Active History Museum Theme

Active History Museum Theme week

This week Carly Ciufo and I launched the ActiveHistory.ca museum theme week.  This week was designed to encourage conversation between museum professionals and historians, while highlighting the labour of museum professionals.

It was a pleasure to work with Carly as a co-editor and we are both very please with how the week turned out. A huge thank you to all of our fantastic contributors. Continue reading Active History Museum Theme

Active History Museums Theme Week

Active History Museum Theme Week poster

Carly Cuifo and I are organizing an Active History theme week about museums! I am super excited about this upcoming series of blog posts and thrilled with the responses we have received so far. Details about the theme week are below:

Active History is organizing a 2019 theme week around museums and museums practice.  Modeled after the 2017 Archives Theme Week this series aims to expand the conversation between historians and museum professionals while highlighting the unique work undertaken in museums.

Blog posts are welcomed on a range of topics including (but not limited to):

  • How do museums actually work? — eg. collection development, exhibit development, research, etc.
  • How are museums places of scholarship and research? (This could be theory based or based on an institutional example)
  • How are museums changing their practices to meet the needs of their patrons (either digitally or on site)?
  • Decolonizing museums
  • Case Study examples of community partnerships within museums

Active History posts are between 700 and 1500 words, avoid jargon, use hyperlinks over footnotes, and we encourage the use of images to illustrate posts. We also ask that the style of writing is accessible to a wide audience. Draft posts are due by February 15, 2019.

Questions and pitches can be directed to series editors Krista McCracken and Carly Cuifo at krista.mccracken@gmail.com

The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation

My latest post, The Role of Canada’s Museums and Archives in Reconciliation, can be seen over at activehistory.ca.  The post looks at the TRC executive summary of the final report and calls to action in relation to museums and archives.  The report features 94 recommendations to facilitate reconciliation and address the legacy of residential schools, including a set of recommendations relating specifically to museums and archives.  The calls to action include a focus on access, best practices, commemorative projects, public education, and compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Gerald Richardson – Life Through The Lens

While visiting the Dufferin County Museum and Archives (DCMA) recently I was able to take in the Gerald Richardson – Life Through The Lens exhibit that was in the Silo Gallery.  The exhibit featured many photographs by Richardson that are on loan to the DCMA.

Richardson was from Orangeville, Ontario in Dufferin County and is well known for his photographs of the British Royal family, the Canadian navy, and Canada at war.  Richardson famously photographed the Royal tour of  1939 and 1951.  Richardson started his career as a photographer taking family portraits and went on to serve in the the Royal Canadian Navy as the first Photographic Officer.

The Silo Gallery at the DCMA is named that because it is literally located in the top portion of a silo. The rounded small space has beautiful views of the surrounding area but is challenging as an exhibit space.  Despite the small rounded area I’ve seen a number of successful art, photograph, and print based exhibitions in this space over the years.  The Richardson exhibit did an excellent job of highlighting his connections to Dufferin County, displays some of his more well known works and iconic photographs of the Royal family.  The exhibit had both local, national, and international historical content making it an exhibit which would appeal to most visitors.

Closure of Smith Museum of Stained Glass

During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Revised Prompt: What heritage sites have you discovered this year that you love? Tell us all about them, and why you love them. 

One of my favourite trips this year was to Chicago and included a number of heritage sites.  The built heritage in Chicago is beautiful and I enjoyed learning about how the city developed and the mixture of architecture styles that developed as a result of continuous development after devastating fires in the city.

One of the smallest heritage sites I visited this year was the Smith Museum of Strained Glass Windows in Chicago.  This unique site featured over 150 stained glass windows many of which were originally housed in buildings in Chicago.  I found the contrast of the beautiful old stained glass with the modern, tourist location on Navy Pier particularly striking.

When looking up the link for this post I discovered that in October 2014, two months after my visit, the Smith Museum closed and the stained glass was all boxed up and removed from Navy Pier.  The Pier is undergoing renovations and ‘needed’ the museum space for planned new attractions.  At this point the collection of stained glass does not have a home. There are tentative plans to have some of the works exhibited in public spaces, but no signs of a dedicated space for the entire collection.  The Smith Museum was unique in its location and was the largest exhibition of stained glass in North America, its closure is a huge loss to the heritage and stained glass art community.

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.   

Commodifying Archives

The July/August issue of Muse contains an article by Toni Lin on “The Role of Commodification in Archival Institutions.”  Lin does an excellent job of outlining the perceived pros and cons of commidification and the impact it can have on public access, archival funding, and preservation.

The article concludes that some level of commodification may be necessary for many institutions and can serve as a way to bolster shrinking revenues. Research services, reproduction of archival materials and legal sale of deaccessioned materials can be viable funding supplementation options.

Lin notes that there must be an balance been the need to provide free open access to archives and charging for research or reproduction fees.  She suggests that archival institutions should benefit financially from doing research instead of the money going private researchers.  This isn’t a bad idea — but for many archives adding in-depth research services simply isn’t possible.  Staffing constraints, particularly in smaller institutions, often make offering full research services impossible. 

Digital reproduction and user fees are another way in which archives can recoup or raise funding.  Many institutions have opted to allow users to obtain personal use or research copies of materials free of charge.  This is then balanced by charging for high resolution images, commercial uses, and publication quality prints. At times navigating copyright and privacy legislation can make this reproduction and user fee service more challenging.  And these fees often don’t make a huge amount of money but they do help offset costs.

Overall, Lin’s piece highlights the changing financial landscape facing archives and other heritage organizations.  It is becoming increasingly necessary for organizations to look to new funding sources and ideas.  Commodification and using collections to raise funds isn’t a new idea, but it is one that might gain more prominence as budgets continue to shrink. 

When You Work In A Museum: Museum Dance Off

The When You Work In A Museum site is in the midst of running a Museum Dance Off contest.  The contest features amusing videos put together by museum staff across the globe.  The contest started three weeks ago with entries from 22 museums in 8 countries from 4 continents.

The final round of the Dance Off  features a Canadian museum–the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology with their steam-punk video of “What Does the Pump Say?”  All the entries are worth taking a look at and voting for the final round of videos can be found here. Voting closes at 8am EDT on Tuesday June 17th, 2014.

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.