#AskACurator and African collections

Posted on October 24, 2013

Ask a Curator poses questions to curators in museums around the world but African institutions are not signing up yet

Ask a Curator is a welcome initiative in the museum world, one which the Archival Platform participates in on twitter most years since 2010. Questions can be directed to any participating museum via the hashtag #askacurator on a specified day. It promotes a range of different museums - even small ones - around the world (depending on your time zone access) and allows for open discussion between curators and their publics.

In 2013, over 600 museums from 37 countries took part. The topic trended in the UK at number 7 on the day, ahead of #AskJessieJ (a pop singer) and Nick Clegg (the deputy Prime Minister); by the end of the day in the UK there had been nearly 20,000 tweets on the hashtag.

However as far as I could see from the final list, no institutions in Africa took part this year although there were a few African tweeters like us. Johannesburg Art Gallery (which signed up in 2010) was not on the list this year. Most of the museums were in Europe or North America. It's a voluntary thing - you just sign up for free, so this means no African GLAMs signed up. What does that say about us? Let's make a plan for next year to have more African institutions participate, as we agreed with JAG - (@artthisway) and Sifiso Maposa - (@SifisoMaposa).

Good PR for museums but challenging issues tend to be ignored

Museum curators sounded very willing to be engaging with their publics through #askacurator on twitter (as they should). Much emphasis was placed by some on the fact that they were open to all questions.


  • - @CuratorPolly: Hope #AskACurator shows how open and helpful we are. Not a bunch of ivory tower fuddy duddies!

  • J. Paul Getty Museum â€@GettyMuseum : Rise of social media & digital content has opened relationship between public & museums

  • @PSoemers: #AskACurator connects also museum professionals with each other

  • @BoltonLMS: Turns out #askjessiej is trending on Twitter. Let's get museum collections as popular as Jessie & get #AskACurator trending too!

This year, popular questions included:

  • Which objects in your collection make you laugh?

  • What is the smallest object in your collection?

  • Which museum object(s) makes your museum unique?

  • What is the star ('Mona Lisa') of your collection?

  • What exhibit really makes your toes curl with excitement?

There were numerous questions also about the implications of digital technologies for museum practice, and about how to become a curator.

There were some challenging questions, too - some of them are listed here, such as questions about unpaid internships and staff diversity. Donna Yates collated her challenging questions and the (few) answers to them here. The Tate was criticized for its failure to properly respond to critical tweets on the question of BP sponsorship. I was mainly interested in the questions about interpretive ethics, repatriation and stolen cultural artefacts. Here developing countries (including Greece) featured more:

  • Michael Kirkpatrick -@OtimMichael : Many items in museums from Africa were originally stolen from the continent. Should we be celebrating theft?

  • Dr Donna Yates -@DrDonnaYates : For any and all of you: how do you approach the illicit trade in looted cultural property?

  • Elginism -@elginism: If Greece threatened to withdraw cultural co-operation, would you re-consider Parthenon Marbles? @britishmuseum

  • David Howell -@Kasuutta : General one for #AskACurator, to what extent do you feel local/national politics should influence museum activities?

  • Dr Donna Yates -@DrDonnaYates : You have shrunken Ecuadorian heads on display. How do you present their troubled collection history? @DrDanHicks @pitt_rivers

Most of the challenging questions were not answered at all, but some curators stuck their necks out. These responses were greatly appreciated in an environment where gushing exclamation marks are so much easier to produce.

Answers on challenging topics gave relevant links instead of trying to respond briefly on twitter in 140 characters. For example, on the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers, Donna Yates (@drdonnayates) was referred to a blog written by Laura Peers, Lecturer/Curator, 2010. Another museum curator referred to ethics codes that all museums should follow. After receiving numerous questions, the British Museum tweeted 'For all questions related to the Parthenon sculptures please see this page stating the Museum's position'. In response to this question from @heyshaelyn: 'Have you been involved in the repatriation of any objects? How did it go?' UCL Museums (-@UCLMuseums) responded: -˜Successfully repatriated Thai material and found it a very positive experience'. A link was given to the full story.

Making African issues visible

Only a few tweets related to Africa (20 out of over 20,000), such as:



  • Sifiso Maposa -(@SifisoMaposa) said #AskACurator trending, would love to engage with & get some museums in African countries to sign up!

  • Whither Nubia -(@WhitherNubia) asked numerous museums -˜please may I know approx how many Nubian artefacts you have'?

  • Dr Donna Yates (@DrDonnaYates): How do you personally feel about African repatriation requests? Particularly for bronzes @britishmuseum via @mouthyheritage

On our twitter feed (@the_archive) we asked a few questions as well:

  • Today is #AskaCurator day! What's your question about African collections?

  • What are the risks of not digitizing #African collections as quickly as is being done in other regions?

  • How should one display / curate evidence of racist science such as this?

Given the general interest in digital issues being displayed on the hashtag, I also asked some questions about digital repatriation:

  • Does digital repatriation work for the original owner community / country?

  • Does digital repatriation work for the host institution?

  • Can you share experiences with digital repatriation of some of your African collections? @britishmuseum

  • Do you have experiences with digital repatriation of some of your collections? @fundarellanuova

  • Do you have experiences with digital repatriation of some of your collections? @africamuseumbe

These were retweeted a few times but we only had one response, from the Belgian Royal Museum for Central Africa about their 'Film Heritage' Project under which colonial-era Belgian films on Africa films have been digitized; some have been made available for free to selected African academies (the main universities of the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi) or to professionals (scientific, educational and cultural professionals anywhere in the world).

As an experiment, I asked a popular kind of PR question as well to the general audience, to gauge the level of response to lighter issues:

  • As a curator, do you go to #museums when you are on holiday?

I received over 20 affirmative responses (RTs, replies and favourites) to this tweet.

So, the questions asked on Ask a Curator favour the PR end of the spectrum and where curators were asked difficult questions, they tended to avoid answering. Museum curators are happy to evaluate existing collections (explaining which is the smallest, best, most important), but not so willing to address questions about the provenance of collections or whether they should be in that museum at all. There are legal and practical reasons why museums prevent curators from making statements on social media and other platforms on issues like theft and repatriation, of course.

However, questions about access to collections with disputed ownership, including digital access, will only intensify over time as people become used to being able to see a wider range of things digitally. African publics will want more access to cultural heritage held in institutions abroad. There are already positive and negative analyses of African digital repatriation being expressed online. Digital repatriation is not as good as repatriating artefacts and documents, but it can be part of a repatriation strategy that involves other collaborations. We need to have more engagement between museums and their publics about the possibilities in order to move forward. In what forums can these debates best start happening? And how does this dovetail with higher-level, inter-institutional and inter-governmental negotiations?

I'll leave the last word to Manon Parry (-@ManonParry1) who tweeted 'Interesting to see the wide range of museums involved in #AskaCurator today... I want to know, what subjects are off-limits for your museum?'

Note: In reproducing tweets Harriet has removed the hashtag #AskACurator for brevity.

Harriet Deacon is an Archival Platform correspondent based in the United Kingdom - and she is responsible for mantaining our presence on Twitter!