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Ask A Curator at the Oxford University Museums

27 September 12 -- jsuess
Figure of Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law, Taiwan 1980-2004, Ashmolean Museum (c) Zhu Ming (artist)

19th September 2012 was the second “Ask a Curator” day on Twitter, repeating the successful event from 2010. For one day the public were asked to take to Twitter and pepper their favourite museums and galleries with questions, which curators and professionals from participating venues committed to answer.  Over 20 countries participated at #askacurator was the top trending topic for much of the day.

Three Oxford ASPIRE Museums took part: the Ashmolean Museum (@AshmoleanMuseum), Museum of the History of Science (@MHSOxford) and the Pitt Rivers Museum (@Pitt_Rivers).  At the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers, media staff patrolled the account, forwarding questions to relevant colleagues across the museums.  At the Museum of the History of Science, Director Jim Bennett took control of the Twitter account for the day, enjoying the opportunity to share his extensive knowledge and experience with the museums loyal Twitterati.

The day proved a success in engaging new audiences via Twitter with the museums collectively garnering almost 100 new followers, 50 retweets, and well over 100 mentions.  Curators described it as a fast and furious experience which kept them busy answering direct questions, and jumping in on general questions with the hashtag.  Questions focussed on individual aspects of the museums’ unique collections, life as a curator, museum policy and the future of museum in our increasingly digital oriented world.

All the participating curators agreed that “Ask a Curator” was a worthwhile enterprise and an excellent opportunity to engage in direct (if limited to 140 characters) dialogue with their audiences.  The museums agreed that if we participate in similar events in future we’d like to do more to encourage participation.  The day was heavily promoted on twitter, but we’d like to look at diversifying audiences, and even give visitors to the museum on the day the opportunity to engage.

Of course with the advent of social media forums such as Twitter and Facebook there is no reason that this kind of engagement can only happen once a year.  At ASPIRE we’re investigating possible ways for the public to engage in continuous meaningful conversation with our museums, and imbedding it as a permanent element of our activity.

Check out some of the highlights of the day’s chat below:


Unsurprisingly, twitterati were particular interested in the role of digital technology and social media in museums.

@melbartnetwork “Do you curators actively engage w. social media (i.e. have own twitter/post on FB)? Or is it mainly done my media/marketing?

@Pitt_Rivers ‘We have a social media team, one rep from each dept (Edu, Colls, Tech, Library, FOH) so it’s not just marketing”

@sramanujan “How do curators keep abreast of new innovations in art and culture esp with digital media now exploding?”

@AshmoleanMuseum “Xin Chen, Chinese Paintings: I use Twitter & Weibo & enjoy following museums/institutions/artists/critics


The public were keen to know how museums were responding to demand for digital access to museum collections.

@CendariProject “What are the biggest barriers to making collections available digitally?”

@AshmoleanMuseum “Paul Collins, Antiquities Keeper: The time and resources involved in integrating object (1/2) information held in a variety of forms into a unified database as well as object photography (2/2).

@LondonPast “Should major institutions do more to make material available online for the benefit of people who can’t visit in person?”

@Pitt_Rivers ‘Yes. Putting colls online will fuel desire to visit not diminish it. There are still issues with copyright however”


Inquirers were also interested in how museum displays are developed, and the Group for Education in Museums wanted to know the role of museum education teams in developing displays.

@HeritageAction “what proportion of your collections are on display at any time and how often are displays updated?”

@AshmoleanMuseum “Aimee Payton, Eastern Art: We display 5-10% of our Eastern Art collection (1/4) Displays are updated when we get exciting new objects of when light sensitive objects e.g. textiles (2/4) & works on paper, have been on display for some time. We also have some rotating displays that are (3/4) changed every few months so that we’re able to show more of our collection to the public (4/4).”

@gem_heritage “At what point do you engage with your education team? Before or after the selection of the objects for display?”

@AshmoleanMuseum “Paul Collins, Antiquities Keeper: Before! Education are key members of the team creating displays alongside curators, conservators, interpreters and designers.”

@SolExhibit “Are some science related topics too controversial for display? Why (not)? Do you have examples?

@MHSOxford “We have relics of discredited views that scientists may not approve of but, as historians, we display them”


Lots of interesting questions came in about what’s in the museums’ collections.

@ani_DB “What is the oldest object in your collection?”

@AshmoleanMuseum “Paul Collins, Antiquities Keeper: Oldest object in our collection is a handaxe from Chad, dating to around 700,000 BC!

@hussmeister “If you could go back and ask the General one question about his collection, what would it be?”

@Pitt_Rivers “From our Dept Head: What was the first object you collected & why? Where did you keep it all in the early days?”

@akcotterill “What is your favourite object and why?”

@Ashmolean Museum “Melina Melfi, Cast Gallery: Portrait of Mithridates, king of Pontis. Amazing creation or a new image for king/god.


All three museums contributed to a quest by @erikajoy to create a list of 50 objects in museums that “make you laugh”!

@MHSOxford “Our gunpowder-charged clockwork exploding bird scarer, 1847” link

@Pitt_Rivers“It's a cheese horse, what's not to like?” link

@AshmoleanMuseum“Xin Chen, Chinese Paintings: Figures of Mother-in-Law and Daughter-in-Law by Ju Ming” link 

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