Ask us about our clocks! Reflecting on #askacuratorday at @amhistorymuseum

The global online Q&A session between museum curators and the public known as Ask a Curator Day took place on Wednesday, September 18, 2013. Fourteen staff members (two non-curators) from the National Museum of American History answered questions in one-hour shifts via Twitter with the help of the New Media department.

Blog posts got the word out in advance, made for more targeted questions, and shared the best answers beyond Twitter

Curious, quick, and short: Get your questions ready for Ask a Curator Day – Published September 14, 2013, this post introduced the gist of the program and provided a schedule of which curator was available to take questions at which times. It also provided links to each curators’ favorite objects in order to better focus the questions on relevant topics. This post got 815 pageviews, which is on the higher side for our blog. It was helpfully picked up on a Paleofuture/Gizmodo post, which got the word out very widely.

Liveblog: Our favorite questions and answers from #askacurator Day – Published on the morning of Ask a Curator Day, this constantly-updated post allowed non-Twitter users and tweeters craving more than 140 characters to get in on the Q&A. This post got 365 pageviews. (Uh, Gizmodo, please pick this one up, too.) I think it was rewarding for curators to see their answers on the blog as well as useful for staff that doesn’t use Twitter. It also helps to archive their full answers so they can be found by search and re-used in social media when needed.

• A goal of the blog posts had been to help solicit on-topic questions that took real advantage of our curatorial knowledge. One who participated in the Q&A in 2012 as well as this year said that questions she received this year were of a higher quality than in the past, so the strategy may have been successful.

• Total pageviews so far on those two posts: 1,180.

Participation in Ask a Curator Day increased conversation with the museum

The graph below indicates that the number of mentions the museum received on Twitter on September 18. And we certainly responded.

The graph below indicates that the number of “mentions” the museum received on Twitter on September 18—instances of Twitter users talking to or about the museum.

 

Our participation in Ask a Curator Day may have helped grow our following on Twitter–a little bit. Well, at least it didn’t go down?

The graph below indicates a steady rise in Twitter followers beginning right around the time we began promoting our participation in Ask a Curator Day. There may have been other reasons for increased followership (we tweeted some popular Hispanic heritage-related content during the airing of a new PBS special on Latinos and that may have gained us more followers, as well) but, regardless, the upward spike is welcome. In any case, we didn’t participate in Ask a Curator Day to get more followers–the day is actually more about one-on-one discussion than mass appeal. We wanted to engage more deeply with people who are curious about history and I think that happened, though there’s no “depth of relationship” graph that I know how to make. Someone please invent that.

The graph below indicates a steady rise in Twitter followers beginning right around the time we began heavily promoting our participation in Ask a Curator Day.

 

We reached a lot of people and gained some positive exposure

The TweetReach report below indicates reach during the last three or so hours of our participation in Ask a Curator Day. Reaching over 39,000 people in three hours is a positive result. This number is lower than the reach achieved in past tweetups, but tweetups include more people in the same place actively tweeting about the same thing. I think this reach is pretty good for an online program of this format. (By the way, if you have a paid TweetReach account, I’ll be your BFF if you run a report for me.)

The TweetReach report below indicates reach during the last three or so hours of our participation in Ask a Curator Day.

 

 

We engaged in meaningful conversations. About clocks, Filipino-American-related collections, the challenges of doing LGBTQ history, and more. 

This year, we received more questions targeting the knowledge area of specific curators, which proves the efficacy of educating followers about the available topic areas for Q&A. It can be difficult for members of the public to think of a question for the National Museum of American History because of the breadth of the museum’s topics and collection—our focus on specific areas did result in meaningful, on-topic questions we were excited to answer. The other positive benefit of focusing on these topics areas is increasing public awareness that we cover these topics.

More general questions not aimed at a particular curator:

• How are you utilizing technology to bring material culture to life in the digital age?

• What item in the collection is unique but sometimes overlooked?

• What is more fun: the hunt for acquisitions or opening an exhibition?

• What collection object makes you laugh?

• What one object would you save in a fire?

Questions aimed specifically at a particular curator who was on board to answer questions:

• My dad is a Civil War buff and been to DC many times. What might he have missed about the topic at the museum?

• What is your favorite time zone?

• What is the oldest clock in your collection and where did it come from?

• Is there any overlap between lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and transgender collections and Asian Pacific American collections?

• Is the first lightbulb still working?

• How do you decide what goes in the collection as significant to Filipino/American history?

• What was the hardest part about restoring the Star-Spangled Banner?

Getting on-topic questions was particularly important to me as it may help me illustrate to content experts that social media users want to connect with them on topics of shared interest–not just lolcats or twerking videos. As much as I love the freewheeling “ask me anything” vibe of Ask a Curator, for staff less comfortable with social media, “ask me about my collection of clocks” is much more approachable. Baby steps!

Word cloud indicating most-used words said to and by the museum during Ask a Curator Day

 

One thing that didn’t work as well for us was the schedule. Each curator was signed up to be available for an hour, but most ended up answering questions for an additional 30 minutes after their shift. I had prepared them for this possibility but worried that the overage may make them think twice the next time I ask for “just an hour of your time for a social media thing that’s going to be awesome.”

I had advertised 60-minute shifts because I think it’s easier for the public to actually come up with a question if they don’t over-think it or have all day–the urgency of “ask a question about X topic in the next 20 minutes” tends to inspire more action than “ask us anytime from 10 AM – 5 PM.” Next time, I’ll advertise short shifts but tell the staff their shifts are actually longer.

(I also forgot to schedule myself any kind of lunch break, so it was very nice when a curator brought me a giant bowl of pretzels. My #askacurator question for next year: What kinds of noms will you bring me?)

Did your museum participate in Ask a Curator Day? How’d it go on your end?

 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist at the National Museum of American History. She has also blogged about the #SouvenirNation tweetup at the museum. 

2 thoughts on “Ask us about our clocks! Reflecting on #askacuratorday at @amhistorymuseum

  1. Thanks, Erin—this is really interesting. I stumbled on the #askacurator two days before it began but wasn’t able to jump in until the afternoon. I did find your schedule online (and the big, long list of museums participating at another site).

    For me, tweeting on the fly, it was easier to ask general questions about my passion (games) and hope that a curator somewhere had something interesting to share about it. I look forward to the event next year and will be better prepared.

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