Twenty Questions

2 Sep

Being a little disappointed that my own institution couldn’t take part in the ‘Ask a Curator‘ day on twitter (lack of available curators), I thought I’d try it out as a punter.

So I asked twenty individual questions of twenty different museums or archives. All were ones which I’ve personally visited sometime in the last five years (most much more recently than that, and two of which I’ve worked for). The questions were off the top of my head: there was no strategy to ask any ‘big’ questions, but they were all genuine questions that I’m personally interested in the answers to. I also tried to ask genuinely ‘curatorial’ questions, and not ones about my own professional concerns of websites, social media or online presences (I failed in a couple of cases).

Personally, while I understand twitter’s incredible ability to reach lots of people very quickly, I’m quite sceptical about its ability to transmit or exchange meaningful intellectual information. I tend to sympathise with Thomas Söderqvist’s vexation that Twitter is a distraction from the reflective thinking that we were just beginning to find in blogs.

The questions and answers are listed below. I’ve tried to detwittify them, so they can be read as simple questions and answers, shorn of addressees and hashtags; some answers are several tweets run together.

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Q. Could you ever expand your remit to become a museum of the Lower East Side through all ages?

A. Our long term plan is2 expand interp of LES history past ’35 w/ exhibits in new Visitor&Education Center @ 103 Orchard St

Barbican Centre

Q. How would you curate a show that consisted of the peculiar architecture of the Barbican Centre itself?

A. We’d tell the story of the Centre, how it came to be & commission new work in response to the space. This is also the aim of our Curve Art commissions

Institute of Contemporary Arts

Q. What do you consider to be your most successful shows of the last five years? How do you measure success?

A. Experience of the artist and the feedback from public, my colleagues and the quality of discussion the exhibition generate

Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Q. Is there a natural connection between open-air sculpture and land art?

A. Hi Danny. Land art can be direct intervention or it can engage with landscape ephemerally, i.e through photography… Open-air sculpture is, simply, any work outdoors, but when sited well it has the same very direct relationship with landscape.

Birmingham Museums

Q. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about how people use the Pre-Raphaelite resource?

A. Probably that schools use the resource as it was meant for FE/HE, but feedback is they love access to images. Don’t think there have been any surprises in how resource is being used otherwise, audience research was spot on.

New Museum

Q. How important has the legacy of Rhizome been to the ‘artworld’ in general?

A. That’s a hard one to answer in 144 but, I think it is safe to say VERY

Baltic Mill

Q. Is the converted industrial space of the mill an ideal space for exhibitions, or does it have problems?

A. It’s a fantastic space thanks to a well conceived conversion, ready to take up the unusual challenges artists throw at us.

Whitney Museum

Q. Have the ‘general public’ really had as much contemporary art as they can bear?

A. No, they can probably handle a little more.

London Transport Museum

Q. Has the development of TFL and an integrated London transport policy helped you in collecting or exhibiting?

A. Yes, the museum’s collection has grown since the development of TfL. Now we cover taxis, cycling, streets, river & much more!

Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Q. What’s the expected lifespan of the taxidermied animals in your displays?

A. Our taxidermy mounts are expected to last somewhere over a century. Our oldest specimens on display are over 85 yrs old.

Science Museum

Q.  Is there a future for blockbuster science exhibitions?

A. ‘Blockbuster’ is a tricky term but we are planning two major galleries for 2014 (PDF)

Brighton and Hove Museums

Q. How much influence have grassroots local history movements like QueenSpark Books had on your new displays?

A. The voices of local people shaped the local history galleries which feature quotes and sound recordings

Imperial War Museum

Q. Do you ever get negative reactions to the large display of guns in your main exhibition hall?

A. It’s important for us to put on display, without any sense of glorifying them, some key weapons of WW1/2 & other conflicts. When HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, then Duchess of York, came to the opening of IWM London in 1936 she said ‘It is a very good thing that people should know and realise how horrible war is’

National Maritime Museum

Q. Are the sea and the sky inextricably linked, or could RO/NMM ever become two entirely separate museums?

A. When ROG became a mus in 1950s it was nearly taken over by Sci Mus. But maritime navigation is key for NMM/ROG

National Portrait Gallery

Q. When you programme your Lates, what informs the connection between the collections and eg the musical events?

A. We respond to Collection & exhibitions in creative way to help visitors engage & offer new interpretation. Good eg is event on 10/2 questioning the idea of portraiture with workshops, music, debate.

Australian War Memorial

Q. Has the memory of Gallipoli overshadowed all other aspects of the ANZAC legacy?

A. Am not sure I understand your question about Gallipoli overshadowing ANZAC legacy. Could you explain a bit more please?

Q. When ppl think of ANZACs, do they too often think only of Gallipoli; are other campaigns sufficiently remembered & commemorated?

