a talent for effortlessly pithy explanations. I challenge anyone to write a sharper sentence summarising how the internet has affected business than: ‘‘open and low-cost, the web flicked a switch from scarcity to abundance in a host of fields.” At times, ‘Curation’ offers lightbulb moments at the rate of one per page.

Bhaskar is also a fine curator himself. He treats us to a rollercoaster of allusions and anecdotes, facts and theories, reflecting the abundance which is at the heart of the argument. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the collapse of Blockbuster Video, Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812, the birth of hip hop, how the design of one building at MIT birthed so many innovations, and that time Beethoven met Goethe (and freaked him out) are all pressed into the service of his argument. It does occasionally feel a bit too scattergun: a paragraph on time overload runs into one on helicopter parenting and water shortages in the Punjab, for example. But for the most part, Bhaskar is a master joiner of dots.

The argument isn’t flawless. If you want to move your country from low to high value industries, it is hard to see how thinking in terms of ‘curation’ – as opposed to ‘culture’ or ‘services’ – might be actionable. South Korea’s government may have reorientated its development strategy into cultural exports, for example, but it isn’t clear that curation had much to contribute to its thinking.

But this is just a branch of the book’s argument, not the trunk. Bhaskar’s core argument is essentially right, and the book is an illuminating tour of how the shift towards a curation economy is likely to play out in many fields. I would particularly recommend it to anyone searching for inspiration as to what new business to start.

This is a rollicking, intellectually omnivorous guide to the future.

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