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.

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.

Serving Time at the Mush Hole

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre at Algoma University is currently hosing the exhibit “Serving Time at The Mush Hole: Visual Testimony of R. G. Miller-Lahiaaks (Mohawk, Six Nations) — Selected works from Mush Hole Remembered (2008).”

In the words of artist R.G. Miller, this exhibit represents “a combination of vague, mundane memories of years at the school, and flashes of horror experienced there. They are the strongest memories I could approach without descending into a place I would not be able to emerge from.”

More details including the opening hours of the exhibit can be seen here.

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. 

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.

Health Support and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The final museum I visited while in DC was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The Museum does an excellent job of approaching a difficult subject in a meaningful and respectful manner. The exhibitions are well contextualized and cover the Nazi rise to power, the final solution, response to the Holocaust, and contemporary forms of genocide. 

This permanent exhibit halls are set up in a way which guides visitors though a very narrow hall and surrounds the visitors with images, video, and artifacts which speak to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the people impacted. I found that this layout had a very successful visual impact but also contributed to congestion at certain points in the exhibit — as the halls were often too narrow to allow people to pass a group that was reflecting on a particular portion of the exhibit. 

I think what shocked me most about the USHMM was the lack of formal health support readily available.  Given the subject matter and the emotional impact of the exhibits, I would have thought health support would have been readily available at every turn in the museum.  This is of particular note given the design of the permanent exhibit halls.  Visitors begin at fourth floor of the museum and are directed downwards through the next two floors of the exhibit, creating a feeling almost of being corralled through the museum.  There is not an easily apparent way for people who are experiencing distress to leave the exhibit hall without going through the rest of the exhibit.

Outside of the main exhibit hall, the Hall of Remembrance on the second floor of the USHMM does provide a safe reflective space for those interested in personal remembrance.  The Children’s Title Wall located on the lower level also provide a place for reflection and a more child friendly atmosphere for learning (the permanent exhibits are not recommended for anyone under the age of 11).

I was also very glad the museum has instituted a no photography policy for the exhibit halls.  This policy helps maintain a sense of respect and remembrance while in the museum.  I think not allowing photography also encourages a more reflective museum visit — instead of focusing on taking photographs to share the experience with others.  My visit to the USHMM was well worth it and inspired a lot of thought about the challenges surrounding the display of materials that can be emotionally and culturally sensitive. 

National Conceptions of History in Museum Settings

Amongst the museums I visited while in DC, my least favourite was The National Museum of American History (NMAH). Upon reflection, it is not that I disliked the content of the museum, I just had a hard time grappling with the national differences of conceptions of history.  I expected a grand narrative style of history in the museum and was confronted with something very different. 

Canada’s national museum system does not include a museum dedicated solely to the history of Canada as a nation, but perhaps the closest would the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  The CMC isn’t solely a national history museum, but it does currently give the most cohesive museum based look into Canada’s past. But, the two institutions are so different comparing them is akin to apples and oranges.

One of the main things I struggled with in the NMAH was the focus on individual great figures.  I found the large overarching history of America was told most frequently through a great man style narrative.  The most prominent exhibits that stick out in my mind as falling under this category include : The American Presidency: A Glorious BurdenLighting a Revolution—Electricity Hall (focused on Edison), and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.  In each of these cases the emphasis tended to be on the individual not on larger historical trends.  

These exhibits also reinforced the extent to which Canadian Prime Ministers and US Presidents exist on very different plains of history in their respective countries.  Prime Ministers are viewed as players in history but Presidents seem to be points around which history revolves.  Presidents are seen as being directly associated (and responsible) for key events and developments, where as Prime Ministers are seen as parts in a larger less individualized narrative.  I’m not sure either interpretation is better than the other.  Rather, the interpretation reflects each country’s unique view of the role of government and the past. 

I also struggled with The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH.  The NMAH website suggests “The First Ladies encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years.”  To be honest, I had a hard time getting past the fact that the prominent items displayed about each Woman were dresses and dishes.  Similarly, the majority of the prominent text panels focused on the First Ladies’ role as hostess, entertainer, and public face.  While walking through the exhibit part of me kept thinking “I wonder if they know that women can wear pants now.”   The exhibit also left me wishing that there was more content in the NMAH about the history of women’s rights and changing roles of women in America. 

