Connecting with Curators

Our ASK team has a number of exciting challenges ahead of them. How do you communicate information about art in an informed and engaging way over text message? How do you prepare yourself to answer questions about any andevery object in the museum? How do you make sure your answers and language convey your personality (so visitors know its a human being on the other end) as well as curatorial intent and institutional philosophy? This last challenge is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately and one that I hope to help the team meet head on. Connecting with curators is a priority that Sara, Monica and I are tackling on a number of fronts. The first and most direct has been listening to curators speak about their collections—what they contain, how they’ve changed over time, and how they are installed.

The ASK team getting a tour of Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound from Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.
The ASK team getting a tour of Judith Scott—Bound and Unbound from Catherine Morris, Sackler Family Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art.

In their first month of training, the ASK team attended sessions with curators from every area of the Brooklyn Museum’s collection that is currently on view—Asian art, which will be reinstalled on the museum’s second floor in 2017, is currently on the back-burner. These talks have been indispensable in helping the team become familiar with each curator’s unique voice and perspective. For instance, Barry Harwood, Curator of Decorative Arts, captivated us with anecdotal stories about the previous inhabitants of the periods rooms while also emphasizing traditional art historical styles and the museum’s great strength in progressive machine-made and patented design for the middle classes.

On my end, I have relied on these initial curatorial sessions, as well as follow-up conversations and museum publications, to write wikis about the history, curatorial philosophy, and critical issues of each collection area. The team will be able to reference these when faced with particularly tricky questions for which curatorial departments have specific scholarly or philosophical viewpoints.

Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art wiki.
Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art wiki.

For instance, the Egyptian, Classical, and Ancient Near Eastern Art wiki includes the department’s stance on critical issues like the ethics of collecting antiquities, the race of the ancient Egyptians, and iconoclasm in the Middle East, both past and present. It also provides the ASK team with language formulated by Ed Bleiberg for how to respond to visitors’ surprisingly frequent questions about supernatural and extraterrestrial theories for origins of ancient Egyptian civilization. Critical issues for other curatorial departments include topics like what it means to curate with a feminist methodology at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the importance of historical change and adaptation in African art, the expanded definition of “American” in the American Identities galleries, and issues of repatriation in the Arts of the Americas collection.

Curators have not only helped to identify these topics but will also contribute to the form they take in the ASK wiki. Like myself, Monica and the ASK team, they are being set up with accounts on Confluence, our wiki platform, and invited to review its contents. That is, they can comment, critique, add to, or rewrite both my collection area wikis and the object-based wikis that are being researched and written by the ASK team. To protect curators’ time, however, articles will only be flagged for curatorial attention once they have been reviewed by the ASK team member “majoring” in that particular collection, as well as by me.

Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, works with the ASK team to answer questions during a testing session.
Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator of Asian Art, works with the ASK team to answer questions during a testing session.

Curators are also participating in ASK app testing. Over the next month and a half, as our team continues to learn the collection in preparation for launch on June 10, curators will be on hand to help answer questions during testing sessions taking place in their galleries. This not only gives the team a sense of how particular curators handle incoming queries in their collection areas, but will also allow us to populate our initial knowledge base with curator driven language. During the post-processing of these initial testing sessions, particularly useful segments of these early conversations (called “snippets”) will be tagged (via accession number) to specific objects so they will appear alongside objects in the Dashboard. These can then be referenced or reused by the team in later sessions. In the future, questions that stump out team will also be forwarded to curatorial departments and answers tagged back into the database for reuse.

Connecting with curators has been an essential part of the ASK team’s training so far and their continued involvement through the ASK wiki and other means will be crucial to the team’s success.