Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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Our Ask A Curator Day 2010 experience

September 6th, 2010 by Seb Chan

Last week was Ask A Curator Day and the Powerhouse was one of a bunch of Australian institutions that took part. Because of where we are in the global timezone, along with New Zealand we were one of the earliest to start Ask A Curator Day. This limited the exposure that Australian and NZ museums got from the event compared to European and American museums that received a boost from the frenzy of activity over the night – when #askacurator became the top trending topic on Twitter.

I spoke to Renae Mason last week about her preparations for the event and now the event is over I asked Renae and her curatorial champion Erika Dicker about how they event went.

F&N: How much response did we get?

Erika: We had 19 direct questions asked via our Facebook page. Many of these questions went on to become conversations as opposed to a brief Q & A..

Renae: The response was also really positive for us considering we didn’t promote our participation in the event through any mainstream media channels – it was all word of mouth and social media. We also picked up some new fans on the day who didn’t already know about our Facebook and Twitter profiles.

F&N: What were the internal outcomes of Ask A Curator Day in terms of the organisation?

E: Internally this was a great opportunity for the curatorial team to work closely with the web team, allowing curators to experience and experiment with social media in a safe environment. For the past few months curators have been participating in Facebook workshops, and developing their own ‘work’ profiles. These profiles allowed them not only to participate on the day, but will allow them to easily engage with our Facebook audience in the future.

Within the Curatorial Department we had 15 curators (out of 24) who actively participated with the project. I think this shows a high level of enthusiasm, and a definite shift in attitude towards using social media actively and productively in our everyday work.

R: This is a great outcome for us, as we work towards the goal of demonstrating the longer term benefits of social media for curatorial work. One of our curators, Min-Jung Kim was really hoping to meet some Korean speakers on the day who would ask about our extensive Asian collection here at the museum. She did end up meeting a local Art History graduate, who is not only a Korean speaker but also keen to gain curatorial experience. She may come on board as a volunteer curatorial assistant as a result of their meeting on Facebook. This experience really demonstrates the way social media can create very useful moments of synchronicity that have a direct impact on the museum research process, in this case, connecting to the right people that can help get the job done.

F&N: How did the public respond?

I was really surprised that the majority of questions we got were subjective ones. “What was your favourite exhibition to work on?”, “What is your dream exhibition?”, “What is the most difficult challenge for a curator?”. I loved that those who asked really did choose to ‘ask a curator’ on a personal level, rather than ask for valuations, identification of objects or opening times!

R: We also didn’t have any problems with spammers or trolls – no bad behaviour at all! I think that’s one thing that many people who aren’t on social media channels fear and it’s a real barrier to entry. You could tell that everyone involved was genuinely pleased with the tone of the conversations as they unfolded.

F&N: Having seen how it went overnight on Twitter, what do you feel worked better or worse on Facebook?

E: I think the project was a great way to get museums and galleries noticed and let the public know that we are here for them. However whilst I think Twitter is a great platform for curators to get involved with, and used to create professional networks, I don’t think it works very well as a platform that allows curators to engage with an audience. I also think this can’t be done well in 140 characters.

I strongly believe that deep levels of engagement come from personal connections, and to achieve this we have to make curators more accessible, approachable, and personable. I don’t think Twitter does this very well. Most of the answers I saw from other museums on Twitter came from an institutional account, with no acknowledgement of who was doing the answering. I found that quite impersonal.

Using a platform like Facebook allowed our curators to each create their own profile page, including a profile picture of themselves, and details of what areas they specialise in. When our curators answered questions on the PHM main page, our fans could then click on their profiles and see that a real person had answered their question, and begin to make a personal connection with the curator. Facebook also allowed for multiple answers to one question by different curators, and encouraged the discussion to continue past just a simple Q and A format. The results were available for all ‘fans’ to see in a clearly visible way.

