Indigenous people want museums to heed TRC’s calls to action

Sophia Reuss recently wrote an article on  how “Indigenous people want museums to heed TRC’s calls to action: Cultural institutions have an important role to play in Canada’s reconciliation process.”  Reuss’ piece looks at the role museums and archives play in caring for and presenting materials relating to Indigenous communities and the need to the heritage field to critically responsd to the TRC Calls to Action.

Reuss’ article incorporates comments from Jay Jones, the current president of the Children of Shingwauk ALumni Association and myself.  Jay and I both discuss the unique history of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and the important of Indigenous community perspectives in managing collections.  Jay and his entire family are an inspiration and I am constantly grateful to be able to work with them through my involvement with the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre.

Indy Behind the Scenes: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Walking Tour

Eiteljorg Museum Sign

Public Domain image.

One of my favourite parts of every NCPH conference is the range of walking tours, museum visits, and behind the scenes tours to local heritage sites that are setup as part of the conference.  This year I participated in a tour of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.

This session included a guided tour through the museum’s gallery space by the curators.  It also included a look at the collection storage space guided by the collections staff.  The tour included a great combination of the museum’s history, challenges, current projects, and a look forward to future gallery plans.

The Etieljorg’s collection has expanded beyond the original donation of material by Harrison Eiteljorg to the museum. However its mission remains deeply connected to Harrison Etieljorg’s initial motivation, “to inspire an appreciation and understanding of the art, history and cultures of the American West and the indigenous peoples of North America.”  I found the first floor of the Etilejorg a bit jarring – I was anticipating a museum focused on Indigenous history and art and was confronted with Euro-centric depictions of the American West, with many of the paintings including racialized representations of Indigenous communities.

The impression of the first floor gallery space was not a good one.  I felt deeply uncomfortable in the space and imagine that this uncomfortable feeling would be much worse for anyone from an Indigenous community.  While walking through this space with Etilejorg space it was good to hear that renovation plans for this gallery space are in process and the museum hopes to improve the juxtaposition of Indigenous worldviews with Euro-centric artists.  One of the curators mentioned a desire to contrast Indigenous artistic representations of self with American West perspectives and the importance of providing more of an Indigenous voice throughout this gallery.  I really hope that this happens and that a critical look is taken at the American West art that is being displayed.

On the other hand I thought the second floor “Mihtohseenionki” (The People’ Place) exhibition space was extremely well done and provided an excellent example of a space that is curated with participation from local Indigenous stakeholders. This space is dedicated to exploring the heritage and present day relatives of the Indigenous people connected to the land now known as Indiana.  I particularlly liked the emphasis on this space of portraying Indigenous communities in the past and the present – of highlighting the fact that there are still vibrant Indigenous communities and culture in Indiana while raising awareness about forcible removable from land, diaspora, and the impacts of colonization.

One of my favourite cases in the “Mihtohseenionki” section was a case the mixed beaded moccasin artifacts with a contemporary art piece done by a local artist.  The art piece was a woven basket done in the traditional style, but it was made of painted printouts of the Land Removal Act, and had painted moccasins illustrating the dispersal of Indigenous communities.  The contrast of a new art piece with more traditional artifacts provided an interesting narrative on looking at the history and relatives of Indigenous communities in a holistic perspective and the need to be aware of the present and future realities of Indigenous people.  Staff indicated that they hope to explore more contrasting perspectives like this in upcoming exhibit revamps.

The other highlight of my visit to the Etieljorg was having an opportunity to see their collections storage space.  Suffice it to say it was downright amazing.  It’s beautifully organized, has great compact shelving, and they create custom boxes for most of their artifacts.  The custom build boxes and supports were really well done and and excellent example of preservation being built into the collection storage procedures.

If you’re ever visiting Indy I recommend taking time to visit the Etieljorg – even if it is just for the second floor gallery space.

The Bushplane Revisited: A Parent’s Perspective

Plane that visitors can climb into.

Example of one of the planes that visitors can climb into.

I’ve written a few times in the past about visiting the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre (locally known as the Bushplane Museum) for non-heritage events, namely for musical performances and a community craft show.  In both cases the admission to the Bushplane was either free or the proceeds when to the performing artist.  Those events were an example of a heritage space renting out their space to generate revenue.

A couple of weekends ago my family and I visited the Bushplane Museum during their regular operating hours as part of their “Family Fun Day.”  In addition to their regular attractions the day included half price admission and a range of additional activities such as a magic show, crafts, community tables, and special guests from the popular kids show Paw Patrol.  Basically it was a day designed to bring more people through the door.  Given the fact that at numerous points throughout the day there was lineup to get in, I think they were definitely successful in that regard.

