Historical Reminiscents Podcast EP 55: Community Based Digitization

Web of connections right side reads: "Episode 55: Community based digitiztaion"

In this episode I discuss the recent conclusion of the “Healing and Education Through Digital Access” project undertaken by the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. I talk about community engagement, how not all information wants to be free, and online access.

I would love to hear about your experiences working with community to undertake a digitization project. Leave a comment or send me a message on Twitter.

Mentioned in this episode:
Press release for the Digitized Shingwauk Letter Books
Archival listing of Letter Books
OCAP Principals
Tara Robertson, “Not All Information Wants to be Free: The Case Study of On Our Backs

A huge thank you to my colleague Jenna Lemay who did much of the heavy lifting on this project and who was responsible for developing the metadata for the Letter Books.

Download or listen now:

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian History Classroom

My latest post, written with Skylee-Storm Hogan and Andrea Eidinger for the Activehistory.ca Beyond the Lecture series is up now.

Appropriation vs. Incorporation: Indigenous Content in the Canadian History Classroom” looks how historians can include Indigenous content in post-secondary classrooms, with an emphasis on providing practical steps and resources.

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.

Technology and Highlights of the Art Institute of Chicago

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

When people say you could spend hours at the Art Institute of Chicago they aren’t kidding.  I spent a full day there as part of my trip to Chicago.   Overall I enjoyed the day exploring the galleries. There is a huge range of artwork and themes in the Institute and everyone should be able to find something that interests them.

There are ipad and other technology stations throughout the Art Institute.  However I saw very few of them being used during our visit.  It made me wonder about what type of media and digital interaction is most effective in museums and galleries.  In addition to the technology stations the Art Institute has a free app and open wifi.

Despite loving the possibilities of technology integrated into heritage sites I’ve rarely downloaded apps for the sites I’ve visited.  But while waiting in line for tickets to gain entry to the Art Institute I downloaded their app.  As much as I wanted to love the app I found it a bit awkward to use.  The app offers 50 tours categorized by collections, themes, or time limits.  The apps location feature that showed where you were inside the gallery was well done.  However including more than just the gallery numbers on the maps might have made it more useful.  The app does support some basic searching of the collections.  However this feature is fairly basic and not fully developed.  The app has potential but I still found myself relying more on the paper map and traditional text panels.

The floor plan and layout of the galleries in the Art Institute can be confusing at times.  This is mainly due to the how the Institute developed.  The first permanent building of the Art Institute opened in 1893 and since then eight expansions for gallery and administration space have been undertaken.  The nature of adding additions onto older buildings has resulted in parts of the Institute being disconnected and only accessible by one or two routes.  For example, not all of the galleries on the second floor are accessible from the same stairwell or elevator.  Even with good planning this can add some additional walking to a visit as you often have to loop back to access a gallery that is only accessible from one spot.

Some of my favourite exhibitions from my visit included: Ethel Stein, Master WeaverMargritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938, and the public art section that includes Chagall’s America Windows. An interesting video about the conversation and installation of the Chagall windows can be seen here.

I also found the Indian Art of the Americas gallery interesting. I had assumed that this gallery would focus mainly on First Nation artwork from the United States.  The collection is much more broad in its scope and includes works from both South and North American with a large percentage of the collection being made up of Mesoamerican and Andean ceramics, sculptures, and textiles.

The gallery had more of a museum feel to it focusing on the history of the numerous Indigenous peoples and their traditional practices.  The gallery contained very little from the 1900s and didn’t address current trends in Indigenous artwork.  That being said, the Institute is well known for its Amerindian art and the items on display were well contextualized and highlights a number of cultures.  Though I did wonder how involved (if at all) Indigenous communities have been in collection, display choices,  and interpretation. 

The Art Institute is definitely worth a visit if you’re in Chicago.  If you have a limited amount of time I would recommend doing some research beforehand to map out what you want to see and planning your visit around must sees.  Looking at everything in the Institute in great detail during a single visit simply isn’t possible.

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.

National Archives at NCPH

The final session I attended on Thursday at NCPH was “Competing Narratives, Competing Needs: The Roles and Responsibilities of a National Archive and its Audiences.”  The panel was comprised of staff from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) including: Rebecca Giesbrecht, Jenna Murdock Smith, Jennifer Wilhelm and Katherine Comber as facilitator. 

Giesbrecht began the session by comparing display practices and national concern surrounding Canada’s founding documents with that of the United States.  I wrote about my views on this drastic national difference in 2012 when I made a visit to the NARA in Washington, D.C.  Giesbrecht’s presentation provided a framework of national identity to examine the treatment of ‘founding documents’ by archival bodies and provided insight into LAC’s past and current preservation practices for founding documents.

