Today is the 2015 edition of Ask a Curator day. According to coordinator Mar Dixon, 1,072 museums in 51 countries are participating. While those whose time zones have now gone into night have dropped out, some institutions are still tweeting answers to questions from the public with the hashtag #AskACurator.
It’s always an interesting opportunity to pose some questions about museums and their collections. For example, I was long curious if the 1920s glass casket at the Corning Museum of Glass was ever on view. I tweeted my question, and Senior Curator Tina Oldknow quickly responded that it was not, but it was featured on NPR’s Hidden Treasures in Museums and in the subsequent book written by Harriet Baskas.
Here are a few other highlights from #AskACurator queries, revealing overlooked objects, museum trivia, and challenges in preservation.
Some questions are pretty sharp and reveal the curators’ specialized knowledge. In response to the question: “Is there a work in the collection that best encapsulates crossover between Egyptian and Classical culture to you?” Phoebe Segal, assistant curator of Greek and Roman Art at the MFA Boston, shared this Greek “Torso of a Youth” based on an Egyptian work.
And here is an unexpected object from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in response to the question: “Do you any [sic] presidential aircrafts/items in your collections?”
Likewise, this unexpectedly morbid (but fascinating) response by the History, Art & Archives of the US House of Representatives to the question of if they had a favorite item related to John Quincy Adams:
Other questions relate to the process of preservation and conservation, which can be especially challenging if your focus is in-situ art. Elizabeth Galvin, curator of the African rock art project at the British Museum, answered the question: “What are the most challenging aspects of the project?”
Curators also have to recognize the value in things that might seem mundane. Dr. Steve Tinney at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology answered the question: “Any examples of a plain-looking or everyday object with an extraordinary or exciting back story?”
How much do audience opinions actually impact curation? The Whitney Museum shared that people were none too pleased when no Edward Hopper pieces were on view, something the museum has kept in mind.
And there are the hazards of performance art, as with this incident designed by Albert Serra to cleanse the auditorium before his film screenings:
Museums are also using the opportunity to share some odd objects, like this goliath book at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. The library added that the huge book is the surely riveting 1939 Burke’s genealogical and heraldic history of the landed gentry….
And this from the National Museum of American History:
And some quieter works that go overlooked, such as these examples from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
As well as some personally precious objects, the kinds of things curators come across in their collections but don’t often go on view, like this from Julian Harrison, curator of early modern manuscripts at the British Library: