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Museums Look to the Future; Find Spam, Viagra

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Museums Look to the Future; Find Spam, Viagra
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On Wednesday September 1st, 2010 museums and galleries from around the world participated in an elaborate question and answer initiative that proved to be equal parts social science experiment and educational opportunity. It was, in its way, a reckoning; the chance to see whether meaningful dialogue could be achieved amid the clutter and racket of 21st-Century internet spam. Ask a Curator was the name of the event, and it was the brainchild of one Jim Richardson, a self described marketing type and cultural audience obsessive.

The idea was fairly simple; enlist curatorial staff from as many museums as possible to answer questions via Twitter throughout the day. The objective was to create a dynamic and meaningful conversations between the people who visit museums (the public) and those who are responsible for their contents (the curators). As an added benefit the forum gave museums the chance to shake off their sometimes stodgy images and get a little dirty in the miasma of web 2.0.

…and get dirty they did! If you’re familiar with Twitter you know that the hashtag (#) is the convention used to follow conversations. It’s a blunt way to organize information, but one that allows for users to search by an agreed upon term (#askacurator for instance) and quickly find all the relevant threads. If enough people use a particular phrase or hashtag it gets listed as trending (i.e. insanely popular). I doubt anyone in their wildest dreams would have guessed that #askacurator would end up as a trending topic on Twitter, but that’s exactly what happened.

Once trending, it didn’t take the spambots long to glom onto #askacurator’s success. Soon legitimate conversations were awash in offers to purchase Viagra, look at pictures of someone’s sexy friend, buy more Viagra, see movies of someone’s sexy friend, buy some Viagra, and then buy some more Viagra. It would have been funny if it weren’t so sad. It appears the great promise of Twitter, that is, it’s ability to let us instantaneously share, learn and create, is also its great undoing, as it let’s us just as instantaneously spam, drag down and fuck up.

As Jim Richardson himself posted here, “Though I appreciate that Twitter is a free service, it was a great frustration that they seem to have so little control over this kind of spam and I think I’d be unlikely to use Twitter again for this kind of event.”

In a testament to diligence and group problem solving, word spread amongst the participants around midday that they’d be abandoning the #askacurator hashtag in favor of #askcurators. This slight variation had the desired effect and managed to throw the spambots off the scent. The afternoon was considerably more coherent, and by most accounts the day ended an exhausting success.

Questions were often as interesting as the answers, ranging from “How often is the average painting restored?’ to “What is the oldest item you have on permanent display?”. I was personally delighted to find out (via the kind curators at the National Air Space Museum) that NASA’s Stardust Capsule was the item in their collection that had traveled furthest from earth and subsequently come back.

Special recognition should go to our central Ohio museum contingent. In the final tally four Ohio museums participated in AskACurator. Three were from Columbus. The Ohio Historical Society, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and The Columbus Museum of Art each muscled through the waves of spam to answer a wide variety of legitimate and insightful questions. (The fourth Ohio museum to participate was the Cincinnati Museum Center). It should be noted too that the Ohio Historical Society hit its landmark 1000th tweet in the flurry of the day’s activity (Perhaps some kind of marker would be in order. We’ll see.).

In spite of the spam I think it’s safe to say the better angels of our nature prevailed. No tool of communication, be it the telephone, the television, or Twitter, is capable of elevating the quality of our conversations, nor should we expect one to. That responsibility is ours. Thanks to Jim Richardson, the curators, museums, participants, and public who today showed us how to share and contribute. The quality of our conversations was better, if just for one day.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

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