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

Creating Exhibits with Small Budgets

It is fairly common for archives, local heritage groups, historical societies, and small museums to have relatively small budgets (or no budgets) for creating displays.

Everyone likes the ideas of displays and of putting items from the collection into public view, but finding money for this type of work can be challenging.  When I first started creating low cost displays I was fortunate to work with a colleague who was passionate about exhibits and who was infinitely creative in coming up with affordable ways to display material. I learned a lot from her and have been able to reuse some of the display ‘tricks’ she showed me.

I am definitely not a ‘crafty’ person. But I’ve learned a few simple things that can help in creating basic exhibits:

  • A decent printer, cardstock, and basic digital design skills can be a life saver.  Creating labels, small text blocks, and basic signage in-house is often much cheaper than sending things out to a printer. Though doing things in-house does mean you may be limited in size and unable to print large format items.
  • Creating template styling and formatting  that can be used on all your labels can help make your work look uniform.
  • Basic sewing skills can be useful.  Some broadcloth and stuffing can create simple display pillows or props to support small artifacts or books.
  • X-Acto knifes can do a lot.  From creating stands out of coroplast to trimming labels and shaping foam supporting it’s a handy tool to have around.
  • Create things that can be reused or re-purposed for future displays.  Be this signage, stands, or design templates.
  • Purpose built display cases are really expensive.  They might be worth the cost but cheaper alternatives might work when you’re just starting out.  Retail or home display units that are made of glass can often be suitable alternatives.
  • Purchasing a few multipurpose display stands that can be reused can help up the quality of your displays. Things like book cradles, book stands, and basic object stands can be reused again and again.

What are some of your favorite low cost display hints and tips?

Exploring History at the Royal Ontario Museum

ROM.  Photo Credit: It_Paris

I grew up in a rural community that is within commuting distance to Toronto.  Despite this proximity and my love for museums I never visited the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) while living there.  Last week while visiting family in the area I took the opportunity to explore the ROM for the first time. 

Overall my visit was a good but tiring day.  The ROM is huge and by the end of the day I found myself experiencing museum fatigue.  Some of the highlights of my visit were the Samuel European Galleries and the Gallery of Chinese Architecture.

European Gallery.  Credit: Tom Flemming

The Samuel European Galleries walk visitors through changes in decorative arts from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century.  The majority of the displays in this gallery are setup as rooms or vignettes featuring furniture, instruments, textile and other material culture objects.  Many of these rooms were paired with audio elements which allow visitors to listen to period appropriate music while looking at the displays.  For example the Baroque room had an audio element that played classical music from the Baroque period. 

The European Gallery also included the Arms and Armour and the Around 1914: Design in a New Age displays. The Around 1914 exhibit included an interesting mix of material from designers such as Christopher Dresser, Frank Lloyd Wright, Max Laeuger, and Louis Comfort Tiffany.  It was an interesting capstone to the European Galleries focus on material culture and design.

Chinese Tomb. Credit: FHKE

The Gallery of Chinese Architecture contains numerous architectural artifacts including roof tiles, flooring tiles,
building features, and tomb related artifacts. The Architecture gallery space is relatively small and in comparison to the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China which focuses on the broader history and culture of China.  However, the large buildings and tombs in the Architecture section were eye catching and a nice variation to the more frequent displays of pottery, tools, and statues.

In addition to the European Gallery and the Chinese Architecture Gallery I enjoyed the hands on elements integrated into the Gallery of Biodiversity and the Earth’s Treasures exhibit that focused on the history of mining, precious minerals, and gems.  I had no idea either of these galleries existed and was presently surprised by their quality and uniqueness. 

First Nations and Inuit Collaboration In Museums

As my recent post on “Community Engagement in Commemoration” mentioned I’ve been thinking a lot about community involvement in the practices of museums and heritage sites.  The recent issue of Muse contains a short piece, “Redefining First Nations and Inuit Involvement in Exhibit Planning,” by Jameson C. Brant that focuses on similar questions of engagement.

Brant’s writing focuses on This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century a new permanent exhibition at Les Musées De La Civilization in Quebec City.  Brant maintains that the success of This is Our Story comes from the Museum’s practice of consultation and inclusion of First Nation and Inuit people in the exhibit process. She notes, “the messages in this exhibition are fresh and inspiring because they are raw.  The content breaks through the stereotypical barriers that have in the past separated museums from First Peoples.”

The exhibition content was developed over a two year period and saw the museum working with the 11 Aboriginal nations of Quebec.  Consultation meetings were held with representatives from each First Nation and Inuit community as well as various Indigenous organizations. The result was an exhibit that shares the world view of contemporary Aboriginal people.  It showcases every day objects, artwork by Aboriginal artists, and integrates the sounds and stories of communities through audio visual components.

This Is Our Story highlights the importance of approaching exhibits and community collaboration with respect, cultural sensitivity, and patience.  As Brant notes the exhibition planners “have overcome many of the challenges faced by museums today…creating an educational experience that satisfies the demands of varying audiences.  These not only include families, school grounds, tourists as well as the museum’s frequent visitors, but also the First Nations and Inuit people themselves.”

Creating an exhibit that reflects the desire of the community and provides serves the broader community is a huge task and a tremendous feat when done successfully.  It’s great to see museums becoming more aware of the importance of building relations and involving community in all stages of exhibit development.

Books and Built Heritage: Trinity College Dublin

Long Room at Trinity College Dublin

I recently spent two weeks in Ireland.  This trip included a number of visits to museums, historical sites, and natural heritage places.  This post is the first of many recounting my experiences at these heritage spaces.  

