By: Nancy Pope, Historian and Curator and Katie Burke, Museum Specialist
The postal museum was one of dozens of museums participating in Twitter’s “Ask a Curator” day on Wednesday, September 19. Hundreds of questions, using the hashtag #askacurator, peppered curators and museum staffers across the globe. Three postal museum curators participated in the project, which was coordinated at NPM by Web Team member Katie Burke. Postal Historian Nancy Pope, Philatelic Curator Daniel Piazza and Postal History Curator Lynn Heidelbaugh answered questions on topics in philately and postal history, as well as more generic questions on museum and curatorial operations.
The Twitter-based “Ask a Curator” day is just one of a number of new ways the museum is able to reach out to the general public. Social media offers the opportunity not just to lecture the public on objects and history, but to hear directly from them. Through channels like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube members of the public are able to engage the museum in public discussions of objects and topics that interest them. Some were hesitant at first to ask questions, but as “Ask a Curator” day wore on the questions flew.
Nancy’s favorite questions were those that allowed her to share the breadth of the museum’s collections and focus with the public. She answered questions like, “What exhibit are you most proud of?” (“An exhibit we did several years ago showcasing letters from a Nazi Germany refugee and passenger on the ill-fated SS St. Louis. A story worth telling”) and, “Has any mail ever brought curators to tears?” (“A letter from a Norwegian immigrant to her family back home in Norway—she wrote, ‘I will never see you again in this lifetime.’ Sad and probably true”).
Katie enjoyed replying to tweeters who were putting together collections of Ask a Curator Day images. When asked to “Help me collect 50 objects that make curators laugh,” NPM sent back a link to the Hope Diamond wrapper and tweeted, “Natural History got the Hope Diamond and all we got was the package!” To another question, “What would be the one object you would save for humanity against disaster?” NPM replied, “The de Havilland biplane. In case of disaster it could get us out of here!” You can see the tweeters’ final object collections here and here.
In general, questions ranged all across the board, from specific questions about particular stamps to queries about how curators spend their workdays. (All of NPM’s questions and answered are archived at Storify: http://storify.com/postalmuseum/ask-a-curator-day.) The questions also revealed a great enthusiasm for museums and museum work, which is always gratifying. Everyone at NPM was glad to see that one of the silliest questions ever asked of one of our curators (“Is the Amelia Earhart suit in your collection the one from her last flight?”) was not asked during this year’s event.