This visit also marked the first time I visited the Bushplane with a child. My daughter wasn’t terribly interested in all the extra things that were going on as part of the day, but she loved the planes and some of the interactive exhibit pieces in the museum.  The Bushplane has a number of planes that are accessible to visitors and my daughter loved climbing in and out of them, sitting in them, and asking lots of questions about how things worked.  One of the nice things about her enthusiasm around the planes was that it meant it gave me some time to read description labels, check out some of the digital interpretation, and generally just take in the museum.

I’m still adjusting to how your experiences at museum and heritage site visits change when you’re accompanied by a child.  I am also becoming increasing appreciative of museums that do a good job of integrating child appropriate exhibits or special child focused programming into their services.  Having dedicated space for children or children friendly interpretation can be a huge selling point when families are deciding where to visit.  Sometimes this can be hugely elaborate programming but other times simply having colouring station or a touch/feel artifact section can go a long way.

What are some of your favourite examples of family friendly museum programming?

Indigenous Collections Symposium Webinar

The Indigenous Collections Symposium: Promising Practices, Challenging Issues and Changing the System is an initiative through the Ontario Museum Association, Woodland Cultural Centre, and the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at the Six Nations Polytechnic.  The Symposium is going to be held March 23-24, 2017 in Brantford, Ontario.

In-person registration for the event is sold out however it is possible to attend online.  Online registration includes three webinars, streaming of day one of the symposium, and video archives of all presentations.  The Symposium aims to create discussion about the care and interpretation of Indigenous collections and to begin conversations about collaboration and best practices.

Leading up to the conference there will be three webinars:

Museum Perspectives on the Task Force on Museums & First Peoples and the Recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Date: Thursday, February 16, 2017
Time: 12:00pm-1:00pm
Speakers: Trudy Nicks, Senior Curator (Retired), Royal Ontario Museum and Paula Whitlow, Museum Curator, Woodland Cultural Centre

An Introduction to Residential Schools in Ontario: Histories and Interpretation
Date: Friday, February 24, 2017
Time: 12:00pm-1:00pm
Speakers: Amos Key Jr., Director of First Nations Language Program, Woodland Cultural Centre, and Krista McCracken, Archives Supervisor, Arthur A. Wishart Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University

Historic and Contemporary Indigenous Groups in Ontario
Date: March 2017
Speakers: TBC

I’m looking forward to presenting with Amos Key Jr in the “Introduction to Residential Schools in Ontario: Histories and Interpreation” webinar.  Our webinar will cover the history of residential schools in Ontario and also discuss the challenges of displaying and teaching about this history in a heritage setting.  Both Amos and I work at sites which were once residential schools and we’ll be drawing on our respective experiences working with the histories of the Mohawk Institute and the Shingwauk Indian Residential School.

Grant Writing, Precarity and Invisible Labour

GrantsIf you follow me on Twitter you might have seen some of my recent thoughts on grant dependency, percarity, and the impacts on long term planning.  Basically, I’ve been mulling over the implications of grant dependency on heritage labour and our professional communities.  These thoughts we in part inspired a conversation I had recently that involved someone telling me that “It’s a good idea, people will just give us money to work on it.”  That statement set off alarm bells in my head.  It minimized the time, effort, and emotional labour that goes into grant writing.  Grant writing is hard work.  It’s also largely invisible work.  We don’t often talk about the time it takes to write grant applications or the impact grant writing has on workflows, staffing, and long term planning.

Emotional Labour

Grant writing can involve a huge amount of unseen emotional labour.  This is particularly true if not getting a grant means you or a co-worker will be out of a job.  Or if failing to receive a grant means a substantial service drop or that a community need will be unmet.  These factors can add anxiety to grant writing and can also complicate the grant process.  How do you work into a grant a partial staff salary so you can keep someone employed? How do you shape a grant to meet the application requirements while simultaneously making it applicable to your day-to-day work?  Many grants are for project based funding but in the cases of largely grant funded organizations those grants often end up doing double duty.  They may be for a special project but they also help sustain staffing levels or ongoing programming.

Planning and Grant Writing

How do you make any type of strategic plan if your staff levels, operation costs, and program costs are all grant based and have the potential to change drastically from year to year?  Multi-year funding at times provides some stability and allows for targeted slightly longer term planning. But if every year you’re entering a cycle of grant writing to maintain programming levels it becomes extremely difficult to think about program expansion, new developments, and projects that span multiple years.  It is hard to be innovative and responsive to changing community needs if you’re simply struggling to keep the doors open.