Following Giesbrecht, Wilhelm discussed the role documents held at LAC have played in relation to the Indian Residential Schools legacy.  Wilhelm also spent considerable time explaining the creation bias and archival bias that impacts the IRS documents held by LAC.  How LAC describes IRS photographs and documents is linked to archival standards, which often results in titles of records reflecting the Euro-centric views of their creators.  Wilhelm also mentioned Project Naming a LAC program designed to identify Inuit in photographs of Canada’s north and LAC’s participation in past Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national events.

The panel concluded with Jenna Murdock Smith looking at the changing archival policies surrounding documents relating to the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat.  The Japanese Canadian Redress was the first instance of an individual compensation process being created in Canada to address historical wrongs.  Smith’s presentation focused on the archival apprasial of case files relating to the Redress.  Early on these case files were considered not of archival value for LAC and slated for destruction, even though these case files contained massive amounts of individual and potentially relevant information.  Smith described the challenges of attempting to find a new home for these records and the ultimate the decision to keep the case files because of a technology failure that lost related information.

This was an interesting panel.  It was great to see staff from LAC engaging with the public history community and sharing their experiences documenting Canada’s ‘official’ past. 

Places of Conversation

This week my work is hosting a number of visiting artists and scholars who specialize in work relating to apology, denial, reconciliation, and Indigenous issues more broadly.  It’s been great to have the opportunity to listen to and talk with individuals who are passionate about their work and who approach historical and contemporary issues in creative ways.

Many of the events being held this week focus on the interaction of students with established practitioners and professionals.  For example, one event involved a print making class having the opportunity to speak with artists who have experience working with historical sources, addressing difficult topics, and Indigenous art practice. The students had the opportunity to participate in discussion in a relaxed, informal environment and interact with people who are well known in their respective artistic fields. 

This event reminded me of the importance of spaces which facilitate open discussion and the joy of having many points of view in one room. In this instance the discussion was help in an archival space and part of the discussion focused on the ethics behind using archival material in artistic, research and curatorial practice. I like the idea of archives being places of conversation, places of educational development and safe spaces for new and established scholars to interact.

Seeing a well known scholar or artist speak at a conference is one thing.  As a young scholar or student asking a question during the presentation might be intimidating, as might approaching the speaker without an introduction.  Having opportunities for students to interact with established professionals in a low pressure environment can be a huge boon in terms of networking, confidence building, and professional growth.

I also think it’s important for academic institutions to open their doors to people outside of the academy.  Some of the visiting scholars this week are from other universities, but some also have their own studio practices or focus on community based work.  Broad community engagement and remembering that there is a big world outside of your own institution (academic or otherwise) have the potential to open new avenues of collaboration.

What type of spaces do you think best encourage conversation amongst new and established professionals? 

Aboriginal Archives and the Division of Community and ‘Professional’ Archives

South Australian Museum, shields

Somebody, somewhere, decided yesterday was (unofficial) Aboriginal Archives Day.  Google failed in finding a definite answer in who was promoting the day, but by the looks of it the University of Manitoba may have started it as an internal event and promoted it via social media; which resulted in a handful of other archives ‘participating’.  A handful of archives and organizations shared resources, collections, and special events via social media.  Some of the highlights include:

I think perhaps the most notable point here is that none of the organizations who shared resources were First Nation or Tribal heritage organizations.  There continues to be a divide between grassroots Indigenous archives and more formalized institutional based archives. 

The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does have a Special Interest Section on Aboriginal Archives (SISAA).  According to the summary on the ACA website, SISAA aims to act as ” an interface between the community of Canadian archivists and Aboriginal communities and organizations and to form a base of expertise, advice, and support on archival issues that can be shared with Aboriginal communities and organizations.”  The most well known example of this is the 2007 SISAA publication of their Aboriginal Archives Guide which serves as an introduction to archival practice for Aboriginal organizations and communities.  

I find the above statement about SISAA unsettling.  The statement speaks of sharing expertise with Aboriginal communities and the separation of the archival community from Aboriginal communities.   Yes, archivists do have expertise, however there is a tremendous amount of knowledge that archivists can also gain from viewing Aboriginal communities as the experts — traditional knowledge, oral traditions, and cultural heritage can provide a breadth of understanding to archivists that can potentially enrich archival collections.  Additionally, Canada’s colonial past and resulting collection with consultation has long been detrimental to the material cultural of Indigenous people in Canada.  Active and equal collaboration has the potential to benefit the archival and Aboriginal communities.

Though perhaps the SISAA is merely attempting to grapple with its current state — very few archivists or archives staff from smaller more community based archives participate in ACA’s annual conference, special interest groups, or membership.  Many of the members of SISAA are archivists who work in more traditional institutions which hold substantial collections created by or relating to Aboriginal people (eg. LAC, provincial and local government archives, HBC, etc).

Smaller resource limited archives tend to be disengaged from the ACA and more broadly the Canadian archival and heritage profession. In the US, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) has worked to engage Tribal based cultural institutions and to provide training and services that are geared to the specific needs of Tribal organizations.  Granted, this still separates Aboriginal heritage organizations and professionals from the rest of the profession, but at least important services are made accessible via ATALM.

