Chicago Architecture From the River

I recently spent a few days in Chicago, Illinois.  This is the first in a series of posts about the museums, architecture, public gardens, and art I visited while there. 

During my fist full day in Chicago I spent part of the afternoon enjoying the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise.  The 90 minute boat tour featured a journey down the Chicago river and focused on the history and architecture of over 50 buildings in the area.  Some of my favourite buildings on the tour were the Marina City building, 35 East Wacker, and the Civic Opera House.

The Chicago Architecture Foundation (CAF) which operates the tours is an organization dedicated to celebrating and promoting the architecture of the city.  The organization was founded in 1966 in an effort to save the Glessner House from demolition.  This initial initiative brought together Chicago residents from all walks of life and resulted in the founding of the CAF.  Today the organization has over 450 volunteer docents who run tours such as the river cruise. Last year 319,661 people participated in tours put on by CAF.

Marina City Building

The CAF volunteer docents undergo a comprehensive training program and it shows.  Volunteer docents are required to complete a five week class on the fundamentals of Chicago architecture and a four week class specific to the tour they will be running.  More details about the training can be seen here.  The docent of my particular tour was enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and conducted the tour with great professionalism.

Overall the tour was a great mixture of history, architecture, and local anecdotes.  The docent covered the basics of architectural style, talked about influential architects in the city, provided detailed accounts of numerous buildings, and filled in the tour with the history of Chicago. I came away from the tour feeling as though I learned a lot but also had an opportunity to simply enjoy the sights.  Even if you don’t know a ton about built heritage or architecture the tour is engaging and designed to be accessible to the general public. 

Photo credit: Andrew MacKay

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. 

Artifact Meanings and Contextualization

In the museum world, objects are generally described with reference to their designers, or purchasers, or donors…But the whole history of an objects intersects with many other people, who employ many other skills and attach many other meanings.1

The above quotation from Richard Rabinowitz’s article highlights the traditional way that museums tend to display and think about artifacts.  Artifacts are often included in exhibitions with labels about where they were created, who they belonged to, and who donated them.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Provenance allows for the context of an object to come to the forefront and helps tell a specific part of history.  However, Rabinowitz’s statement also rightly points out that artifacts don’t exist in a vacuum.  

Objects are frequently handle by people other than their owners.  For example, the average car comes into contact with an uncountable number of people throughout its existence — the assembly line workers, transporters, the staff at the dealership, mechanics, cleaners, insurance appraisers, junk yard staff, etc. 

In Rabinowitz’s case the inspiration to look beyond the original owners of an object was generated by a lack of artifacts representing the experience of salves in New York.  The possessions of people at the margins have tended to be less likely to end up in museum collections.  The Slavery in New York exhibition included numerous heirloom objects from upper class families accompanied by the text “everything is touched by slavery.”  The point being that household items were polished, cleaned, and maintained by slaves.  Using well known eighteenth century items and re-framing them with contextual research about slavery allows the items to be part of the exhibit in a meaningful way.

In my mind, the whole idea is brilliant.  It allows the hands of those who touched the artifact but aren’t normally associated with it to be exposed.  The example also highlights the importance of curatorial planning, research, and interpretation.  Without interpretation artifacts are just old objects. Interpretation is needed for contextualization, the creation of narratives, and to engage visitors.



1 Richard Rabinowitz, “Eavesdropping at the Well: Interpretive Media in the Slavery in New York Exhibition,” The Public Historian, Vol. 35, No. 3.  

Temporary Exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center

I spent part of last weekend in Traverse City, Michigan.  The Saturday morning of my trip was spent wandering around The Dennos Museum Center located on Northwestern Michigan College campus. My visit was great, the space is well designed and featured a number of interesting visiting and permanent exhibits.

The Dennos was far from busy when I was there. My partner and I were the only visitors for the bulk of the morning, which allowed us to take our time but also contributed to a bit of an eerie feeling to the gallery spaces. The front desk staff were friendly and helpful at explaining the layout of the space and the content of each gallery. Overall, it was a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Tanioka Shigeo, ‘Asuka,’ 2002

The main visiting exhibit at the Dennos right now is “Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art” which explores the use of bamboo as an artistic medium in Japan.  The exhibit is curated by Dr. Andreas Marks, Director and Chief Curator of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, Hanford, California and is visiting a number of art galleries across the United States in the next few years. 

I particularly enjoyed the historical narrative told by Modern Twist. The exhibit included a number of descriptive panels which described the history behind bamboo being used for functional objects and developing into a nationally significant form of sculptural art.  The textual panels also helped illustrate the role that bamboo items have played in traditional Japanese culture and religious ceremonies. Lastly, the exhibit highlighted the national interested in preserving bamboo sculpture art.  Since 1967 six bamboo artists have been declared national treasures in Japan, highlighting the significance of their on a national scale.  In addition to the historically interesting components of this exhibit, the bamboo sculptures were amazing to look at.  The fine detail and variety of techniques was intriguing and awe inspiring. 

