In real museum work, it’s rare that anybody hops into the Wright Flyer, chats with President Theodore Roosevelt, or sees a dinosaur come to life—even after dark. If you’d like to find out what it’s really like behind the scenes, we encourage you to ask. Ask a Curator Day is Wednesday, September 19 and we’re excited to announce that a few of our knowledgeable curators will be on board to answer your questions beginning at 10 AM EDT on Twitter using the hashtag #askacurator. Tweet questions to @amhistorymuseum.
Ask a Curator Day is a worldwide Q&A with many museums participating, including in the American History category, the Charlotte Museum of History, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and the Brooklyn Historical Society. In addition to historical topics, you can ask questions of our neighbors at the National Air and Space Museum, inquire about Vikings, or satisfy your curiosities about natural history.
Our curators are looking forward to answering your questions, particularly the ones that relate to their areas of expertise and favorite objects. Below, meet our curators who will be participating and get those questions ready to tweet.
Tim Winkle, associate curator in the
Division of Home and Community Life
Area of expertise: Tim is responsible for collections related to firefighting as well as community organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, fraternal groups, and many others. "I’m always interested in examining the early histories of some of the organizations that we often take for granted in our communities," says Tim, and, "playing the role of detective" as a curator.
Favorite object: His favorite object was also his first acquisition as a curator—an engraved silver Masonic medal dating to 1789. "With just the owner’s initials and the name of the lodge, I discovered a story of Caribbean pirates, frontier medicine, child brides and, of course, secret handshakes," he says.
Katherine Ott, curator in the Division of Medicine and Science
Area of expertise: Katherine is an expert in the history of disability, prosthetics, and material culture. "Ask me about ephemera," she says. "It’s a weird word—and I love it." She has worked at the museum for 16 years.
Favorite object: Her favorite object is Yorick, a plastic male skeleton embedded with electronic and mechanical devices used to replace body parts.
Nancy Davis, curator in the Division of
Home and Community Life
Area of expertise: Nancy is responsible for collections related to everyday clothing (no, that does not include the First Ladies gowns), jewelry, and domestic objects used in the home such as fly swatters and toasters. An example of an accessory you could ask Nancy about is this tortoise shell comb, which dates from the 19th century.
Favorite object: Her favorite object is a suit worn by a young man who was an indentured servant in the 18th century. He trained as a cabinetmaker in New England.
Eric Jentsch, Deputy Chair, Division of Culture and the Arts
Area of expertise: Eric works with collections related to sports, popular music and entertainment. He has helped curate such exhibits as 1939 and Pause & Play.
Favorite object: Although he says his favorite object “changes daily,” today he’s especially taken by the Urkel lunchbox.
Carlene Stephens, Curator, Division of Work and Industry
Area of expertise: Carlene Stephens is responsible for—among other things—taking care of the museum’s collections of clocks and watches, sound recording, and robots. She was project director and curator of On Time, the museum’s exploration of how America has learned to live by the clock. Her exhibition book, also called On Time, was published in 2002. She is at work on a book project—a history of the electronic of the electronic wristwatch. Time and Navigation: The Untold History of Getting from Here to There, a project with colleagues at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, opens in March 2013.
Favorite object: Carlene’s favorite object is Stanley, the robot car.
Barbara Clark Smith, curator in the Division of Political History
Area of expertise: Barbara is responsible for collections relating to political participation during the era of the American Revolution and the early republic. She also collects artifacts from present-day political movements for future curators to exhibit.
Favorite object: Her favorite object is the desk on which Thomas Jefferson wrote the draft of the Declaration of Independence in 1776.
Shannon Perich, associate curator of Photographic History
Area of expertise: Shannon is responsible for collections related to the history of photography from daguerreotypes to digital photography.
Favorite object: In the 1950s, Mary Taylor was living an ordinary middle class life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. "She was sort of the family historian," says Shannon. She took lots of snapshots and glued them into a wall paper sample book. Her photographs presents her experience of African American work and play in Southern California including going to Disneyland, getting a television, fancy parties, and backyard picnics. I’m facscinated by all kinds of photographs that depict the intersection between personal experience and national narratives.
Cedric Yeh, deputy chair and associate curator, Division of Armed Forces History
Area of expertise: Cedric focuses on armed forces history, Asian Pacific American history and culture, Japanese-American internment, the events of September 11, 2001, and Chinese food.
Favorite object: His favorite object is a Japanese cooking instrument used at the Benkyodo Candy Factory in San Francisco, California, to mold and bake fortune cookies.
A few tips for participating in Ask a Curator Day:
- If you’d like to follow the full conversation and see questions and answers between other individuals and museums, use a website such as TweetChat to view all talk using the hashtag.
- If you’re new to Twitter, there are many helpful guides to get you started.
- Not sure what a curator is or does? Ask! Questions about what it’s like to work in a museum, how curators got where they are today, and what a typical work day is like are most welcome. Our curators appreciate the opportunity to reflect on their work and increase awareness about the jobs they do.
- Curators are passionate about their specific topic areas and love to discuss them. Just like any professional with a specialized expertise, they sometimes hesitate to speculate on questions outside their scope. If you have a question they can’t answer, we’ll do our best to point you in the direction of a resource that may be able to.
- First, best, most valuable, biggest, tallest, oldest—superlatives are fun. But they can be hard to establish. How can a curator say this is the first color photograph without worrying that future research will prove the answer wrong? If you ask for an example of an early color photograph or what it was like to switch from black and white to color, you might get a more useful answer!
- Some questions can’t be answered in 140 characters, the limit Twitter puts on tweets. If that’s the case, we’ll save your question for the You Asked, We Answered series on the blog.
- Another option for those longer-than-a-tweet sized questions is to Ask the Smithsonian through Smithsonian Magazine. Unlike the short-and-sweet questions common on Ask a Curator Day, Ask the Smithsonian encourages you to "think big" as they’re seeking
“complex questions that will generate new ideas, new visions, and new conversations."
- If you’re not on Twitter, you can always reach the museum through Facebook, commenting on blog posts, or in a variety of other ways.
Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the Web and New Media Department. She'll be coordinating the Museum's participation in Ask a Curator Day.