Questions to ask when visiting a museum

Some of my students recently made a field trip to a local museum. These are some questions I suggested they might want to ask the staff to understand their work and the way they work with each other and the public.

Additions and suggestions welcome.

Behind the scenes: How to ask questions of a museum

Visiting Collections

There’s always more to see than there’s time for. Ask to see the curator’s favorite. Or the most challenging to store. Or the most recently rehoused. Or perhaps pick a cabinet at random.

Get a sense of the collections management system. Ask to see the record of an object you’ve seen in storage. If you’re interested in a particular kind of artifact, or a particular subject area, start with the CMS and work from there to the collections storage.

Ask for an overview of the collection. How many objects? How does the staff see the categories? Are collections stored for ease of research use, for ease of collections retrieval, or by environmental needs of the artifact?

Step back from the individual objects you’re shown to take a broader view. Critique the storage system. What are the HVAC concerns? Security? Environmental?

Ask to see the conservation lab. Don’t just look at the high-end work; ask about freezers, basic work.

Ask about the balance between preservation and conservation work; how much work on individual objects, how much time and money on the needs of the collection more generally.

Ask to see the path through which an object enters the collection, from loading dock to data entry to placement on shelves. Many museums have objects in process, being photographed and measured and described. Ask for their story.

Ask to see one or two good accession files. Ask what makes them good.

Talking to the director

How do they divide their time between internal and external work? That is, how much time working with employees, how much time with the board and with raising money? How much time being the public face of the museum? How often do they get into collections storerooms?

Ask about strategic plans. How far forward do they plan? What are the time horizons they think about?

Where is the money coming from? Who are your donors?

How much do they delegate, how much do they want to see before it goes public?

Ask what they worry about.

What do they think about crisis management? How do they keep their finger on projects that might become controversial?

Ask what museums they think are doing a good job, and why.

Talking to staff (some general questions)

Ask about a typical day. Who do they get email from? Who do they talk to? What meetings do they go to? What are the background jobs that keep them busy when there are no crises or exhibits underway.

Try to learn about management and supervision. Are there daily or weekly meetings of departments, the whole staff? To what extent are people told what to do?  Do they have written work plans? How are they reviewed?

Ask about departments and how they work together. Are most staff working within or across departments? What kind of collaboration occurs across departments?

Who is your audience? How do you suit your exhibitions, programs, etc. to their needs?

Exhibitions design/production department

How big a staff? How many on staff, how many brought in on contract as needed?

To what extent are exhibits fully designed before being built? How much room is there for improvisation?

What’s the approval process for exhibits? Who signs off before they can build?

What’s a typical schedule for exhibits? How far out are they thinking about projects?

Talking to curators

What are they trying to collect right now? How are they going about it?

What collections or artifacts do they have an eye on for future acquisition?

What is the process for proposing an exhibition and reviewing exhibition proposals for approval?

How much does it cost to stage a typical exhibition at your institution?

How much time do they spend working on different parts of their jobs: collections, exhibitions, research?

How much contact do they have with the public? How much with the general public, how much with collectors or buffs?

Who do they work with inside the museum and outside the museum?

How much time do they spend working with academic experts in their field, with other curators, with collectors?

Talking with educators

What is their role in exhibition development? When do they get involved with new exhibitions?

How has social media changed the outreach work of the museum?

How do they decide what programs to do? How do they evaluate their programs?

How do they think about audiences? What categories, what groups?

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3 Comments

  1. Ms. Greene

    Great set of questions to reference before heading off the the museum. I’ve got plans to share all of these with my class. Thanks for sharing!

  2. marcel simard

    Thank you also for the informations founded here, I will visit a Van Gogh ,exposition in Montreal on November 26th, with elderly students learning English! We are going to enjoy our visit even more with the correct infos collected. Thank you again

  3. Kim Dammers

    This is a useful list of well-thought-out questions. Hopefully educators using it will get a cooperative response from the museums they visit. The odds of getting a good response are increased by prior contact explaining who your group is and what their reasons for visiting are 9Though this does not always work: a colleague and I took a group of tourism majors to a local regional museum with which we had explained who we were and spelled out our specific interests, even adjusting our time and day, only to not be given access to any of the staff members we wanted to see: just tossed into a general tour of the museum).

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