Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What We Can Learn from Ask a Curator on Twitter

I am mesmerized by #askacurator on Twitter, which reached number one trending status today. I think cultural heritage professionals and archivists especially can take a lot away from this experience. I wish to use this space to comment on that, but first I want to give a quick account of Twitter to my blog readers who are not Twitter users.

Like blogs, Facebook and other social media sites, Twitter is a valuable tool for human beings to communicate and learn from one another. Tweeting means that people are using the Twitter site on the Internet to make a short statement about something in 140 characters or less. To highlight the subject of a tweet, participants use a hashtag (#) followed by a word or phrase that they are referring to, so that others interested in the topic can easily find the information and add their own thoughts about it by making their own statement with an equivalent hashtag. When an issue "trends," it means that people are making mention of it over and over again by "tweeting" about it.

#askacurator is a day (September 1) set aside by museums from around the world (300 plus of them) that encourages people to ask curators questions about anything. And there have been many, many questions. There is clearly a desire for people to learn more about museums and cultural heritage and this appears to be a great forum for it. The milestone accomplishment of the curator experience on Twitter today has been marked by Wired Magazine and bloggers across the Internet, enhancing the #askacurator presence by spreading it to other online forums.

The following is a list of some comments and observations I've picked out of the many I've read thus far today. Since there is such an enormous volume of tweets, I expect that others will be analyzing this day for quite a long time...

Some of my favorite questions?
Someone asked the Air and Space Museum in US how they dust all the airplanes
"what do curators think of expansion of term 'curate'?"
How will you archive my tweets when I'm a famous author?"

Archives have come up quite a bit, showing how closely archivists and curators are associated in the public mind. Museum archivists have had a chance to participate and I hope that they will help us organize an #askanarchivist day by sharing their experiences. For my own professional interests, this is especially noteworthy because it does show the close bond between cultural heritage professionals despite our differing methodologies. Cross-professional collaboration can be enhanced through Twitter.

This brings up the question of how to educate about what we do on a more basic level. Someone referred to a page that explains what a curator is, though I don't think it gave a thorough enough view of the profession. I think if archivists attempt this that they should be prepared beforehand with a web page that describes archives and archivists in simple terms. People can be referred to it when necessary throughout an #askanarchivist day.

The event had its own web site with a lot of useful information to get people ready for the event, including participating museums. This site could be expanded with more information (such as what a curator is, different types of museums, etc.) Many museums not listed on the #askacurator web site jumped in as the day went on, answering questions that weren't directed to specific institutions.

When I started viewing early in the day, someone asked if perhaps Tweeters could put "Q" when asking questions and "A" when a curator answered. I think this would be a good idea to help organized the information, but I'm not sure it's practical.

Someone tweeted an interesting trend map early this afternoon

At least one museum found the 140 character format too confining, so created a web page to answer questions in more detail. I thought this was a great use across social media.

#askacurator became so popular in the US in the afternoon that it got filled with spam. I'm not sure what to say about that. I'd be inclined to say "it's a shame," but I guess it also shows that the trend was so popular that people wanted to break it. That's heartening at least, I suppose. It's also worth mentioning because there might be a way to prepare for this eventuality in the future.

One person suggested that curators create an #askavisitor day. I think this could be a great idea. It creates a stronger participatory experience (a la Nina Simon's "Participatory Museums" and AOTUS' "Citizen Archivists" among others.) Cultural Heritage professionals want to hear what our patrons want. Turning this event on its head offers another way to do it, giving audiences another forum to reach us.

One person wrote, "I'm such a little girl, just squealed because @TheWarholMuseum answered my question!" I hope that we continue this great project, growing it, and making more patrons this excited.


  1. update: #askacurator became #askcurator in afternoon to avoid spam

  2. This is a great article about the event! Thanks for the mention of our blog post--we love Twitter here, but curators certainly understand that space limitations sometimes mean you need an annex.

  3. following day...curators are asking people to continue asking questions and some are even providing links to web pages that encourage direct dialogue with their curators. organizer of event also is posting link to evaluation form to help them evaluate event