How to #askacurator – 10 tips for museums

September 25, 2012

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#Museogeek alert! Yesterday I wrote about my experiences of last week’s Ask a Curator event on Twitter, both as a museum enthusiast with lots of questions to ask, and as a museum on the receiving end of the questions. I’ve since had a couple of people ask if I can share some tips on what made it a success for us as a participating museum, so I’ve written a bonus post. It may be a while until the next #askacurator, but perhaps the tips will be useful for similar Twitter events.

1. Shout it from the rooftops

This may be a really obvious point, but tell people that you are taking part! As soon as we had the go ahead and some curators signed up to take part, we started telling everyone about it and didn’t just rely on people finding us in the Ask a Curator directory. We tweeted about it, of course. Not just once though, but repeatedly in the week leading up to the event. We also posted about it on Facebook, and we had a news release on our website. And because we were still relatively new on Twitter and I personally have a much larger following, I also tweeted about it lots from my own account.

2. Publish your programme

As I mentioned yesterday, we’re a conglomerate of 19 different museums (plus four institutes), and we had six curators from four of our museums taking part, each giving about two hours of their time. We announced which museums it would be as a series of teasers, revealing a new one on Twitter each day. Once they had all been revealed, we published our “programme” for the day on Facebook, giving the names and times of each curator, along with their museum and their specialist subjects. We were then able to link to this post when tweeting about Ask a Curator.

3. Get a head start

My job was to coordinate the day and the curators, i.e. making announcements, collecting questions, passing them to the relevant curator, posting the replies etc. I spent a lot of time preparing for the day. I wrote all our announcement tweets (inviting people to ask questions, announcing which curator is up next etc) in advance while I had the peace and quiet to figure out the right character lengths, bitly links etc. I then saved them all in a document which on the day I had open in the background, ready to cut, paste & tweet at the relevant moments. I also got a head start on our curators on the day itself. Our “programme” was due to start at 10am, but I’d pre-scheduled some announcement tweets for earlier in the morning, and spent at least half an hour browsing the #askacurator hashtag for some initial questions so that I’d have something to send to the curators right away.

4. Work that hashtag!

We were still relatively new on Twitter, so I knew it was really important to get lots of exposure and not just to rely on people finding us in the Ask a Curator directory. So I tried to work the #askacurator hashtag to our full advantage by using it as much as possible. Obviously we used it in all our answers and responses, but we also tried to find other opportunities. Throughout the day we repeatedly tweeted that we were taking part, invited questions, thanked people for their questions, welcomed curators, announced their specialist subjects, thanked curators at the end of their allocated times, circulated the link to our “programme” for the day etc. All these used the #askacurator hashtag – at over 10k tweets, every mentioned meant an increased chance of being noticed. I think it worked, as we noticed the number of tweets coming our way increasing as the day went on.

5. Butt in

I anticipated that the beginning of the day might be slow, and I didn’t want to waste valuable curator time waiting for questions to come in. I was also aware that we didn’t have a huge following, being relatively new. So I browsed the #askacurator hashtag for interesting questions that our curators could answer, e.g. “What is the most exciting part in preparing an exhibition?”, also including some fun questions such as “Other than your own museums, what’s your favourite museum and why?”. In total we answered 14 questions that hadn’t been directed specifically at us. Not only did this get the day rolling, but it again increased our exposure.

6. Show some humour

Sometimes museums get a bit of flack for being too serious (well, at least here in Germany anyway), so we wanted to show that we have a fun side too. Since it was also Talk Like A Pirate Day, we put on our best pirate voice and invited people to “Arrr…hit us with your questions, me hearties.” Someone actually picked us up on it, asking if curators were actually related to pirates, and kudos to our curator of coins who came up trumps with his response that “When the museum is closed, a coin curator may dress up as a pirate and count the pieces of eight ;-)”

7. Go multi-lingual

Usually, we tweet mostly in German. We’ll answer in English to English comments or mentions, but our outgoing tweets are generally in German. However, as this was an international event we realised we’d be seriously restricting ourselves if we stuck to German. So we were very proactive in communicating that we’d be tweeting equally in German and English that day. All those tweets about taking part, inviting questions, welcoming and thanking curators? We sent them all twice, once in German and once in English. It did mean our feed was a lot more busy than usual, but we’d warned our followers in advance. Just over half of the questions directed specifically at us were in English, so I think it was a good move.

8. Re-tweet

Just because it was a special event, we didn’t forget regular Twitter etiquette. We re-tweeted things from others that we found interesting. When someone randomly asked if anyone on #askacurator would give them a re-tweet we thought hey, why not, let’s be a good sport. So we did. And when someone who asked us a question about our coins then tweeted a picture back at us that she’d drawn of it, we re-tweeted that too. Twitter is all about give and take, and we tried to remember that amidst all the business that was going on.

9. Be an archivist

Twitter only archives old messages for a finite amount of time. And although you can view conversations of related tweets, sometimes things get a bit mixed up. All in all, it can be a bit tricky to go back and re-read everything. So we decided to make our own archive for future reference, for those who missed it, or for anyone who just wants to relive the day ;-) We collated all the questions and answers in the order that our curators answered them, added a few stats and graphics, and published the whole thing on issuu.com. Actually, we published it twice, once with a German introduction and once with an English one.

10. Follow up

After the event, we sent out a few more thank you’s. We also circulated the link to our published summaries. And we followed up on a couple of questions that had been asked after our curators had gone home. Because, of course, you can ask us questions any day of the year, not just on Ask a Curator day! We tweeted that too :-)

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(Please note: Although I work for the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and tweet on behalf of them as @smbmuseum, the opinions and advice in this article are entirely my own.)

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