Groundcover II (detail), Larry Cressman

The second, smaller temporary exhibit currently on display at the Dennos is Line Work which features Larry Cressman.  This exhibit focuses on Cressman’s installation drawings that use twigs, wire, and other materials to create unique sculpture pieces.  The temporarily of Cressman’s works intrigued me, as many of his installations are temporary ‘drawings’ that are installed in site-specific ways and never replicated. How can temporary art such as Cressman`s be preserved for future generations? Many of Cressman’s exhibits have been photo documented, but much of their presence is in the 3-D nature of their construct and the shadows created by the materials, which can’t be accurately captured by a camera.

The final temporary exhibit on display right now at the Dennos is The Wings of Icarus featuring the work of Rufus Snoddy, a local artist from Traverse City.  The installation consists of suspended “construction paintings” and was inspired by the mythological story of Icarus. This entire exhibit is suspended from the ceiling of the entrance hall to the Dennos.  The effect is visually appealing and does a great job of utilizing a gallery space in a creative way while simultaneously showcasing artwork in an ideal manner.

All three of the current temporary exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center were interesting and thought inspiring in their own ways.  The layouts of the gallery spaces were conducive to display and education.  In addition to these temporary exhibits the permanent Discovery Gallery and Inuit Art Gallery made an impression on me a well and I plan on writing about them in a later post.

Time Capsule History

I was recently listening to a speaker who used time capsules as the introductory hook in his talk.  His description of time capsules focused on finding previously lost historical knowledge, the excitement of opening time capsules and the ability of time capsules to speak about the era they were created in.

The idea of finding a hidden piece of history and bringing it to light reminds me a lot of Indian Jones, treasure hunting and successful archival finds.   But, all I could think of when the speaker was using time capsules as an analogy was how vulnerable materials in poorly constructed time capsules are. 

All things deteriorate with time. Ideal preservation conditions can increase the lifespan of historical documents and artifacts.  But the items enclosed in a time capsule that a grade five class made themselves and buried for future grade five class might not have a great hope of extended survival.  Similarly, the digital mediums today will most likely not be usable in 50 years, making DVDs and CDs placed in time capsules rather useless. 

The time capsule analogy is an interesting one.  But I think it could be more aptly used to describe the fragile nature of human memory, the written word and our conceptions of history.  Our insights into the past are limited by what is left behind — records, artifacts, oral histories, and material culture.  Like a poorly constructed time capsule, aspects of history that we don’t actively aim to preserve often grow dim and fade into dust. 

Similarly, a time capsule only shows a glimpse into an era.  Often the contents of a time capsule are include because they hold significance to the creator of the capsule.  But that significance or an explanation of the context surrounding the item are very rarely included inside the capsule.   The items in a time capsule are like random bits of historical information, they have the potential to be important but without more information it’s hard to tell what their actual value is. 

On the other hand, I remember being very excited as a child about the idea of creating and saving something for future students who might attend the elementary school.  Time capsules are a neat way of engaging the public with the past, they just need to be approached with a bit of knowledge about preservation and history.

Photo Credits: QuesterMark and Jessica Wilson

Archival Advocacy: Canada and Abroad

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the twitter and blog realms about SAA‘s new publication Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives. The publication garnered a heated post on the “You Ought to be Ashamed” blog, this post spurred a charged the twitter debate and number of other blog posts.  See here and here

For those of you who have missed the discussion, it boils down to a criticism of the use of volunteers in place of paid archival staff and a subsequent criticism of SAA’s lack of advocacy for paid archivists positions.  Personally, I see volunteers and students as a great thing, but they do need guidance and proper support from trained staff.  Many organizations couldn’t survive without the hours put in by their volunteers.  But organization also can’t flourish without consistent trained guidance.  I think this issue highlights the need for archives to make the general public, stakeholders and funding organizations more aware of what archives actually do and what specialized skills are held by trained archives staff.

Many people have limited knowledge of what terms like appraisal, processing, arrangement, preservation, etc mean.  As a result archives are often seen as storage rooms for old stuff.  Explaining the value of organization and documentation can be a starting point for introducing archival skill sets to the general public. A lot of misconceptions can begin to be altered through community outreach and active advocacy.

The other point which this discussion highlighted for me was how much more involved and active archival professional organizations seem in the United States.   The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does hold an annual conference, publishes a newsletter and journal, and has a growing social media presence. The ACA also released a number of news bulletins and a letter writing campaign when cuts to Library and Archives Canada were announced.  Despite these efforts, Canadian archivists on a whole just don’t seem to be engaged in national professional dialogues to the same extent as their American counterparts.  Though perhaps I’m just observing the wrong segments of the web– in which case please correct me. 

A number of Canadian archival institutions use twitter and facebook to promote new collections and services.  However these accounts rarely engage on topics related to the archive profession itself. 
Almost all of the prominent individual archives blogs and individual archival users of twitter tend to be from the United States.  Frankly, I can’t see an ACA publication causing such a stir in the Canadian archival community even if it was controversial in nature.