In 2012 when the Canadian Government eliminated the National Archival Development Program funding many archival organizations depended on for operation simply disappeared.  Yes, different funding streams were a possibility for some of those organizations but researching those options and learning new application processes take time.  If a grant your organization has been consistently receiving for years suddenly no longer exists it’s disappearance can cause a major interruption in service and drastically impact service and staff levels.

Unequal Opportunities

As Amanda Hill rightly pointed out on Twitter, the “most well resourced institutions have the most time to put together [grant] applications”.   If you are a lone arranger or a small shop it can be extremely difficult to find the time to put together a quality grant application – especially if you have front line responsibilities that you can’t simply put on the back burner in favour of spending hours writing a grant.

Additionally larger well funded organizations often have access to research offices or other bodies that specialize in grants.  These offices can provide guidance on which grants to apply for and application advice, which is something that can give a leg up to submission succession.  If your organization is heavily reliant on volunteers or has a high staff turnover rate grant applications can become even more difficult.  For example, in 2016 the volunteer driven Arts Council of Sault Ste Marie missed an Ontario Arts Council operating fund grant resulting in the Arts Council’s budget being drastically reduced and services heavily impacted.  Any volunteer driven organization can tell you about the challenges associated with maintaining service level and long term sustainability.  This sustainability can be thrown further into jeopardy if grant funding is an essential part of the organization’s operational funding.

Leaning and Talking About It

How many people received training in grant applications and project management in grad school?  It depends on the program but often grant application processes end up being something that is learned on the job.  If you’re lucky you have a more senior colleague who can help guide you through some of the grant process or bring you into one of their grant applications.  But the chances of that happen vary greatly depending on the type of institution you work in. Grant writing doesn’t just happen.  It take time, skill, and a whole lot of effort.  We need to talk about and acknowledge that effort more.

What are your experiences with grant applications and finding support for grant writing?

Material Voices at the Textile Museum of Canada

Textile

Bas-Relief panel by Hicks for architectural project, currently on display at TMC.

The second museum I decided to visit while in Toronto was the Textile Museum of Canada (TMC).  If you’ve been following this blog for awhile you know I get really exited about seeing textile arts in mainstream museum spaces – so visiting the TMC seemed like a logical way to build on that love.  The TMC is the only museum in Canad that “explores ideas and builds cultural understanding through the universally relevant media of textiles.”  The Museum is also well known for its education and interactive programming.

Unfortunately during my visit they were just in the midst of changing out one of the main exhibit spaces so the amount of content on display was substantially smaller than normal.  The main exhibit that I was able to see was Sheila Hicks: Material Voices.  The exhibition focused on the work of artist Sheila Hicks whose practice ranges from weaving to found object sculptures to large scale architectural installations.

This was a wonderful exhibit that included a wide range of Hick’s work in different mediums.  The exhibition also included a number of audio-visual stations some of which included films focusing on Hick’s practice and others explaining works on display by the exhibition curator.  I found the videos showing Hicks process for some of her large scale installation projects particularly interesting. I also just generally loved her art and her ability to use textiles in so many different ways. The exhibition is open until February 5, 2017 and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in textiles, mixed media art, or installation art.

Exploring Ceramics at the Gardiner Museum

While in Toronto recently I had some time before my flight home, unsurprisingly I used that time to visit bookstores and heritage sites.  I was torn between all the possibilities in Toronto but opted to visit a couple of museums I hadn’t been to before.  The Gardiner Museum located in Toronto is Canada’s national ceramics museum.  Founded in 1984 by George and Helen Gardiner it was originally designed to house their collection of ceramic art.  Since the 1980s the collection has grown substantially and is now viewed as one of the most substantial collections of ceramics in North America.

Ground Floor

The ground floor of the Gardiner includes Modern/Contemporary ceramics, Ancient Americas, Italian Miolica and English Delftware.  There is also currently as small exhibition dedicated to Edmund De Waal and another one to Vimmy Ridge.  My favourite part of this floor was the numerous audio visual stations which included tablets where you could learn about different ceramic techniques, the historical significance of pieces on display, and about the collection more broadly.  I particularly enjoyed a video clip which showed an artist recreating an 18th century puzzle jug.  Puzzle jugs were used for drinking games in pubs and taverns and I found the whole idea and complexity behind them fascinating.  In case anyone else is interested (and because it’s just so cool), I’ve included the video which was created by the Victoria and Albert Museum below:

 Second Floor

Ceramic monkey orchestra

Ceramic monkey orchestra

This floor was dedicated to Japanese and Chinese porcelain and also included a substantial European porcelain gallery.  The narrative and historical context in the European gallery was extremely well done.  It placed ceramics within larger political and social movements.  It also really connected the narrative to the idea of a war of personalities and tangible excitement around the idea of collecting new types and styles of ceramics.  I found myself oddly invested in the text panels and wanting to know how the narrative concluded.  This gallery also included a number of slightly bizarre pieces of ceramics – weird looking cats and a monkey orchestra.  In more than one instance I found myself laughing out loud (and probably looking like a crazy person) at some of the stranger items.

