Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Random Thoughts on Ask a Curator Day

Today, as many museum readers might know, was Ask a Curator Day, a worldwide event on Twitter.  Museums signed up, volunteering to answer any and all questions via Twitter.  I dipped in and out all day, as the questions and answers rolled across the globe, from New Zealand and Australia,  through Europe, and then on to the Western Hemisphere.  It was the top trending topic on Twitter for a while, and the questions and answers make fascinating reading.

But I was particularly interested in the questions put to history museums.  In looking at the list, for US museums at least, history museums were underrepresented in terms of the proportion of history museums as compared to museums overall.  Why?  Are history museums less likely to use Twitter?  are their supporters, fans, people interested in history less likely to use?  Hundreds of questions were posed generally to curators and I really appreciated the small history museums that took the time to weigh in on entering the field, the best part of the job and the like.   I'd be interested in hear from those history museums who did participate about how they heard about it and why they chose to.

Ask a Curator reinforced the idea that we can never know what our audience is interested in.  We plan, we script, we prototype, we focus group--but then, surprising questions!  For instance:
  • Where can I find a good collection of antique maps and globes in the Boston area
  • To the Police Museum, Vancouver:
  • Do you have any info about my great-grandfather Chief Constable WW (Billy) Foster? 
  • What is the oldest known color photo?
  • What resources do you suggest for research on specific lighthouses and their keepers?
  • What do curators think of the ending of the western narrative?
  • From the Chekhov Museum in Russia to the Imperial War Museum in London:  What Russian artifacts do you have in your collection?
  • To Monticello:  Do you know how many times TJ traveled to New England?
  • Do you have a link to a site that outlines the work you do with people at risk of social inclusion?
  • Any Alaska museums--do you do anything special to attract visitors in winter?
  • To the Lower East Side Tenement Museum:  why r so many tenements on the LES build around the same size? 5 to 6 floors. Was that a law requirement? 
 At the end of the day many museums invited their followers to ask them questions anytime.  And that memory, I think, is a wonderful take-away.  We think we're open, that people could ask anything anytime--but museums are often pretty intimidating places.  One great aspect of the day was that the questioner didn't risk seeming silly by asking the question.  Both the nature of Twitter and the enthusiastic participation made sure that all questions were good questions.   And so my question for #Askacurator?  How do we make this attitude--this attitude of curiousity combined with great good will--happen every day within the walls of our museum?

And a special thanks to the event's organizer, Jim Richardson--a truly amazing effort!


Rebecca Lawrence said...

I wish there were more small history museums on the list too. I've found that a few of my colleagues are not completely aware of Twitter's potential to establish and maintain relationships with their various constituencies. It also functions as a great free marketing tool as so many news outlets are using twitter alone to receive alerts.
Quite a few colleagues just recently started using Facebook, but may not see it as a tool for professional or institutional growth, and unfortunately many laugh at what Twitter is, and could potentially mean for their institution. There are still many twitter skeptics out there. (I'm not one of them.)

archivesinfo said...

Great post and an important take away! Ask a Curator Day left me feeling rejuvenated about my profession and proud of my colleagues. I posted my own random thoughts on my blog at I hope we can gather all of our observations to make these opportunities for cultural heritage institutions to reach greater audiences even better.

J Goreham-Penney said...

There just aren't enough of us at my institution (and there's too much to do) to have participated in "Ask a Curator" day on Twitter. Also, while our clientelle seems to use facebook, they don't seem to tweet.

Linda said...

Thanks all three of you for your comments. I've just been working on a project that's caused me to think about the difference between audience, potential audience, and visitors. And to me, Ask a curator, and Twitter in general (which I admit, I laughed at too at first) allows you to make connections in ways you never imagined, enlarging your audience beyond your usual clientele. And J.--there's always too much to do, but I always encourage staff to spend a week tracking activities to see how much or little is really dedicated to driving the mission forward. Not as much as we might hope I suspect.

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