This lack of professional dialogue or national community on the part of Canadian archivists can be disheartening at times.  Canadian archivists are angered when cuts are made to archival funding and tend to rise up in the face of crisis.  But on a daily basis very few archivists are engaging in discussions about how to improve the field or change public perceptions.   Last minute action isn’t always the best method and continuous education, promotion, and outreach has the potential to root out some problems before they begin.

Additional reading:
Adam Crymble’s 2010 Archivaria article, “An Analysis of Twitter and Facebook Use by the Archival Community,” provides a good analysis of the different uses of social media by archival organizations and individual.  Despite the data being from 2009-2010 the conclusions about types of usage and outreach are still very relevant.

Some Canadian Archives Twitter Folks:
@deantiquate
@rgscarter
@allen_heather
@mistydemeo
@ArchivesSarah

Graphic Novels and History Education

What to superheros, anime, and history education have in common? They can all be found in graphic comic format.   Recently a number of publishers, historians, and education professionals have attempted to make lessons of history more tangible.  This has contributed to a variety of history based graphic novels being produced.

This month Renegade Arts and Entertainment released The Loxelys and the War of 1812.  This hardcover graphic novel chronicles the experience of Canadian family living in the Niagara region during the war of 1812.  The family’s experience and the colourful accompanying graphics are framed by actual historical events.  The graphic novel covers bits of perspectives from the American, Canadian, and Indigenous sides.  The target audience is children over the age of ten, making this a more kid friendly than adult oriented publication.  However, The Loxelys have the potential to provide an introduction of the War of 1812 to a wide range of school aged children.

There are graphic novels covering a surprisingly wide range of historical topics. Some of the more interesting novels I’ve come across include:

  • A number of works by Rick Geary focus on history in the 19th and early 20th century.  Geary’s works cover topics such as the assassination of Lincoln, a biography of Trotsky, the Lindbergh kidnapping and number of other topics. 
  • The Age of Bronze series by Eric Shanower.  This series explores the Trojan War via graphic novel at a level that would appeal to youth and with a surprising amount of historical detail.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman.  This graphic novel does a good job of broaching a difficult historical topic, Maus focuses on the experience of Art’s father in concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The comic addresses the Holocaust in a way which is educational, powerful, and appropriate for youth to adults.

Unique User Groups and Heritage Organizations

The users groups of heritage organizations vary greatly from organization to organization.  People who frequent a university archive, a children’s museum, and a local history corner at a public library typically have very different needs.  Providing quality programming depends on heritage institutions knowing their users and gearing specific programming to different types of users. 

One of the unique user groups I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is visitors from outside of Canada.  This group of patrons contains a variety of users but in my case the group is made up of academics from foreign universities, tourists, and international students.

Visiting academics from afar are often undertaking directed research and may require assistance in making the most of their time in the area. Conversely, tourists and international students often know little about the institution or local history.  Tours and basic public programming should be expanded to explain the significance of the heritage held by your institution.  You may also need to incorporate some broader Canadian or regional history into your tour for the information to make sense.

For example, a group of international students receiving a historic site tour of a former residential school may have little understanding of colonialism in Canada.  It would make sense for the tour introduction to include an explanation of the residential school system, the factors that contributed to the creation of such a system, and a general overview of Settler-First Nation relations.  It is also crucial that staff are using language appropriate to the group – using Canadian-ism and jargon isn’t going to be helpful to most international visitors.

Thoughtful planning and tailoring tours to specific groups help enhance visitor experiences.  Feedback from visitors and experimenting with different formats can help you decide what outreach methods work best.

What types of targeted user group programming does your institution offer?

Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon

Knitting, Binary Systems, and History

The work of Kristen Haring, a mathematician and technology historian, delves into significance of binary systems.  A recent Spark interview highlights how binary systems have appeared throughout history and across cultures. What fascinates me about Haring’s work is her efforts to make both math and history physically tangible. For example, she undertook a project to to record messages in morse code through knitting. Women throughout history have placed ‘secret messages’ in textiles and other traditionally women’s work material. Haring’s act of knitting morse code reflects that tradition.

If you’re interested in more connections between knitting and history check out this video of Kristen Haring’s talk “How to Knit a Popular History of Media”

Tale of a Town: History Meets Theater

This morning CBC played a documentary entitled, “Small Time Stories: From the Tale of a Town – Queen Street West.”  The radio documentary was based on the work done to compile the multimedia interactive play Tale of a Town that focuses on the history of the Queen Street West neighbourhood in Toronto.  The radio production provided an interesting look into some of Queen Street West’s more prominent buildings and past residents. 

The premise behind the production is very similar to a historical walking tour.  The show takes the audience on a promenade-style tour of Queen West by a fictional condo developer, which allows theater to be intermingled with built history and local memories of the area.

The idea of incorporating theater into history isn’t anything new –  reenactments and many living history sites have been doing this for years.  However, Tale of a Town attempts to combine theater, oral history, built heritage, local history, and music.  I’m interested to know if similar productions have been undertaken in other cities or venues. 

Photo credit: rachel in wonderland