About three months ago I attended a workshop where we examined our ability to tell a history of craft in New Zealand when, in lieu of published resources, we often have to use exhibitions as our source material for research. Hosted by Damian Skinner, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai, Karl Chitham, and visiting Seattle-based curator Namita Gupta Wiggers, participants were invited to present a short presentation on a chosen exhibition and think about how this could retrospectively shape our understanding of a particular moment in New Zealand craft history. One theme that floated to the surface was the value of "gossip": unfiltered, un-reviewed takes that were nonetheless pretty useful in understanding how a particular movement or event came about. In our relatively close-knit circle of craft practitioners/scholars, this kind of sharing is inevitable. For my own part, my presentation was based on casual conversations held via Facebook Messenger with the curator and gallery programmer of my chosen show. In our industry, we're very careful to rely on thoroughly-vetted primary resources, which is important when producing an authoritative text. But I am also learning that it is critical not to second-guess the value of more "informally acquired" information, which can provide a different kind of insight to that gleaned from a published work.
I thought about this again recently when Tusk fave Courtney Johnston articulated via Twitter something I've suspected for a while: the importance of social media as a learning opportunity:
"Twitter especially has amplified my professional development in ways …I don't think could have happened in the offline world. Every day is a chance to learn through listening & gain from shared knowledge. Everyday is a chance to learn by example from the best in the world & be mentored by heroes (even if they don’t know they’re doing it). It’s remarkable really, and I’ve only recently come to appreciate how this medium & the people on it have supercharged my learning"
This was a refreshing counterpoint to the perception that social media is frivolous and self-absorbed. Sometimes, I don't even feel the need to participate in a conversation, or shouldn't: it's not my place to comment on the personal experiences of a demographic that I'm not a part of. But I'm grateful to those who generously and candidly share their thoughts and feelings - who participate in real-time conversations while the rest of us get to look over their shoulders. An idea expressed in a pithy 140 characters can be just as powerful there as it would be published in a journal article. As Courtney says, we have never before had the opportunity to engage with so many minds and in such a spontaneous way.
Museums are increasingly mindful of their digital offering. Sometimes this can manifest as an eager investment in technology-for-technology's-sake, which doesn't necessarily have the uptake that the institution is aiming for. This is where the cheap and easily accessible tool of social media can be so much more valuable - but with the strong caveat that it must be supported by a person or team who are genuinely invested in the discussion. Some lively korero have been generated by the evening talks held by my own institution (Auckland Museum), and I respect the extent to which our director, Roy Clare, actively participates in these. As a millennial, my perception of how engaged a museum is is shaped by how responsive they are on social media. Understandably, institutions have to be mindful of any communication put into the public sphere - and it's a tricky area to negotiate when the museum is still often seen as an infallible keeper of knowledge. But the beauty of Twitter is that it's not just one voice dominating all others. Through the use of themed hashtags and open-ended questions, museums are well-placed to create a space where opinions are provoked and conversations can take unexpected turns. And for every one person that actively participates in those conversations, there are dozens more just absorbing, and learning.