Social media, research and museum curatorship — a concrete example

This post was originally published on the official blog of the International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, held in Manchester 22-28 July, as an appetiser for the paper “Understanding social media in STEM museums: the lessons from establishing a bio-hacking laboratory” that I co-authored with Karin Tybjerg and which Karin presented in the session Using the Web and social media to extend the traditional aims of museums.

There are still lots of skeptical attitudes towards social media among historians and curators of science, technology and medicine. They mainly contain superficial personal conversations and gossip. They may perhaps be useful for public dissemination and institutional branding, but not for serious intellectual exchange. And most importantly, being on social media takes time away from what really matters: research, curatorship, publication, and exhibition making.

These are some of the most common prejudices. However, if you have been immersed in social media for some years, as I have, such opinions are not quite representing what these media can do. In my opinion, it is increasingly difficult to imagine how historians and curators of science, technology and medicine can manage without them.

I started blogging in late 2004 and have produced some 1500 blog posts over the last nine years, on a wide array of themes relating to the representation of contemporary biomedicine in museums (Biomedicine on Display blog and Medical Museion blog).

Since 2010 I have also used Twitter and posted some 4600 tweets under the handle @Museionist, primarily about the historical, philosophical, social (and biographical) aspects of medical science and technology, and about STEM museum exhibitions, collections, and acquisitioning.

Many of these blog posts and tweets have been written in response to postings from other historians/curators and professionals from other relevant fields, and over the years, I have made the same experience as a growing number of people in our field, namely that it is a mistake to think of social media as superficial branding, dissemination or public engagement channels only.

They can of course be used for these purposes. But a sustained presence on social media is, in my experience, first and foremost a very rewarding way of intensifying and widening one’s creative social space, opening up for discussions with a wide range of interlocutors, both inside and outside of one’s narrow professional field.

To illustrate how social media can used for enhancing creative interaction in our field, I will relay my last Twitter exchange with a group of historians of science/medicine and museum curators, on last Saturday.

When I browsed my Twitter stream in the late afternoon (I usually take a quick look three times a day: morning, late afternoon and late evening), I stumbled on this short one by British political cartoonist Adrian Teal (@adeteal), a industrious twitterer with more than 43,000 tweets behind him:

I didn’t know about, even less follow, Adrian Teal, but historian of medicine Jaipreet Virdi — a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology in Toronto whom I follow (@jaivirdi) — apparently did, because it was she who retweeted it.

Yet, her retweet would probably have passed under my radar if it hadn’t been for the fact that I’m currently quite interested in synaesthetics of museum objects and exhibition museum environments. (PhD student Anette Stenslund@stenslund, here at Medical Museion works on the phenomenology of smell, particularly how hospital smellscapes can be transferred to / reproduced in museum spaces, and we are also discussing the possibility of an art-science installation on hospital smell.) So Jaipreet’s retweet of Teal’s musing triggered my critical acumen:

Jaipreet retweeted this to her 824 followers (thanks!) and then replied:

The physiology of smell is something I’ve read up in order to be able to supervise Anette, so I rapidly sent off a tweet about the use of gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy (not mass spectrography, as I wrote in haste) for recording smell:

which Jaipreet immediately retweeted (thanks again!), thus further enhancing my reputation as a sometime chemist — which encouraged me to send off yet another tweet about an alleged new Japanese method for smell recording (which I found in the meantime by googling ‘smell recording’):

followed by third tweet, in which I took issue with the vision-centric assumptions behind Adrian Teal’s original, i.e., why does he assume we would use photography instead of odorography?:

A few minutes later another twitterer and historian of science/medicine chimed in. Nathaniel Comfort of the Johns Hopkins’ Institute for the History of Medicine (@nccomfort) told us he had recently visited a new exhibit at the trendy Parisian experimental art and design center Le Laboratoire:

Being a long-time fan (see here) of  Le Laboratoire’s founder and director David Edwards, a Harvard professor in biomedical engineering with an interest in aerosols, molecular gastronomy, and other smell-generating stuff (we’re working together in the Studiolabscience-art consortium), I quickly replied (still with Jaipreet and Adrian in the loop, of course):

As a good historian of science/medicine, Nathanael was a bit skeptical, however:

After a quick glance at the Ophone website, I had to admit Nathaniel’s skepticism was sound: David Edwards tells us the OPHONET “allows you to send olfactory messages instantaneously around the world.” (I would probably call that a teleodoron rather than ophone, but that’s a linguistic detail). If it works, if only with coffee flavours, it would indeed be revolutionary.

In the meantime, our conversation had been put on track by a real museum curator, David Pantalony (@SciTechCurator), who didn’t let himself be carried away by any futuristic scenarios:
A curator of physical sciences and medicine at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa, David has 701 followers on Twitter and has produced more than 2400 tweets over the last years covering a wide range of topics relating to collection and exhibition curating. (A retweet by David means you reach some 500 curators in the sci and tech museum world!)

David apparently also thought an odorograph of smell would be more interesting than a photographic image, but qualified the discussion by making an analogy between audography and photography:

And Jaipreet seemed to agree that I had been too harsh on Adrian:

Anyway — there’s where we ended a few minutes after eight in the evening.  And Jaipreet summed up:
And I got the idea to use this Saturday evening chat as an example of how Twitter can be used to enhance the interactions between researchers and curators.

I’m not suggesting that this short exchange of tweets is particularly unique or mindbreaking. We didn’t go deep into the subject and we stopped after short number of turns. But it is typical of how social media can be used for professional purposes. In fact, over the last couple of years, I have had several conversations of this kind each month with a wide range of Twitter users, both researchers and curators and other kinds of professionals — some shorter, some longer. Discussions with Rebekah Higgitt(@beckyfh) sometimes extend over 15-25 turns with up to a handfull of interlocutors.

But even if the chat relayed above is pretty mundane, it illustrates some of the experiences a growing number of users of social media for academic and curatorial purposes have made:

  • Social media allow for instant discussion: Within a few minutes Jaipreet, Nathaniel, David and I were engaged in a conversation about a neglected topic (the representation of smell) in the history of STM and STM museums.
  • Social media increase the chances of contacts between researchers and curators considerably: The four of us have never met before, and chances are low we would have had this discussion in a coffee break between conference sessions.
  • You don’t need to travel to meet: You can discuss at length with many people without any travel costs and minimal carbon footprint.
  • It’s informal: You can have a beer or take a bath while discussing serious matters.
  • Twitter breaks down hierarchies: It doesn’t matter who’s a senior professor and who’s a PhD candidate –the best argument creates responses, generates discussion, and increases the number of followers. It also makes turn-taking easier, and breaks down the all too common male domination in seminar discussions.
  • Social media nivellate cultural and linguistic barriers: It doesn’t matter if you speak with a strong accent or master the intricacies of English grammar.
  • Twitter isn’t built for bullshit: The 140 character limit forces you to sharpen and focus your argument.

I don’t suggest Twitter and other social media are substitutes for conference presentations or academic publishing. But they are a most useful complement to these traditional channels for intellectual exchange. That’s the reason why I think Twitter combined with other social media is the best tool we have these days for extending the traditional aims of  science, technology and medical museums.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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