R: I definitely agree with Erika on this – the Facebook profiles made it very clear which curator you were talking to at any given time. I also liked the way that more than one curator would jump in to answer a single question – providing a multitude of perspectives and insight that wasn’t limited to 140 characters. Because Facebook presents conversations as a thread, the complete conversation is still accessible to all.

What we lost by being the only institution on Facebook, and therefore being in a bit of a silo in regards to cross-promotion and marketing, we gained in usability and audience engagement outcomes.

(If you are interested in learning more about how the event went down on Twitter from the perspective of someone asking the questions, I recommend you read this post from the Museum Cultures blog.)

Also, it was exciting to see the #askacurator hashtag become a trending topic, until the inevitable happened and it became overrun by spambots. That did put a bit of a dampener on the event.

F&N: How might we do this sort of audience q&a more often? Especially given we don’t have a public Q&A facility on site.

E: I think all museums would agree that everyday is ‘Ask A Curator’ day. However traditional methods of public enquiries take the form of written letter, telephone call, or direct questions emailed through from our online collection database.

Curators spend a lot of their time responding to these sorts of enquiries, however the whole conversation is hidden from public view. Personally I would like to see us get a bit more ‘new school’ in how deal with enquiries, I think they are a hidden gem of content. Until that happens I know our curators really enjoyed using Facebook for ‘Ask a Curator’ Day and we will always be listening, and ready to answer your questions!

[Interestingly the Sydney Observatory Facebook page handles a lot of public enquiries on an ongoing basis – so maybe we will just add a link to the Powerhouse Facebook page on the Contact Us form]

R: Yes, we do already receive some questions for curators via our Facebook fan page and these are forwarded onto them. Their answers are then posted by myself or Erika on the page. Now that we have so many curators set up with Facebook profiles for work, it would be nice to have them personally answer any questions that come through, which would be a better experience for our fans, but would also share the responsibility for our Facebook fan page more evenly.

Erika kept up the conversation with one of the people who asked the curators questions and after the day sent her some questions to answer herself. Here’s her reply which I think more than demonstrates the value of Ask A Curator Day to institutions.

(I’ve kept this anonymous because of identification issues around Facebook)

Erika: Had you visited the Powerhouse Museum before?

A: I have been a regular visitor since I was a child, my visits might be fewer as an adult, but with big film based exhbitions, such as the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings exhibits, I was reminded of the brilliant permanent collection and came back more frequently.

E: Did you know the Museum was on Facebook before the event?

A: I did not, I was informed of the event by a friend who knew someone involved in the organising of the event and I was sent an invite.

E: Were you a ‘fan’ of the Powerhouse Museum on Facebook before the ‘Ask a Curator’ day event?

A: No I wasn’t.

E: Do you read any of the Powerhouse Museum blogs? (Photo of the Day, Object of the Week)

A: Occasionally I will look at the Object of the Week, I don’t often remember to look for it myself, but it is often sent to me if it is interesting.

E: What did you expect to happen when you posted a question?

A: I expected perhaps a single stock-standard response. I didn’t expect the genuine, enthusiastic and original answers of your curators. I received many various and interesting responses from all areas and saw some fantastic objects through their recommendations. I also did not expect the quick turn around on responses that I received.

E: How do you feel about the quality of answers you recieved to your questions?

A: As above, I was astounded by the quality of the answers I received, the answers were perfectly apt, and answered my questions without any kind of misdirection, people responded quickly and their responses were charming, informative and engaging. Not to mention interesting.

E: Are you more likely to visit us in person now, or access any of our other services eg. online collection, research library etc?

A: I am far more interested to come in more often, the online collection – while I am social media addicted is not quite my cup of tea. As soon as I see something in picture, I want to see it in person! I’d come in and ask you to pull it out. But I’m making plans to come in for the 80s exhibit in the next week with my partner.

E: How would you prefer to stay in contact in the future – email or social media channels like Twitter and Facebook? Why?

A: Facebook and Twitter work well for me, they feed into my phone and I see them regularly. Should I check my email. Which I do on average once a day for personal email. I’ll see any facebook or twitter notes I haven’t followed up on.

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