True Nordic

Part of the True Nordic exhibition.

Part of the True Nordic exhibition.

The George R. Gardiner Special Exhibition Gallery is located on the third floor of the Gardiner.  At the moment this space is hosting True Nordic: How Scandinavia Influenced Design in Canada This space was by far the most crowded in the Museum and it was also my least favourite gallery.  The Nordic exhibition focuses on seven decades of Scandinavian influence on Canadian design.  It included ceramics, furniture, glassware, interior design pieces, and textiles.  The exhibition also incorporated a couple of National Film Board clips showing various Canadian artists at work – eg. a family making Nordic inspired ceramic light fixtures. I did really enjoy some of the textile pieces in this gallery – but I love almost any example of textile as art – so that probably isn’t too surprising.

Overall

I would recommend the Gardiner to anyone interested in ceramic art.  It’s not a huge museum and you can easily take it all in a couple of hours.  The gallery spaces were well laid out and had a variety of media incorporated to engage all type of users.  I also noticed that Sundays they do programming specifically geared at bringing children into the museum space which I’m always happy to see.

Indigenous Women Rebuilding A Nation

For the next couple of months my work will be hosting the Archives of Ontario travelling exhibit A Lifetime – Day by Day, Five Women and Their DiariesI booked that particular exhibit with the knowledge that we have lots of material relating to women in the archives that would be excellent to showcase along side the travelling exhibit.  But other than that general idea I hadn’t really started to think about specific content until last month.

When I started speaking with a few people on campus our ideas around a companion exhibit quickly evolved into featuring the lives and work of Indigenous women.  This idea evolved partially out of the fact that the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre preserves a lot of content relating to Indigenous communities and women.  It was also partially inspired by the knowledge that the AO travelling exhibit panels all feature content focused on white pioneer women.  We hope our companion exhibit would help provide a more balanced glimpse at women’s history in Canada.

This week we setup the first display case (below) of our Indigenous Women Rebuilding A Nation companion exhibit.  I feel incredibly lucky to work with such strong and inspiring Indigenous women on a daily basis and to have their help in putting together this initiative.  In addition to this single display case next week we plan on installing a larger exhibit highlighting the Mother Earth Water Walk and the women involved in running the water walks.

Indigenous Women Rebuilding A Nation Display Case

Indigenous Women Rebuilding A Nation Display Case

Juggling Time and People in Heritage Jobs

DSC_1390Years ago I volunteered in the collections department of the Dufferin County Museum and Archives.  I remember being amazed at how well the collections staff handled frequent interruptions that came with working in an open office space and being responsible for a small army of volunteers.  Working in an open office situation or in a position that involves interruptions is something that is fairly common in many heritage positions.  Roles that involve this type of work environment can take some time to get used to and might be something that many new heritage professionals don’t consider when applying for jobs.

You might expect an museum technician, collections manager, or archives tech position to be very focused on the organization’s holdings and not subject to so many external influences.  This is true in some cases.  But many heritage jobs involve multitasking, interacting with people, and sometimes working in the open.  This is particularly true in smaller organizations where one person is responsible for a huge range of activities and might be jumping from cataloging artifacts to answering reference questions.

I like the interaction that comes with working in an open office and I like the fact that it can contribute to working on a wide range of projects and having more interaction with the public.  But it can at times also mean it’s hard to get a chunk of quiet time to work on more detail oriented projects.  Some of the strategies I’ve used to keep on track while working in an open office space include:

  • Being able to select the type of work you’re going to do on any given day can be important.  For example, if you know you’re going to have a day filled with interruptions pick work that is easy to put down and pick back up.
  • I keep a list of ongoing projects broken into specific tasks.  This helps me manage my workload but also is a spot I can leave notes for myself to remind me about project details.
  • Know your working style and try to fit that into your surroundings.  Quiet time in the mornings are very important to me, I often come in a bit earlier than other people so I can have a bit of time to get settled in the morning.  This helps me orient myself for the day and get started in the right mind-frame.
  • Communicating with coworkers can help a lot with finding the right balance of being open and accessible.
  • Earphones are your friend.  For music and white noise. They can also be used as a signal to others not to interrupt you.
  • Having a separate space to take long phone calls or meetings is helpful.  Many organizations that have moved to open offices have found that providing meeting room and conference room space is essential to open offices working long term.

Have you worked in an open office space?  Did you like it? How has office layout impacted your working style?