Reading: Interpreting LGBT History At Museums and Historic Sites

Ferentinos-210x300Months ago as part of a National Council on Public History annual conference workshop I received a copy of Susan Ferentinos book Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic SitesI started reading the book months ago but somehow it managed to get lost in my to-read pile until fairly recently.  This book examines queer history in the United States, provides an overview of sexuality and gender studies in the US, includes three case studies on interpreting LGBT history at historic sites, and a lengthy additional reading list for more information.

I learned more than I anticipated in the sections which covered queer history in the US – perhaps partially because queer history touchstone events in Canada follow a different time line and the history of the LGBT movement in Canada has been documented in different ways than the US.  This background section is worth a read if you’re not familiar with queer history in the US. I also really enjoyed the case studies which included in the book – all of which looked at approaches and challenges related to interpreting LGBT history as a public historian.  The case studies looked at queer history in museum spaces, historic houses, and archival settings.  They also touched on the value of integrating queer history in permanent exhibition or interpretation guides vs the inclusion of LGBT materials in special or temporary programming.  For me these case studies where the real value add and the best part of the publication.

This book contains a lot of advice around consultation, community based interpretation, and the need to have institutional and local buy-in to projects relating to LGBT history.  It’s a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about queer history in the US or about successful initiatives relating to the display and discussion of LGBT history in the US.

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

Mining History at Dynamic Earth

As part of my recent visit to Sudbury I spent some time at Dynamic Earth.  I remember years ago visiting Sudbury as a child and I have a vague recollection of going underground as part of that visit. But I haven’t been back to Dynamic Earth as an adult or visited since it received a substantial renovation.

The main floor during my visit featured an exhibit on Megalodon, the largest shark that ever existed.  This was an interesting exhibit that had a number of interactive panels and well researched text, but I struggled with it being at Dynamic Earth.  The content didn’t relate to Sudbury or mining and it seemed out of place.  I think it would have worked better as a special exhibit at Science North, where the focus isn’t as narrow as at Dynamic Earth.

The lower floor of Dynamic Earth has a number of interactive exhibits all focusing on mining.  Visitors can pan for gold, remotely operate mining equipment, and learn about local history.  There is also a large mining themed indoor play area geared explicitly to children.

My favourite part of our visit was the underground tour.  The tour is over an hour long and takes visitors underground to learn about mining from the 1800s to now.  I was surprised by the production values of the tour, they have put a lot of money into interpretation including video screens, special effects, and reconstruction of historical looking mining conditions.

Our tour guide did an excellent job of talking about local history, the impact of social history (women’s rights, workers rights, environmental legislation) on mining, and the technical changes in mining. It was informative but also done in an engaging way that invited questions and was suitable for all ages.  I’d recommend it to anyone interested in learning a bit more about mining, Northern Ontario history, or who is just looking for a fun family outing.

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?

Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the sixth post in a series about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there.  The first post can be viewed here.

Photo credit:

While exploring the waterfront on our first day in Chicago we ended up at Navy Pier.  The flashiness, cheesy feel, and crowded nature of the Pier didn’t appeal to me all that much.  But, there is a quiet hidden gem amongst all the children running around.

Autumn landscape, Tiffany Studio. Credit:

The Smith Museum of Stained Glass features over 180 stained glass windows in the lower level of Festival Hall.  The Museum opened in 2000 and is the first museum in the US dedicated to stained glass windows.  Many of the windows in the collection were originally installed in residential, commercial, and religious buildings in the Chicago area.  The windows range in age from 1870 to present and highlight a range of artistic styles. Some of the more modern pieces include a window created from pop bottles and a portrait of Michael Jordan. A PDF catalogue of the stained glass window collection can be found here

The Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass features prominently within the larger Smith Museum.  The Driehaus Gallery features 13 windows by Louis Comfort Tiffany.  The Tiffany windows are showcased in a dark portion of the Museum and are lit with artificial light.  The visual effect is well done and makes these windows standout amongst the rest of the of the Smith Museum collection.

The Smith Museum was an interesting surprise.  Typically stained class is preserved in religious building or privately owned homes.  Having the collection in such a public tourism place where visitors can walk right up to the glass is unique. I’ve never seen so much stained glass in one place.  The Museum has done a good job of contextualizing each window and preserving the windows in a way that is accessible.   

Canadian History at the ROM

First Peoples Gallery.

As previously mentioned I recently spent a day at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).  One of the aspects that I struggled with during my visit was the sections of the museum devoted to Canada.  The first floor of the ROM contains the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada and the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples.

Both spaces address Canada’s history, material culture, and roots but they do so from very different vantage points.  The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada focuses on Canadian heritage from European settlement to present with emphasis on the role of British and French culture within Canada.  The First Peoples gallery space focuses on the cultures and traditions of Indigenous people in Canada both historically and in present life.  This gallery does contain some examples of the impact of colonialism on Indigenous life but it isn’t a prominent feature of the space.

The disconnected narratives of these two spaces bothered me.  The galleries overlapped in terms of time period but they didn’t tell a cohesive narrative about Canada as a whole. Rather the European side of things was presented and the Indigenous perspective was separated out into it’s own space.  The lives of both groups have been interconnected since contact and both are integral to understanding the history of Canada.

In addition to the lack of cohesion in the narrative I didn’t see any mention of Métis culture or identity.  My cynical side thinks that perhaps Métis culture was left out because it didn’t fit neatly in either the European or First Peoples narrative.  The other half of me hopes that I just missed a display that highlights Métis heritage.

