Capture caught up with visual archive curator, author and founder of Retronaut - Wolfgang Wild. He knows how to make the past go viral and helps museums and archives maximise the impact of their visual archives by finding their most powerfully engaging content and then showcasing it to immense audiences.
Wild has curated more than 40,000 images on Retronaut.com before licensing Retronaut to the US Site Mashable.com, where Retronaut's daily capsules of strange and startling images were an immediate hit. Retronaut has been described by the Financial Times as ‘hit records for archives’.
With 250,000 Facebook fans and listed at number 20 on The Times list of ‘The 50 People You Should Follow on Twitter’, Wild has authored books and curated multiple exhibitions.
The current state of curation
For Wild, the term ‘curation’ has recently evolved into such a popular word, with multiple interpretations. These include:
- Traditional curation that goes on in many galleries and museums.
- ‘Casual’ curation which is something most people do all the time, selecting how they wish to present themselves via content shared, for example on social channels.
- Content curation that businesses undertake, often in attempt to draw people in and make a sale.
Yet curation, in its very narrow sense literally means choosing. And this choosing and selection process is one that very often first impressions are based upon – so for galleries, museums, and even businesses, quality curation really is fundamental to exposing the beauty of content and what it has to offer.
Wolfgang notes there is still so much to be done when it comes to visual archival curation, since cultural, heritage and picture library organisations work with an abundance of very important and precious material. This can make it hard for those working within these organisations to prioritise content, as they tend to view the archive as one vast entity. For Wild, the solution to this involves changing our approach to curation.
Shop window analogy
When speaking to Wolfgang, his approach to curation is very clear - “think of an archive like a shop”. There is the warehouse - where majority of the content is stored, the shop floor - where there is a larger selection of specifically selected assets such as in an exhibition, and finally the shop window. The shop window is the most crucial element within the 'shop' (archive) to generate engagement with an audience - it is the platform in which to illustrate a handful of the most powerful and compelling assets.
People are drawn to great curation, because it saves something that most people don’t have – time. Wild believes organising an archive with the shop window, floor and warehouse analogy in mind, and with the help of a digital asset management (DAM) system, museums and archives can illuminate content in a way that is much more digestible for an audience. Putting the most powerful and engaging content in a shop window for an audience to see immediately reduces the stress potential visitors would feel when faced with an archive of hundreds or thousands of assets. Concluding his argument, Wolfgang notes this process is one of “finding the hit singles, rather than the double album”.
Example – David Granick and the East End
Wolfgang provided us with an example of a curation process that he had admired - surrounding the fabulous collection of colourised photographs taken by David Granick that capture the East End post WWII, just before it was about to be redeveloped into sky rises. The images were donated after Granick's death in 1980 to Tower Hamlets, and with curation and colourisation, the images were then brought to life resulting in Hoxton Mini Press publishing a beautiful high quality book and Tower Hamlets showcasing the photographs earlier this year during a dedicated exhibition.
Wild highlights that this is a great example of how an archive can elevate the value of their rather unique content. It’s a fantastic and admirable approach because of:
- High production values
- Low curation time
- It addresses a specific consumer market
- It will subsequently raise the profile of the other collections
Where to begin?
When thinking about curating for a commercial purpose, Wolfgang stresses the most important thing to consider is the audience. “The value of curation is lost when you focus on trying to express yourself, rather than focusing on the needs and desires of the audience”.
Think of the curation process as similar to that of gift giving. When buying a present for someone, the typical process is to browse to identify which gift best suits their interests, not your own. The same goes with curation - put the audience and their needs first, and forget about making that sale, because that will soon come naturally when you start providing people with content they desire.
Furthermore, when it comes to curation more doesn’t equal better – ‘more’ often dilutes what is already there. Don’t try and promote everything, because then nothing will stand out as special or captivating. Instead, focus on a few quality pieces to put in that shop window – this will then draw people in to see what else you have.
Can any archive do this?
So how do you make an archive associated with something very niche exciting and engaging for a wider audience? Well fear not, as in response to this Wolfgang argues every archive has potential to be beautifully curated.
“I’m yet to find an archive with no interesting material”
Rather than labelling archives with terms that immediately deter a large proportion of the audience, instead remove the terminology and focus on the visual appeal. For example, transport museums – many people wouldn’t regard transport as something necessarily appealing or exciting, and the label would probably be enough to put them off from ever visiting the collections. However, these archives house some real gems such as beautiful images of old red buses driving through the busy streets of London in the 60s’, or stunning photographs of aircraft from the Red Arrows in by-gone years.
As a final thought, when curating ask yourself - “what would people who, on first glance, aren’t likely to care about the archive, be inspired by?”
Wolfgang works with Capture to help Museums, Galleries and Archives bring their content to life. He has helped heritage organisations increase their performance in terms of coverage, following and commercial results.
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