Shifting Priorities and Heritage Relevancy

The May/June issue of Muse included a number of short pieces focusing on relevancy, visitor engagement, and doing more with less resources.  A short International Council of Museums (ICOM) writeup by Mannon Blanchette hit the issue squarely on the head by noting,”In the face of constant and rapid transformations, museums are trying to meet the important challenge of remaining relevant and effective…”

Heritage organizations across the spectrum are being asked to provide more with fewer financial and physical resources.  Arts and heritage organizations are at times seen as ‘extras’ by communities, individuals, and funding bodies.  Yet, the preservation of our past, the educational value of heritage, and importance of community spaces are all things which museums contribute to communities. 

So how are heritage organizations adapting to changing societal needs and expectations?

  • Building a digital presence.  Using social media and digital collection tools it is possible for heritage organizations to reach potential visitors in new ways.  However, the most effective digital presences are engaging and not merely static websites.  Creating a digital space which invites user participation and encourages online users to visit a physical space requires staff time and commitment.
  • Seeking new sources of funding.  With declining governmental funding many heritage organizations are looking to revamping their funding structures.  This often includes developing a great capacity for fundraising and an emphasis on seeking private donors.
  • Emphasizing community connections.  Providing services to the local community the extend beyond a heritage collection are often part of this.  Initiatives such as participating in Doors Open events, sponsoring a community garden, partnering with other organizations to host events, and bringing heritage outside of the institution through booths and off site outreach programming are all ways which heritage organizations have fostered strong community connections.
  • Social engagement.  Heritage organizations need to be stronger advocates for their needs and in promoting their services and values.  The days of simply waiting for people to visit an institution based on chance are gone.  Active communication with stakeholders, potential visitors, and the community at large are essential.

Red Memory: Residential Schools Exhibit

Tree of emotions

One of the prominent parts of The Learning Place at the TRC National Event in Quebec was the Red Memory exhibit created by the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission.  The exhibit aims to tell the true history of the Indian Residential Schools that existed in Quebec and to provide an understanding of the damages done by Residential Schools.

The exhibit was setup in a conference room of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where the TRC event was taking place.  The conference room was transformed with visual, audio, and textual material to create an  immersive experience which emphasized the lived experience of Residential Schools. 

The layout and mediums used in this exhibit were powerful.  Video and audio were used to complement physical displays and text panels.  The sound of a drum beating could be heard throughout sections of the exhibit and Survivor testimony was playing on a prominent screen. My only complaint about the enhanced features of this exhibit would be that some of the text was displayed in a scrolling red text on a narrow digital screens.  This text was really interesting and the red colour created a contrast against the other portions of the exhibit.  However I found that the scrolling nature of it made it challenging to read.

On of the most powerful sections of the exhibit is a ‘tree of emotions” that was situated near the entrance to the exhibit.  The leaves on the tree were coloured tags which each had an emotion written on it, these emotions reflected feelings of Survivors of Residential Schools. Some positive words such as hope, love, and peace are written in blue.  These blue tags are contrasted with the red words which highlight the violence and cultural harm of residential schools.

Overall the exhibit does a good job of capturing many of the elements associated with the Residential School legacy.  The exhibit is divided into four sections: Separation, Isolation, Homecoming, and Memories. The text and display content for each of these sections is drawn from Survivors and reflects the ongoing impact of Residential Schools.  Red Memory does an excellent job of highlighting the fact that the impact of Residential Schools didn’t end when the children returned home and that many people are still being impacted by the Residential School legacy.

I walked through the exhibit a couple of times throughout the TRC Event, each time there were a number of people taking in the exhibit in silent contemplation.  Everyone I spoke to about the exhibit thought it was well done. A few health support providers did mention that the exhibit had been triggering to some Survivors and that they had decided to establish a health support station inside the exhibit room to ensure that there was easy access to emotional and cultural support for anyone triggered. The inclusion of health support is crucial to this type of exhibit which deals with such an emotional topic.

The Red Memory exhibit was designed as a traveling exhibit for Quebec and upcoming tour plans have this exhibit being hosted at the Native Museum of Mashteuiatsh next.