When museums are open to social media: the case of #AskACurator


Every September, the #AskACurator day takes place online. Social media users have the opportunity to talk to the curators of some of the major museums and cultural institutions in the world to get to know what happens behind the scenes, the history of the collections, and curiosities about the art pieces. The idea came from Jim Richardson in 2010,  now the initiative is supported by Mar Dixon, whose site and official Twitter account serve as points of connection and dissemination of the event. We decided to track the online content and conversations of the 2017 and 2018 edition through the official hashtag, and measure its diffusion in order to identify the most influential accounts, and track user interaction from different communities.


#AskACurator day: Twitter is the most used platform

The conversations between users and museums took place on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: we analyzed the contents two days before and two days after the event for a complete follow up of the discussions. As the graph in fig.1 shows, more than half of the conversations (detected posts and interactions) took place on Twitter (58%), followed by Instagram (32%), and Facebook (10%). Among the most relevant contents on Instagram we find the Tate, the Brooklyn Museum and the Detroit Institute of Art. On Facebook, the live video streaming from the Van Gogh Museum was one of the most viral (114k views, 1.5k comments, almost 600 shares).

Fig.1: distribution of posts and interactions from the #AskACurator day across the different social media networks.

To get a better understanding of the social media dynamics, we analyzed the Twitter conversations in detail.


Fewer museums participate but the community is more active

The first performance evaluation metric for such a complex event was the total volumes of posts and interactions: we decided to compare the data collected in the 2017 edition with that of 2018 (fig.1). Overall, the recorded data shows a better performance during the previous year: from September 11th to the 15th of 2017 there were over 110k interactions on Twitter; whereas between September 10th -14th of 2018, there were a little over 55k.

Fig.2: comparison of the volumes collected for the 2017 and 2018 editions of #AskACurator day.

These volumes, distributed across multiple days, are shown in figure 2. The most significant difference is the number of interactions the day after in 2017, when discussions continued around a successful tweet coming from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles:  (6.6k RT, 14.7k likes, 199 comments).

During those days, many museums posted content thanking users for their participation in the initiative, eg. “Thank you to our amazing curators and conservators & our digital team for making #AkACurator Day! Of J.Paul Getty Museum.

However, the difference between both years must be put in perspective considering the number of museums and institutions registered in the official list. In 2017, more than 1,500 museums in 58 different countries were listed – in Italy, almost 60 museums were ready to interact with users. For the 2018 edition, only 367 museums officially registered worldwide -only 1 from Italy, the Centro per l’arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci.

In 2018, one-third of the museums generated half of the interactions achieved in the 2017 edition: the official institutional participation has decreased, but user participation has increased.


The top curators

Some tweets emerge for their number of interactions. Among the best from this year’s edition we found: British Museum, Greg Bourke, curator of the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah, Matt Smith writer, podcasters and freelance journalist. Analyzing the best accounts and profiles of 2018, ranked by number of interactions, first place goes to the British library (3145), followed by the British Museum (2573), and National Gallery (1071). Ask a Curator came in 4th place, Mar Dixon in 9th. The Italian museum to appear in the ranking is the Pinacoteca Agnelli (PinAgnelli) in the 123rd spot.

In fig.3, a comparison between the best accounts of 2017 and 2018.


Fig.3: comparison between the active accounts on Twitter. Data refers to the total number of interactions.


Who’s reaching out to the curators?


Fig.4 Social Network Analysis of Twitter community involved in #AskACurator day

The graph (fig.4) shows the Social Network Analysis related to conversations on Twitter for #AskACurator. Different colors identify different active communities based on the affinity of their online behavior. The largest group is the one linked to the official AskACurator account and its creator Mar Dixon (in green, detail in fig.5). These accounts were the most effective at involving private users (illustrated as smaller dots), working as a connection between the public and the most influential accounts. Others were: British Museum, National Gallery, Adrian Murphy (Acediscovery), Cincy Museum, Kipling Art (historiadelarte). As part of this group, we also found the account of the only Italian museum officially taking part in the initiative: Pinacoteca Agnelli (PinAgnelli).

Fig.5 Social Network Analysis detail of the Askacurator community

Analyzing the different communities involved in the day of September 12th, the ecosystem created by the Museum of Natural History in London stands out as one of the most interesting cases. Presented in blue, fig.6.

Fig.6 Social Network Analysis detail of the NHM_London community

Taking a broader look, it is evident how different groups of users were activated by a large ecosystem of accounts related to the National History Museum in London. In fact, many thematic accounts, in addition to the official account (NHM_London), answered to the tweets during the day: flygirlNHM, NHM_Science, NHM_IAC, NHM_Data, NHM_Diptera, NHM_Digitise, NHM_Fleas, NHM_CitSci, NHM_Palaeobotany, NHM_FossilFish, NHM_Bees, NHM_Micropalaeo.


#AskACurator 2019!

The collected data for the 2018 #AskACurator day and the comparison with last year provides some considerations while waiting for the 2019 edition.

The interest and participation of users have not only been confirmed but have grown over time: #AskACurator day is a positively welcomed event by most of the users involved. The social media strategy of some museums give exemplary behaviors: i.e. building a recognizable and rich digital presence, favoring a direct and open relationship with users, planning a thematically varied editorial calendar, exploiting the different potentials and characteristics of the various social media networks. On this last point, in particular, some interesting examples emerged: the constellation of Twitter accounts of the Natural History Museum in London creates an environment of lively discussions within which users can interact with the different museum areas, providing the advantage of increasing recognition and strength of its own “brand”. The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam successfully exploited the Facebook Direct videos to transport their fans inside the museum with a session of live questions that also involved onsite visitors.

Lastly, Instagram recorded just over 30% of the total interactions for the 2018 edition. The top accounts were those of Tate, Brooklyn Museum, El Museo Soumaya; with a different use of the platform that rewarded the British museum’s account: the contents related to #AskACurator were concentrated in a single post and users were able to interact directly with the curator through the comment section. The Brooklyn Museum instead linked to a Facebook live video streaming on the official page, while El Museo Soumaya created videos and graphics specifically for the initiative (post 1post 2post 3).

Users and citizens are ready for the next #AskACuratorDay, can we say the same about museums?


Filippo Tansini

Analyst specializing in politics, finance, insurance, pharmaceutical. Expert of the Italian Language, he obtained a degree in Modern Philology, working on analyses and textual criticism. A PhD student at the Department of Theatre and New Media at La Sapienza in Rome, he worked as a data analyst for an international company, following projects of social reputation, product campaigns, landscape analyses for multinational companies. He has been a web reputation manager and data analyst at Cultur-e since 2015. He works on social media analysis services, monitoring of brands and top managers, marketing campaigns and crisis management. Languages: Italian and English.