Curator of Ideas

This spring I graduated with a master’s degree in Medieval Studies. The attending transition has prompted me to reflect more on the nature of the degree that I spend three long years obtaining. What is its use? What is its purpose? What are the collection of skills that the diploma represents? I could look at these questions from the direction of employability, examining why a company would want to hire someone with a degree in Medieval Studies, but I am seldom so practical. Rather I want to advance the proposition that the degree puts me in a position to be a curator of ideas.

Curators are people who take care of things. Generally, these items are old and need some sort of special protection. Curators are also expected to display the things in their care for others to see. Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. There are obviously museum curators, building curators, and curators of collections of book, but there are also curators of ideas.

During a recent flight, I was in the midst of Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. A man seated behind me noticed the book and asked if I read the works of Richard Rohr. He informed me that Rohr, a Franciscan friar and author, mentions Julian a lot. Rohr is functioning as a curator, preserving the ideas of Julian and presenting them in a form that is accessible to the general public. Not everyone has the leisure or the skills to find and peruse old books. Through a curator like Rohr, a man who normally might not have known that Julian existed was exposed to her writings. Though I have yet to read any of Rohr’s writings (it is always hard to find time when you have so many other things you would like to read) I was following in his footsteps.

Human beings are forgetful creatures. We are always forgetting that which we really ought to remember, which is why we need curators. Curators serve as the memory of human culture. They remember and recall things in their own little sphere that everyone else has forgotten. The curator’s job is not only to bring these things into the light of day, to present the ideas clearly and plainly, but to provide the context that has been lost. When Julian writes, “Synne is behovabil, but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele,” the curator recognizes that most people won’t know what behovabil means. People may also misunderstand the sentence if they don’t have the larger context from which it is taken.

Before the aforementioned flight, I visited the church I went to growing up. As I attended a couple services, I was struck by a sense of amnesia. Things were done and said without an awareness of the past, of the Christian practices and teachings that have come before. Medieval authors show a keen awareness of and reliance on the past. If a writer doesn’t mention Augustine, Boethius, or some other auctor by name, their influence is not hard to spot. For an aspiring curator, who has a memory of these things, I found the amnesia troubling. At the least the past is helpful, at most it can save us from grave error. Paradoxically, we desperately need an awareness of the past in order to move forward. This is the job of a curator: to remind and to remember so that we never slip into amnesia.


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