Ask a Curator – An Experiment in Visitor Engagement

One thing we love about our volunteers is how they help us think about objects in different ways. As museum professionals with years of training and experience, we often forget how “regular people” see museum objects. Since we are curating these objects for the public, and since regular people visit museums, their needs and interests cannot be ignored.

Case by Case

The San Diego Museum of Natural History recently did an experiment. Instead of spending their limited resources researching and creating object labels and new exhibits, they put objects in cases and left sticky notes, pencils, and plenty of wall-space for visitors to write down and post their questions and comments about the displayed objects. 

Visitors were directed to write down what they saw, what they thought, what they would want to know, or any other questions they might have. The results were eye-opening.

Not only did Case by Case provide an interactive exhibit to visitors, but it helped the staff identify objects to add to their permanent exhibit. Staff members were able to see first hand what visitors wanted to learn, what objects they were interested in, and how to address their interests through appropriate labels. And as an unexpected bonus, they also learned about visitor expectations based on museum flow/floor plan.

Ask a Curator – Our own Version of Case by Case

In reading about this experiment, we were intrigued and thought why can’t we do something similar?

Starting this Friday, April 6, we will post an object to our Facebook page. We decided to use Facebook because it is a great space for dialog. We will not share any information about the object. Instead, we will let you ask questions, make observations, etc. After a week (more or less, depending on the feedback), we will come back and provide you with information about the object based off of what you want to know as opposed to what we think you want to know.

Here’s an example of things you may want to comment on/ask:

  • What do you see?
    • overall appearance
    • form/style
    • color
    • materials/manufacturing techniques
    • style
  • What do you think this was used for?
  • Who do you think would have used it?
  • How old do you think it is?
  • What else do you want to know about this object?

If the feedback is positive, we will post a new object on a weekly basis. For those of you that are not regulars on Facebook, we will let you know via twitter when a new object posts and when the ‘label’ has been added. 

What do you think? Is there value in this type of engagement activity? Can you implement something similar at your own museum/institution? Have you done something similar already? We’d love to hear your thoughts and read your stories.


About Megan L.

Megan graduated from Boston University in 2008 with an M.A. in Historical Archaeology. While in graduate school, she wrote her master's thesis on 18th-century glass drinkingware excavated during the Big Dig and interned with NMSC for 2 years. Megan has been a full-time employee since February 2010.
This entry was posted in Ask a Curator, Name That Artifact and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ask a Curator – An Experiment in Visitor Engagement

  1. Cristina Trecha says:

    What a great idea inspired by the San Diego Natural History Museum’s Case by Case!

  2. Pingback: Ask a Curator – Handpainted Pearlware Chamber Pot | NMSC Archeology Blog

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