The Rationalization of Museum Curation Zuri Trice

Networker-Narrator-Bridge Builder-Researcher-Artist. Curator. Museum curation has undergone profound transformation over the course of history. Museums tell us the stories of those who built our world. It is not just the art and artifacts in the museums that tell us these stories, it is the way they interact with one another that allows us a front row seat to world changing discoveries, ancient lovers quarrels, global warfare, and the hearts and minds of the humans who came before us. Museum Curators are responsible for the planning, assembly, and function of museum exhibits. Whether working with art or historical artifacts (or perhaps a combination of the two), curators spend countless hours researching themes and searching for pieces that align with said theme. Curators need to be creative, skilled researchers, have a keen eye for art, and hungry for knowledge. Museum curation is a field of education. Much like a teacher, they are responsible for engaging museum goers and making them excited to learn. It is the curators job to offer an engaging perspective on how their topic has shaped the world we live in.

What is Rationalization?

Innovation aims to standardize practice, this process is also known as rationalization. George Ritzer, in "The McDonaldization of Society," outlines four principles of rationalization: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control. These factors contribute to large-scale rationalization across within museum curation. Today, technology permeates every profession, however it plays a special role in museum curation today. Early curators meticulously cataloged artifacts and manuscripts by hand, contributing to the preservation of history. However, modernization has sparked debates on its impact, with some questioning its effect on professional integrity.


Under the concept of McDonaldization, efficiency is defined as the optimal method for reaching a goal. McDonald's serves as a prime example, swiftly satisfying hunger with drive-thrus delivering orders in under a minute. While such efficiency revolutionizes profit margins for businesses, its application to museum curation raises questions. Historically, museums faced no pressure for performance or profit, transitioning from collection houses to educational centers only recently. The quest for efficiency stems from a shift towards profitability, particularly in private institutions seeking returns on investment. This evolution compels museum curators to adapt, focusing on expedient artifact selection over deep historical research. Collaboration among diverse disciplines becomes essential, leading to innovative exhibits tailored for visitor engagement. This shift underscores a fundamental change: museums now prioritize public service over collection preservation.


Calculability, a key aspect of rationalization, embraces the notion that "bigger is better." In the context of museums, this translates to a focus on quantity over quality, particularly in visitor experience. The post-World War II era witnessed a surge in museum proliferation, transitioning them from conservationist institutions to profit-driven ventures. Curators evolved into designers, prioritizing the allure of the museum itself rather than its contents. This shift necessitated a new curator role, one involving global artifact acquisition, logistical management, and interdisciplinary collaboration. While the exact numbers remain unverified, the trend towards museum expansion is undeniable, fueled by the evolving concept of museums as educational businesses. Curators now face the dual challenge of maintaining educational standards while meeting business demands. This evolution sees curators embracing interdisciplinary approaches to create immersive exhibits, leveraging technologies like holographic visuals and sensory experiences. A telling example is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's ability to draw crowds with empty frames, capitalizing on storytelling and experience rather than artifact display—a departure from traditional curation ideals.

Welcome to the Museum of Nothing!

In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, experienced a notorious heist where valuable artworks were stolen. Years have passed and the museum has not moved a single thing from that day. The frames are still on the wall with the canvas cut out and even the security station where the guard was sitting that day is still in place, taped off as an atraction. This Museum has been able to profit off of empty picture frames. They were able to convince people to buy tickets to see nothing, as they were marketing the experience and the story rather than the artifacts themselves. This is a complete shift from the original spirit of museum curation which was the physical upkeep and documentation of important and valuable artifacts.


Fast food restaurants are renowned for their consistency, epitomizing predictability across various locations. This assurance of uniformity, from menu items to taste, offers customers a sense of comfort and control. Similarly, museums, now seen as marketable entities, have embraced predictability as a means to enhance visitor experience and profitability. As museums transitioned into showrooms, their popularity surged, evident in the rising attendance figures from 1970 to the present. This upward trend underscores the correlation between predictability and museum attendance. Museum curators now face the challenge of striking a balance between uniqueness and predictability in their exhibits. While visitors expect a consistent baseline experience, they also seek novelty and immersion. Curators, like artists, inject unpredictability into the structured museum environment, ensuring that the visitor's experience remains engaging and memorable.


Control in museum curation extends beyond mere physical layout; it encompasses the subtle manipulation of visitor behavior and decisions within the museum environment. Similar to the strategic design of fast food restaurants, museums employ tactics to guide visitors along predetermined paths, encouraging movement while ensuring a continuous flow. This deliberate control is evident in the layout of exhibits, where curators craft immersive journeys designed to captivate without allowing prolonged stays. For instance, despite the British Museum welcoming millions of visitors monthly, each exhibit is carefully curated to showcase a limited number of artifacts, accompanied by concise descriptions focusing on key dates and individuals. This approach, aimed at providing snapshots of complex historical narratives, necessitates visually engaging exhibits over contextually detailed ones. Museum curators face the challenge of balancing enthrallment with brevity, ensuring that visitors experience a curated narrative while leaving room for further exploration on their own.