In Canada, many archives have worked to established community level collaboration and relationships with Indigenous people.  Currently, these connection just don’t seem to transfer into the national level or the realm of professional associations.  Given the current dismal state of government heritage funding, it seems unlikely that ACA and other professional organizations will change their approaches to Indigenous heritage in the near future. 

Language Preservation and Digital Resources

Recently I’ve been reading and reflecting on numerous facets of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization.  Residential schools, colonialism, and general assimilation practices have all contributed to the loss and endangered states of many Indigenous dialects.  Despite this loss or impending loss there are a number of projects across Canada which are working to record and preserve Indigenous language.

  • The Michif language is the traditional language that was spoken by Métis peoples in Canada.  Like most Indigenous languages there are a variety of regional dialects to Michif, but the most commonly used form of Michif is based on a combination of French and Cree.  It is estimated that there are less than 1000 fluent speakers of Michif alive today.  
    • The Gabriel Dumont Institute has worked to create Michif curriculum for schools and communities.
    • The Dumont Institute has also made a number of audio and video recordings of Michif speakers available online.  A number of these recordings are also accompanied by English transcripts.
    • The Métis Nation of Ontario has also started to gather and promote resources on Michif, including audio and video recordings and a Michif word of the day program. 
  •  The Ojibwe language is the traditional language of over 200,000 people in Canada and the United States, making it one of the more common Indigenous languages in Canada.  Despite this heritage very few youth are taught Ojibwe and the language continues to be endangered.
    • The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary was created by the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.  The Dictionary utilizes content from the Minnesota Historical Society to create a virtual space which highlights audio and video recordings of Ojibwe speakers.  The Dictionary is searchable in English and Ojibwe and highlights historical photographs and documents to provide context to the language material.
    • Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig People Who Speak Anishinaabemowin today.  This resources was created by the University of Michigan and features a number of online lessons, stories, listening exercises, and resources.  The interface is a bit outdated, but is fairly simple to use.
    • There are also immersion programs and formal Ojibwe language instruction programs all across Ojibwe territory.  Locally the College and University where I live offer language instruction, and there are two First Nation run immersion programs.
  • There are also a number of online resources being developed for the preservation of Cree, Oji-Cree, Inuktitut, and other traditional dialects.   
    • The Listening to Our Past website focuses on the preservation of Inuktitut. I wrote about this resource awhile ago on the Active History site. 
    • The Cree Linguistic Atlas combined geography with language learning.  The Atlas includes syllabics, audio recordings, and English translations.

Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity

The Spring/Summer issue of The American Archivist contained a number of thought provoking articles on the representation of disabilities, minorities, and ethnic groups in archives and archival literature.  One of the articles which I found particularly compelling was “Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity : Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs” by Christine N. Paschild. (Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to be inspired by Paschild’s article, Scott Ziegler wrote a review of the article on the Start an Archives! blog.) 

Paschild’s article examines how “postmodern-influced discourse of identity shapes and influences critical analysis of community archives.” The article outlines a number of interesting postmodern theoretical ideas and is rooted in Paschild’s case study of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).  Paschild argues that the language used to describe community archives often results in marginalization, distraction, or politicization of collections.

Throughout her article Paschild advocates for a clearer definition of community and identity.  She maintains that “the definition of community archives must be drafted in necessarily broad stokes to fully encompass all possible identity constructions.” Identity can be constructed in a variety of ways and can mean very different things depending on the individual or community. 

Paschild’s article also got me thinking a lot about self-identification within Canada’s Aboriginal community and how archives develop collection policies relating to Aboriginal communities.  Defining who falls under the description Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, and a myriad of other labels is something that has been long debated in Canada.

The Canadian government has repeatedly attempted to define Aboriginal identity through the use of legislation, the Indian Act, and treaties.  Government definitions of Aboriginal identity have created exclusions and divisions amongst Aboriginal peoples. Additionally, the government definition of Aboriginal identity often does  not a reflect or take into consideration Aboriginal culture, tradition, language, or practices. 

Self-identification allows people who are ‘non-status’, were adopted by a non-indigenous family at a young age, or simply don’t fit the government’s categories, to identify with the community that they see themselves as being a part of.   Granted, self-identification can be a difficult thing to quantify and many people may be reluctant to self-identify in some cases.  However, without taking into consideration self-identification and community based definitions of identity archives seriously limit the material they collect and potentially become increasingly removed from the communities they are aiming to serve.

A broad definition of identity can help archives and heritage organizations be institutions which serve the organizations they aim to represent and collect material for or about.  Community archives and archives which aim to collect information about specific communities need to consciously think about how they are selecting and accepting material based on their definition of identity.  Simply because a conception of community identity is popular or commonly accepted does not mean it is correct or complete.  Community identity can directly impact archival holdings and is something which more archivists should be addressing.