Museumbots: An Appreciation

Museumbots: An Appreciation

Meet the museumbot.

Museumbots tweet random objects from museum collections, four or five objects a day. I know of three museumbots, and I’m sure there are more. @museumbot tweets Metropolitan Museum of Art collections, @cooperhewittbot, and @bklynmuseumbot their eponymous museums’ collections.

Here’s the last few objects from @museumbot, as good a sample as any:


It’s their randomness that makes museumbots so interesting. The two objects to the left are unlikely representatives of the Metropolitan Museum. A belt fragment? A dessert dish? Who knew? And those are not by any means the oddest things. From the past few days: “Preserved Goose in Half of a Wooden Case.” “Mangleboard.”

But these objects are in fact excellent representatives of the Met’s collections, better than the small percentage chosen for display. (Not completely representative, of course: these are objects that have been cataloged and photographed and so there’s already some selection process going on; the really odd and out-of-fashion things are still invisible.) That we think otherwise – the apparent unrepresentativeness of these objects – calls attention to something that’s perhaps not as obvious as it should be to museum visitors: the objects on display are not a random selection from the collection. Rather, they’re carefully selected, to tell a story, or to make a point.

There are five points at which someone at the museum makes a choice that determines what I see when I visit:

  1. What’s offered to, or available for, the museum? What seems, to the public, or to dealers in art and antiques, appropriate for a museum?
  2. What does a curator accept? What fits the collections, or the collecting plan, or upcoming exhibition needs? What can the museum afford? What does it have space for?
  3. What does a curator choose to display? And it’s not just the curator, of course: What does the conservator allow the curator to display? What fits in the space? What exhibits does the director approve? What could the museum raise funds for?
  4. What exhibits do I visit? What looks interesting on the museum map? What do other members of my group want to see? What has the museum PR department advertised?
  5. What catches my attention within that exhibition?

The museumbot calls attention to the necessity of making choices. The vast difference between its random choice and what I see in the museum points out that the choices have been made. True, it only changes from (3) on, but it does an excellent job of making clear the differences between what’s at the museum, and what I see on display.

What if we could design a museumbot for the other choices in this list? Could we tweet random things offered to museums, or turned down, to show the collections choices that curators make? Random things on display, to expand my notion of what areas of the museum I like to visit, or what catches my attention? Random objects in various departments? (That would be especially useful for a museum like the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, where whole collections are orphaned as interests change.) How about a museumbot that pulled objects from museums’ deaccession lists and tweeted them, a @notgoodenoughforthemuseumbot?

brooklynmuseumbotThe randomness of the museumbot calls attention to the choices that we take for granted. And they liven up one’s twitter feed. Just looked @BklynMuseumBot. “Bridge of Delight.” “Head of a Boy.” Who would have guessed?

(With appreciation to @tinysubversions, who wrote @museumbot, and to @backspace, who wrote @BklynMuseumBot and @cooperhewittbot. And to the museums, who have made their collections available for this kind of exploration. Thanks!)

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