Even with these conceptional struggles I did enjoy my visit the NMAH.  I think the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit.  I had never really considered the history of the first flag in America and the exhibit but the exhibit helped put that history into context.  This exhibit was also interesting to see from a curatorial perspective, as the flag is huge making special display considerations necessary. 

How do you see national conceptions of history being explored in museums?

Community Curators and Interpretation: The National Museum of the American Indian

Earlier this week I spent a couple of days immersed in the museums, galleries, archives, and monuments that are located in Washington, DC.  After some reflection, my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was by far the best experience of the trip. I was impressed by the inclusive curatorial practice, the building design, the collections in general, and their interpretive program.

I started my visit on the fourth flour of the NMAI exploring the “Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World” exhibit.  This exhibit looks at traditional spiritual worldviews help by Indigenous peoples from throughout North and South America.  Prior to my visit to the NMAI, I had no idea that the museum included content about all Indigenous peoples of the Americas, it was great to see so many distinct cultures represented.

The setup of the Our Universes exhibit really brought to light the inclusive curatorial practices of the museum.  Each section of the exhibit listed a group of “Community Curators.”  These community curators are people belonging to the culture which is being interpreted and were often noted as elders and cultural leaders in the community.  A staff member I spoke with explained that the community curators worked with NMAI staff to select appropriate artifacts from the museum’s collection and to select methods of display and label wording.  Each section of Our Universes was unique in it’s layout and what aspects of worldview it emphasized, making it clear that each display was tailored to the needs and desires of the group it represented.

In addition to the inclusive curatorial practices of the museum, I was impressed by the how well thought out the design of the NMAI was.  The construction of the NMAI was based on intensive and in-depth consultation with the indigenous peoples the NMAI aims to represent.  Indigenous worldviews influenced many aspects of the construction of a building and landscape.  Some of the key architecture features include an east facing entrance, a dome that opens to the sky, a circular main room, and four elevators representing the four directions.  The gardens and grounds are also considered an extended part of the museum — the gardens include over 27,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants representing 145 species; these species represent a traditional landscape that no longer exists in DC. Forty Grandfather rocks, and four cardinal direction markers have also been placed outside to honour the Native cultures of the north, south, east, and west. 

Collections, exhibits, and design aside, I can’t recommend the NMAI interpretative program enough.  The tour I took was by far the best part of my entire visit to Washington.  The tour I participated in was lead by a man who is from a small Indigenous tribe in Peru.  My guide (Jose) and many other Indigenous peoples from around the Americas now work at the NMAI and work to help patrons understand Indigenous culture.  Jose was well versed on the history of the museum and provided insight into the collections and architecture of the NMAI that I didn’t get from a self guided tour.  He was well versed in the provenance of the artifacts featured in the exhibit we looked at.  He also spoke his own language and played a traditional instrument for our tour group, which made the experience very personal and unique. 

My entire experience at the NMAI highlighted the lack of dedicated museum space in Canada to Indigenous heritage.  The hall of First Peoples in the Canadian Museum of Civilization doesn’t come close to exploring the rich diversity that exists amongst Canada’s Métis, First Nation, and Inuit peoples. Many Canadians have little exposure to Indigenous history in Canada and it would be great to see a space dedicated to make this information more accessible to Canadians. 

Listen Up: Public History the Audio Way

On weekly basis I spend an excessive amount of time in a car (over 10 hours a week).  One of the few upsides of this car time is my listening to talk radio, podcasts, and audio books. Some of the great public history oriented listening material I’ve taken in lately includes:

  • In Their Shoes on CBC’s Ideas program.  This particular Ideas episode focuses on Katherine Govier’s ESL work with immigrant women, and her work on the Shoe Project.   The Shoe Project is a  Bata Shoe Museum exhibit focuses on the shoes that brought immigrants to Canada.
  • NPR’s Fresh Air interview with Craig Timberg.  Timberg is the co-author of the book Tinderbox: How The West Fueled The AIDS Epidemic”  The interview examines the history of AIDS, the impact of colonialism and AIDS in Africa,and recent trends in preventative programs.
  • A recent interview on CBC’s Spark with David McCandless, which focuses on information design.  The interview provides an interesting look at big data and data visualization.
  • Library and Archives Canada recently announced a new podcast series, “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” The first podcast in the series focuses on Project Naming, an initiative to identify persons in photographs of Canada’s North.

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