One of the things I had been looking forward to prior to my trip to Ireland was visiting Trinity College Dublin and the Book of Kells exhibit there.  The Trinity College campus is beautiful and many of the residences and classroom buildings are great examples of the preservation of built heritage in Dublin.  For example, the Old Library building which houses the Book of Kells exhibit was constructed in the 1800s and much of the interior and exterior remains true to the original construction.

The actual exhibit which leads up to the Book of Kells is fairly interesting.  It focuses broadly on the book making process, scribes, material usage and providing context to the 9th century origins of the Book of Kells.  Though this information was interesting the layout of the “Turning Light into Darkness” exhibit was confusing and didn’t allow for great traffic flow.  Considering the popularity of the Book of Kells I was surprised by how small of an exhibit space is devoted to contextualizing the book.

Following the opportunity to look at a page from the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh, and the Book of Durrow (or similar texts depending on the days rotation) visitors can do up to the Long Room.  I enjoyed this part of the visit much more than the actual Book of Kells exhibit.  The Long Room is a beautiful old library that houses special collection manuscripts.  The Long Room also includes a number of display cases featuring examples from the Trinity College archival collection. 

During the time of my visit the Long Room also included the temporary exhibit, “Preservation & Conservation: What’s That?”  The the public historian and archivist in me loved the fact that these educational panels which explained essential components of the field were on display.  The exhibit explained historical photograph treatments, book bindings, the difference between preservation and conservation, and what type of education you need to enter this field. 

Overall, I enjoyed the visit to Trinity College but the Book of Kells exhibit and display was probably my least favourite part of the experience.  The Long Room and the campus grounds were far less crowded and much more enjoyable.

Culturally Sensitive Heritage: A Case for Health Support

Many heritage institutions broach topics and themes that have the potential to be emotionally difficult for visitors.  The holocaust, wars, slavery, residential schools, and numerous other topics are addressed by heritage organizations across the world.  Physical displays, archival records, and digital material all have the potential to be triggering – especially if the topic being addressed is emotionally sensitive or has a personal connection to patrons.

How do heritage organizations broach collections that contain material which may be considered triggering?  Careful consideration should be put into displays, contextual information, and the general presentation of material.  Ideally organizations will have established policies for handling this type of material and include members from the impacted community in the design process to provide guidance.

In addition to careful display planning many heritage institutions which deal with sensitive material have health support on staff.  Health support workers can have a variety of training, but typically they have some experience in social work or mental health counseling.  Health support can be invaluable for patrons who are triggered by material in a heritage institution.

Even organizations which cannot afford to hire a health support person full-time should look into providing all their front line staff with basic health awareness training.  This training should touch on possible triggers, how to identify people who have been triggered, techniques for approaching and talking to someone who is emotionally triggered, and coping skills for dealing with sensitive information.

Heritage institutions are gateways to the past.  It is crucial that staff are aware that this gateway can open up to memories which are not always pleasant.  History needs to approached respectfully and patron care is essential to respectful presentation of the past. 

Architecture and Heritage Institutions

Resnick Pavilion

Architecture and design can have a huge impact on how a space is used.  This is true in family homes, libraries, art galleries, museums, and buildings of all shapes and sizes.  How space is configured, materials used, the amount of natural light, and numerous other factors impact how visitors perceive a heritage institution.  Architectural features can also enhance or limit display and gallery space.


Architype Review has recently published issues which focus on architecture in libraries, art museums, and performing arts centres.  The architecture featured in these issues varies greatly; some is very modern and innovative while other featured buildings are very simplistic and classical in style.  In addition to providing great images of each structure Architype Review provides descriptive details on the space and its construction.

Some of my favourite featured heritage institutions in Artchitype Review include:

  •   The Safe Haven Library in Thailand.  This library is part of the Safe Haven Orphanage and was built in 2009 using local materials and labour. The structure is fairly simplistic but the building was designed to meet the specific needs to the library.  A great timelapse video which shoes the construction of the library and be seen here.
  • The Lynda and Stewart Resnick Exhibition Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The
    Wild Beast Music Pavilion

    Pavilion is a single-story, 45,000 square foot structure, and is currently the largest purpose-built, naturally lit, open-plan museum space in the world.  The fact that the space is naturally lit and relies upon open space is a very unique feature in the museum world.  

  • The Wild Beast Pavilion in Valencia, CA is a unique recital hall and outdoor performance space.  The space is multipurpose and is used for instruction, enclosed concert space, and open air recital space.  The numerous functions of the space combined with the visually pleasing design is what appealed to me about this particular design.

What are your favourite heritage institutions with unique architecture?

Seasonal Exhibits: Holiday Heritage

It’s that time of year, Christmas merchandise has already started to fill the malls, and the beginning of the commercial holiday season is looming ever closer.  In the heritage field a lot of organizations are beginning to plan and develop exhibits and activities that coincide with the upcoming holidays. 

As a child, one of my favourite holiday related exhibits was put on by the Dufferin County Museum and Archives.  It focused on old toys and games.  I remember thinking it was like seeing a window into the holidays off the past.  A lot of museums and archives use the holiday season to display items from their collection relating to the holidays, winter, and seasonal celebrations.

Many heritage organizations also use the holidays to their advantage by holding fundraisers and seasonal workshops.  Bake sales, wreath making tutorials, Christmas teas, food drives, and craft/art shows are some of the common fundraisers. Heritage house and light tours are also often undertaken during the holiday season.

What are some of your heritage holiday memories? What is your institution doing in preparation for the upcoming holiday season?

Photo Credit: sickofstatistics