A. Thanks. Yes, it does seem that Gallipoli often overshadows what happened on the Western Front, for instance.

British Museum

Q.What’s going on with the Bassae Frieze at the moment?

A. Plan is to improve access by having video of the frieze at ground floor when mezzanine gallery is closed & for visitors who can’t climb stairs

Te Papa

Q. Is Te Papa a museum of *everything* NZ, or are there some things you can’t/won’t collect or display?

A. A museum of everything NZ, if sig to NZ or NZ communities we collect /display, cultural considerations imp. esp human remains.

British Film Institute

Q. Where do you think the biggest gaps in the NFTVA’s collection are? What would you most like to have that you don’t?



Q. What would be your ideal in-gallery photography policy?


Given the prevailing ethos of ‘you have to mean it’ around cultural organisations’ use of social media, even 18/20 doesn’t feel quite satisfying enough (and particularly disappointing that heavy hitters Tate and BFI were the two that didn’t respond) – I was really hoping for a full house.

While it’s nice receiving a flood of answers to all your questions, disentangling the stream of tweets enough to even present them as a list of questions and answers in this blog was a job in itself (and a trending hashtag is by definition not worth following; it’s not merely spam that makes this so). Given also the @you method of most replies, the rudimentary  representation of ‘conversation’ in Twitter’s web interface & the ephemeral nature of the individual tweet, Ask A Curator wasn’t a very communal experience. You could see a lot of it going on, but seeing what was actually being asked and answered was much harder. It would be interesting to see whether museums will end up presenting their own Q&A lists in more readable forms.

Though the success of projects like this is usually measured in amplitude rather than quality of signal (and also speed of reaction: I’m conscious that if I don’t publish this post today, the level of interest in what it has to say will rapidly wane, as people move on to new things), the real question is whether the project achieved its own aims of giving the public direct access to curators:

“I hoped that this project could give the public unprecedented access to the passionate and enthusiastic individuals who work in museums and galleries and also break down barriers within these institutions, where all to often social media is still the remit of the marketing department.”

I’m not sure it has.

Five answers contained what I’d classify as ‘interesting facts’ – nuggets of useful/intriguing information. About half the answers I feel could have come straight from a marketing or press department without having to ask a curator; a few were almost offensively woolly (but then some of my questions were also a bit lame).  Answers I found particualrly disappointing  were ICA’s refusal to pick a favourite show (no-one can really disagree if you say Nought to Sixty), and the British Museum, who answered about the Bassae Frieze only in terms of access and specifically not with curatorial/conservation information. Only with Yorkshire Sculpture Park & IWM did I feel like there was anything approaching a momentary  ‘conversation’ around a shared subject of interest.

Only three included links to useful parts of the organisation’s website. About half the new museums that I followed did the creepy thing of following me back; two sent me a DM.  It definitely made a difference when a named curator was answering, like Whitney’s Gary Carrion-Murayari or the National Maritime Museum’s Rebekah Higgitt, who answered from her own Twitter account.

I don’t think Twitter quite does the job. The phenomenon is interesting enough to want to see it done properly. But do the infrastructure and resources exist for museums to have really in-depth conversations about their collections and exhibitions? How would you do it? Do museums have to forge these greater depths of communication alone, away from the shoutfest of a designated day?

Another question is whether ‘Ask A Curator’ only exists because Twitter offers this peculiar combination of individual communication and mass event, or because people really want to talk about collections. Organiser Jim Richardson says he’d “be unlikely to use Twitter again for this kind of event”. I definitely think it’s worth trying again, differently.


5 Responses to “Twenty Questions”

  1. squaresofwheat September 2, 2010 at 12:55 pm #

    Here’s a similar round-up post from Eleonora (the only one who asked an @ExploreWellcome curator question:

  2. Erika September 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    Great post! I agree with you on all points. At the Powerhouse we used facebook, firstly as we don’t have a dedicated Twitter account, secondly to provide a platform for better interaction. It also provided a more personal interaction, with all curators having their own work accounts. You can see what happened on our page


  1. Our Ask A Curator Day 2010 experience - September 6, 2010

    […] went down on Twitter from the perspective of someone asking the questions, I recommend you read this post from the Museum Cultures […]

  2. #askacurator: voor herhaling vatbaar? - April 8, 2011

    […] ervaringen van deelnemers zijn te vinden op deze blogs: Eleonora Schinella en Museum Cultures. Deel 1 van onze artikelen over Ask a Curator is hier te vinden. Share and Enjoy: Reacties […]

  3. @MarDixon » Blog Archive » #AskACurator Live Blog - September 19, 2012

    […] 14:05 RT @dannybirchall: From the archive — #AskACurator 2010 […]

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