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#AskaCurator day round-up

September 2, 2010

#AskaCurator day stormed Twitter yesterday. Anyone could use the hashtag to ask curators their pressing questions, and the zealous curators did their best to reply to them all. My twitter feed was incredibly active as a result, and it felt like a positive and open initiative that people happily took part in. #AskaCurator trended worldwide and in the US, and while I was on watch (but perhaps museums beyond the Atlantic not so much) it was the first trending topic in the UK and even got used for spam – the ultimate proof of Twitter success.

Here is a totally partial account of #AskaCurator day – answers to the questions I asked and tweets that caught my eye.

What is the most unusual/exciting thing you have done as a curator?

I asked this to @MuseumChildhood @sciencemuseum @7Stories @transitionart @WallaceMuseum @nhm_london @BalticMill @HornimanMuseum@Tate

Museum of Childhood: “One of the most unusual things I often have to do here is crawl around a store that’s only four foot high… And the most exciting? I brought some toys on to Blue Peter and was given the dressing room next to the pets!”

Science Museum: “Peter says: when working on the Space Gallery in 1985, meeting Hermann Oberth, pioneer of spaceflight in Germany. Jane has a few: a fencing lesson on the roof of the Natural History Museum; looked at Moon rock through a Microscope; worked the word “lawnmower” into a conference paper about subsea geophysical survey; rode a 1958 fire engine across England. Selina: couriering objects to and from New York – more about trips with (or on!) objects at; getting to go inside a 1940s X-ray bus and a 1980s MRI bus at Wroughton; measuring a piece of Napoleon’s hair for it to go on loan; being inside James Watt’s workshop (exhibition opens next year). @ali_boyle says: met Jim Lovell, commander of Apollo 13. Was dumbstruck. Amy says ‘made a film about clothes grown by bacteria!’“.

Baltic: “Being on a speedboat on the Mersey with artist Shimabuku hanging off the front fishing with a King Edward potato”.

Paolo Viscardi for the Horniman Museum: “15 minutes ago I was taking DNA samples from a Mermaid – that was pretty unusual…”

Wallace Museum: “Either getting to hang our own exhibition on Delaroche or getting our hands on all the gold boxes!”

Seven Stories: “The Most exciting thing I’ve been involved in @7Stories is visiting Quentin Blake at his studio in London!”

My second question was a bit too long for Twitter, so I formulated it in the previous post. It boils down to How much of curation is actually public-facing, and what opportunities do curators have to derive satisfaction from seeing people appreciating their work?

I asked this question to @BM_AG @Iniva_arts @sciencemusem @MuseumChildhood@HornimanMuseum @balticmill.

Baltic: “Numerous stages exist for curators: writing, talks, tours, podcasts.. nothing stops you seeing the spark either”

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery: “Most curators have been doing the monthly spotlight session with the public today & was recently an MCC open day. So probably not answering your question, but our curators do meet the public!”

I also asked specific questions:

To the Education Curator at @Iniva_arts: What makes for good practice in arts education? Especially re: young people. Her answer: “To be open, collaborative, fun, creative and lose all sense of hierachical approach. Chaos makes for fun as well!”

Perhaps a bit cheekily, I asked @momath1 whether they have a fellow organisation in the UK. Their answer: “Techniquest in Cardiff, Wales has a significant collection of math exhibits & large puzzles

My question to @ExploreWellcome was What’s the typical starting point for your exhibitions, Wellcome’s Collection, or an idea from “outside”? They replied: “Both: we work on some ideas generated internally & on others from outside that we develop collaboratively. Almost all our exhibitions & events rely on collaboration with external advisors and consultants, but equally we make sure they all fit the overall ambition and style of Wellcome Collection”.

I thought I’d mention also @Mart_museum as the only Italian institution taking part in #AskaCurator day.

Other questions I have noticed, although I am quoting from memory, not from records:

Who holds the oldest man-made object? Tie between @britishmuseum and @Nationalmuseet with artefacts about 2 million years old. I think in both the objects are chopping tools.

What’s the difference between preservation and conservation? An interesting one I couldn’t quite track an answer to.

What are the advantages of new technologies to curation? Research can be broader and easier, objects can be more accessible to the public regardless of conservation needs, social media make people feel more connected.

Best path into curation? Good academic qualifications, passion and knowledge about specific areas, determination, attending other museums and shows, volunteering – and many did phrase this as “work experience” and unfortunately told a bit too matter-of-factly for my liking of this work experience as unpaid. I appreciated though that people were honest about how competitive the profession is.

Where is Van Gogh’s ear? He gave it to a prostitute – after that nobody knows.

There were also many variants on the oddest item / largest object etc., too many to track!

Some more delicate questions were also raised: about the relationship between curators and artists (see tweets by @AIR_artists for more on that topic), about the ethical responsibilities of institutions and curators, about the consequences of reductions in funding. I was pleased to see how some curators really did attempt to answer these questions too, although with the obvious limitations imposed by shortness. Off the top of my head, @PAPILLIONART was quite good at that and their general enthusiasm about the day is commendable too!

Overall, my impression of the initiative is that it was a lovely starting point for vibrant communication between museums and users. The vibe was overwhelmingly positive, of genuine interest, and informal. Many museums and organisations ended their tweeting day with the recommendation to “ask a curator any day”.

It seemed to me that for once institutions were using Twitter not just to echo their marketing messages, but also for a more authentic connection with their users. In the end, it is a return to the original purpose of the museum: to engage with the public, spark their curiosity, and provide some answers (or a version thereof). There seemed to be a fascination, at least in the Twittersphere, for the mechanisms behind how museums and galleries work, and what curators are about. Well, let the curators out to play!


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