#AskACurator: What is the biggest challenge in the digital age? Greatest opportunity?

Each year for #AskACurator day I like to pose an open question to museum curators about their thoughts on the role of digital technologies in their work.

In 2014, I asked “How can digital staff at museums work better with curators? What one thing do you wish we understood better?” That tweet received a handful of responses, including this rather pointed reply).

In 2015, I posed the equestion: “What has been the biggest impact on your role as curator with rising emphasis on technology, outreach, & museum education?” and received one (very brief) response. (I had better luck that year with a hypothetical about curating your dream exhibit with no budgetary limitations.)

Last year, I skipped the annual tradition (likely because I was at home on maternity leave, caring for a small but very opinionated baby as well as a toddler and had presumably heard quite enough of other people’s perspectives at that point).

For my 2017 #AskACurator submission, I whipped up this quick query and sent it into the Twittersphere for comment:

I was thrilled to see that I quickly received several substantive answers, mostly from curators at European museums (who were farther ahead in the day and presumably benefitting from Twitter-fingers already running on adrenaline/caffeine).

The Canadians jumped in to share their thoughts…

Of course, the Americans took it to a whole new level…

The Philadelphia Museum of Art responded with two diverse answers, including a personal video response from a curator of contemporary art:

Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret: This is actually a question I pose (with slight variations) at the beginning of every semester I teach. The graduate students at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown’s Museum Studies programs usually tackle the issues with similarly themed approaches: Digital technologies can help you reach more people, provide deeper opportunities for exploring and learning about collections, but it is hard work, costs a lot of money and skill-building for staff, and it might eventually lead to people losing interest in ever visiting the real thing. (Spoiler alert on that last point: No, it won’t.) You can see all of these key points and more from the sampling of nearly 100 responses I received today, including:

While some of the specific responses give me pause, I’m heartened to see so many curators thoughtfully engaging in public dialog on this topic. Their replies reflect the nuanced and complicated ways digital technologies are impacting museum work as well as shaping the experiences and expectations of the audiences we serve. I want to thank all the curators who took the time to respond (and, let’s be honest, in many cases the thanks also go to the social media managers who helped facilitate their efforts!). I very much appreciate that you showed up, shared your perspectives, and did it with refreshing candor. Please continue to dialogue out in the open about the changing roles and relevance of museums in today’s world! We all have a lot to learn from each other.

Stay tuned because #AskAnArchivist day is coming up next month! I can’t wait to see how the archivists of the world will answer my question…

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