Analyzing Ask A Curator Day

Meghan Dougherty, USA

Analyzing Ask A Curator Day: A qualitative content analysis of the 2010 and 2012 Twitter events promoting community between and among cultural heritage institutions and their publics

Ask A Curator Day (AaC) was a one-day public relations event designed to facilitate direct interaction between museum curators and the public via Twitter. The goal was to promote public engagement with heritage institutions. Though AaC was meant to be a one-day event in 2010, it morphed into a small but sustaining imagined community of professionals and their public audience (Anderson, 1983; Gruzd, Wellman & Takhteyev, 2011, Marwick & boyd, 2010). Since 2010, it has expanded to a larger connection of social media sites including event blogs, personal and professional blogs, video sharing sites, and more. The Twitter-based event was run again in September 2012. The community remains active and focused on the goal of leveraging social media to increase direct interaction between the public and cultural heritage professionals.

Ask a Curator Day promoted alternate paths for engagement with and among cultural heritage institutions. It ultimately strengthened networks for the institutional community to thrive, thus solidifying a fundamental change in how heritage institutions can interact with the public. The activity on Twitter during these two one-day events provides a wealth of information about using social media as tools for engaging diverse and undefined audiences with institutions.

This study examines the public tweets using the community’s predetermined hashtag, #askacurator, posted over two sets of three-day periods — the day before each event, the events themselves, and the day following each event*. Qualitative content analysis of the rich conversations that took place revealed a number of things of interest to institutions building social media programs including: negotiation of community rules, new and evolving practices for museum and library professionals, common ground and shared interest between the public and professionals that go beyond the institutional connections assumed by typical uses of social media in institutional spaces, and reaffirming that communities can be topic-based rather than location-based, even when the community centers around a location-specific institution. This study argues that a fundamental change can help how cultural institutions behave in relation to the public with the help of social networked technologies. What is required are shifts in power (balancing who controls institutional messages), and shifts in practice (professionals within institutions who were once rather private may have a much more public role to play). This community of heritage professionals and their institutional audiences were able to develop stronger network connections using social media channels for communication giving loosely connected community members a space to engage more meaningfully and on their own terms.

*The author would like to thank Mar Dixon for collecting and sharing the 2012 archive used in this analysis.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities. Brooklyn, NY: Verso.

Gruzd, Anatoliy, Barry Wellman, and Yuri Takhteyev. 2011. Imagining Twitter as an Imagined Community. American Behavioral Scientist 55(10).

Marwick, Alice, and danah boyd. 2010. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media & Society 13(1).