The ROM did involve six Indigenous advisers in design decisions for the First Peoples Gallery. I’d be curious to know how actively involved the advisers were in exhibit design, label creation, and object selection.   The Gallery combines historic and modern artifacts with artwork from Indigenous people. However the flow between material culture objects that are labelled in a Western style and Indigenous artwork isn’t clear.  They are mixed together throughout the exhibit and without reading labels closely it is at times difficult to tell what era items are from.

Despite all of my reservations about the layout and premise behind the separate Canadian galleries there were a number of great items on display and the quality of the individual displays was well done.

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.

Ayumi Goto and Peter Morin Performances and Installation

Re-posted from the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. 
 
As part of the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre’s ongoing critical and creative Healing and Reconciliation through Education programming, the SRSC is pleased to announce new, original performances and installations by visiting artists Peter Morin and Ayumi Goto.

Peter Morin is a 2014 Sobey Award-nominated Tahltan Nation artist, curator and writer. He will present an original performance called escape stories Friday, April 25 at the Art Gallery of Algoma at 3 pm in collaboration with Ayumi Goto. This performance is, in part, related to Morin’s 2012 visit to Algoma University and the site of the former Shingwauk Indian Residential School, as well as his participation in the SRSC-sponsored artist residency Reconsidering Reconciliation held at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, Scewepemc Territory, in August 2013. He recently returned from London, UK, and a series of performances exploring the kidnapping of an Inuk baby and his mother from the land in 1547, which forms the foundation for escape stories. The performance will take place within the Education Gallery at the AGA, which currently houses Why the Caged Bird Sings: Here I Am by Cheryl L’Hirondelle, who similarly participated in visiting artist and residency events put on by the SRSC.

Ayumi Goto is a performance artist based in Kelowna, Okanagan Nation territory. Born in Canada, she draws upon her Japanese heritage to trouble sedimented notions of nation-building, cultural belonging, and structural racism in her creative work. Like Morin and L’Hirondelle, Goto has been engaged with the SRSC and other partners in explorations of the role of art and artist in healing and reconciliation. Over a course of 105 days in 2013, Goto ran 1568.5 km around communities in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario to recognize and pay homage to the Journey of Nishiyuu, in which six young Cree men led by guide Isaac Kawapit, walked from Whapmagoostui, Northern Quebec to Ottawa to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues. She reinforced the walkers’ laborious efforts to bring attention to the Idle No More movement, as well as attempting to transform her own relationship to the land. Her installation at the SRSC, which will open Saturday, April 26 at 7 pm explores this experience through the daily poetic and visual responses she created.

Both Morin’s performance at the AGA and Goto’s installation at the SRSC are open to the public and free for all to attend. Refreshments will be served and the artists will be available for conversations after each event.

Corporate History at the Guinness Storehouse

Brand or corporate museums have never been high on my list of places to visit.  But, while in Dublin I did visit the Guinness Storehouse.  The Storehouse is really more of a corporate museum than a traditional brewery and the visitor experience has more in common with a museum visit than a brewery tour.

Visits to the Storehouse are self guided and well labelled routes direct visitors to displays about Guinness ingredients, the brewing processing, the Guinness family legacy, worldwide distribution, and past advertising campaigns.  Many of the displays had interactive video or audio components and the shear size of the operation was pretty amazing.  

While some of the displays were educational, the whole experience reminded me a bit of the Biff Tannen Museum from the Back to the Future II movie — where the museum is really just a form of promotional advertising.  Given the corporate nature of the attraction I guess I shouldn’t be that surprised.

Made from old wooden Guinness barrels

Despite the corporate undertones there was some neat components of the visit.  Upon arrival in the main atrium visitors get to see the well known 9000 year lease that Arthur Guinness signed for the St. James’s Gate Brewery site.  One floor also contains an optional tasting experience.  During the tasting experience visitors are directed into a room that has four stations of what looks like dry ice (there is billowing white mist everywhere).  The stations turn out to be different Guinness ingredients and visitors are given the opportunity to smell the ‘smoke’ and guess which ingredient is which.  It’s a neat visual experience and if nothing else it’s worth doing just to see how excited children get at the prospect of a room filled with mist.

 
With the price of admission visitors are given the opportunity to ‘cash-in’ their ticket for a pint of Guinness.  Visitors have the choice of their enjoying a pint in the Gravity Bar that overlooks Dublin or learning to pour a ‘perfect’ pint of Guinness in a bar on the fourth floor. 

My partner and I opted to learn to pour a Guinness — it was a fun interactive part of the tour which I’m

View from Gravity Bar

glad we decided to do.  And at the end of the pouring experience everyone receives a slightly cheesy certificate that denotes their ability to pour Guinness.  We still went up to the Gravity Bar at the conclusion of our visit and there was some interesting views of the city.  Popular landmarks and heritage sites are labelled on the glass windows in the Gravity Bar so visitors can tell what they are looking at.  The only downside to the spectacular views was how crowded the small Gravity Bar space was.

The Guinness Storehouse was about what I expected it to be, an interesting experience but definitely not one of my favourites.  The building the Guinness Storehouse is located in part of the original brewery site and is quite old.  But the experience doesn’t really touch on any of the built heritage features of the site and focuses more on the “Yay Guinness” experience.