The power of a question – Ask A Curator 2013

The Power of a Question - #AskACurator
The Power of a Question – #AskACurator

So here it goes, how to sum up Ask a Curator 2013…. with difficulty. I am struggling a bit with this blog, hard to put into words the themes and questions, the laughter and connections made. This blog isn’t going to be a repeat of all the questions and answers, you can check out my Storify for that. But I wanted to look at why I asked certain questions, what the answers meant to me and why I felt I had such a successful Ask a Curator.

I had a lovely day planned on Wednesday 18th September 2013, coffee in Canary Wharf with my nearest and dearest, take in a museum or two, all the kids finally at school and nursery, I could take some time to be me for a bit. I knew it was ‘Ask a Curator’ day and I had prepared a few questions in advance, saved them in draft on my phone. I wasn’t going to be a slave to my phone (ha! well that was the aim). As ever when you have kids, one phone call on Wednesday and all my plans went out the window. Daughter No.1 was unwell and off school, a day at home beckoned.

My disappointing day on the couch turned into something quite amazing (and my daughter got to join in too). I tweeted like a fiend, I fired out questions left, right, and centre. I was connecting, conversing, sharing with museums in London, around the UK, Europe, and America. Large and small, I learnt useful pertinent information, I furthered my love of particular subjects and had a giggle and a laugh hearing completely random nuggets of the day to day lives of curators and museum life that make me smile even now when I think about them.

I remember my first ‘Ask a Curator’ in 2012. I had quit my job a month before and had lined up my first voluntary role in my local museum which was due to start in a few weeks. In the brief hiatus before embarking on this exciting new adventure I took some time out to visit the British Museum. As I sat in the coffee shop I checked twitter and jumped at the chance to ‘askacurator’ – this window on a world I was just about to leap into. I asked maybe 2 or 3 questions, some direct about the British Museums’ current Shakespeare exhibit and a couple about the best way to begin a career in museums. Looking, I think, for some confirmation that I was heading in the right direction, taking the right first steps. I received some lovely encouraging tweets that reassured me this was the right decision, that this was the way to go and there were lovely people out there who were willing to help and guide me as I took my first faltering steps.

One year down the line, I have already connected with and met so many inspiring, knowledgeable people. I have spent a year volunteering in my local museum and completed a volunteer project for the Museum of London. This is where ‘Ask a Curator’ day began for me. I thought about how the Museum of London archive works and I wanted to know more, now was the chance to get to know the curators there in a different way and ask some questions that had been kicking around in my head but I had not had the opportunity (or guts) to ask face to face.

I started by asking Roy Stephenson, the head of the archaeological archive at the Museum of London –

What is the most important function of an archive? Storage, engagement, preservation or research?

If you ask most people that question they would say storage, but having spent a few short weeks working there I realised a (successful) archive has many more strings to its bow. I was intrigued to see how these roles sat, what is the most important function?

I also asked a direct question that had been bothering me for a few weeks. I want to know why archaeological finds end up at the archive and not the local borough museum where they were found. This is a hotly debated topic at my local museum. There are of course many reasons, not least of which concern storage space and notification of finds. But here was a real opportunity to ask the head of the archive why things are done a certain way, because to an outsider it seems confusing at first glance.

My next question was open to all museums. I wanted to know –

What makes a successful volunteer team?

This question garnered lots of interest and highlighted how important volunteering is to museums. 9 answers from 4 large museums, these answers really struck a chord with me. Having volunteered for a year and worked on a very successful volunteer project, I have been trying to work out what the recipe for success is. Is it the people, the location or the project? According to my knowledgeable curators, a large percentage of success is down to cake, biscuits and chocolate! Museums and volunteers go hand in hand, and volunteers go hand in hand with food, I suspect no real surprise there!

Now I had the chance to ask a question I really enjoyed. It was asked directly to 3 members of the Museum of London team. This was my chance to get to know them, to understand where their loyalties lie…

What is your favourite period/time/place in history?

This was about understanding people, not just the roles they do. An opportunity I just couldn’t pass up, a wonderful glint into why they have the jobs they do, understanding how their passion has led them to uncovering London’s past.

Next for a bit of fun, some of the best responses I got on the day were to general questions I tweeted on the spur of the moment, my favourite one was…

Have you ever ‘accidentally’ taken a museum object home? Is there one object you would like to?

This got some brilliant answers, I have to mention the @FirepowerMuseum based in Woolwich London, who like to sleep with exhibits (rockets and hand grenades) in hotel rooms (but only on special occasions). Also special mention to @OsthausMuseum in Hagen, Germany, who made me laugh out loud with their tweets. I now know why museums always shut on a Monday!

I also had a bit of fun with this question –

I am very clumsy! Have you ever dropped or broken something very old/valuable?

I really enjoyed @flygirlNHM from the Natural History Museum who has great fun playing with the legs and heads of flies that occasionally fall off. Apparently superglue is not the answer (!).

I moved on to another couple of topics close to my heart that also prompted very interesting answers. These questions I asked later on in the day and it was very interesting to see American museums pick up on them. I would definitely recommend thinking about ‘when’ you ask questions if you want to get some great responses.

I have recently written some reviews of exhibitions, so here was a perfect opportunity to see how museums react to reviews.

Do you read reviews of your exhibitions? Do you change anything because of a review?

Again, you can see how important topics are to museums by the number of answers you get. Hearing from American museums was pretty mind blowing and a highlight of the day. The answers made me realise exhibitions have a life cycle not just of planning, design and installation, but they are living and breathing and (sometimes) react to visitors and comments.

Another very interesting question from my point of view was –

How are museums responding to the needs of autistic children and adults who struggle to access education and work?

This question received only 1 response, I think this in itself is very telling and I was quite disheartened by the lack of feedback. I am not sure if it the was the topic, the way I asked the question or the time of day I asked it that caused the lack of answers. Maybe the curators on the end of the twitter feeds just don’t have much to do with this area of museum interaction. But it is something that is important to me with an Autistic daughter who loves museums. I would have loved some positive answers on how museums are working with autistic families, coupling their interesting and engaging spaces with safe supportive environments that are inclusive and responsive to visitor needs. I know there are great programmes out there and I hope that at next year’s ‘ask a curator’ the curators will be more forthcoming and shout from the rooftops their ground breaking work.

Finally purely for me, I sought out the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Sante Fe, New Mexico. I love O’Keefe’s work, and I had a few brief beautiful moments sharing my love of an artist with the curator of her work many thousands of miles away. It was so cool!

Ask a Curator was a beautiful, engaging, thought provoking day. I spent the day connecting with people I knew and people I have never met. Twitter provides a direct line to individuals or allows you to cast your net wide and capture the thoughts of many.

There is something about the anonymity of twitter and the power of #askacurator to open doors to museum collections, to curator thoughts and feelings, to allow you to step in and take a look around.
The brevity that twitter demands results in a directness that lends itself to intimacy. I know I was not the only one to feel this way on the day.

This blog has made me think about the power of a word – #askacurator. What it sets out to do and what it achieves is something very unusual and really rather wonderful. I can’t help but think “bring on next year”, I am writing my questions already. You museum curators had better get your twitter fingers ready…..


To read all my questions and answers from Ask A Curator please look at my Storify

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