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.  

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.

Exhibition and Design Skills

I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles.  Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.

Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging.  These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being.  Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:

  • Start small.  Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming.  Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation. 
  • Have a mentor.  Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work.  The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’  That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install. 
  • Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper.  Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place. 
  • Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful.  There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem.  (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core). 
  • Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text. 

If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.

Forgotten Sites: POW Camps in Ontario

Bill Waiser‘s  recent “Parks Prisoners” article in Canada’s History  examined the role POW camps had in the parks system, with a particular emphasis on the impact of POW labour on the western expansion of Canadian parks.

Waiser’s article got me thinking about the existence of POW camps in Ontario during World War II.  Many of these POW work camps existed in Northern Ontario but there are few formal monuments to the camps and few people know of their existence.

Internment camps in Ontario during World War I:

Camp Location
Dates of Operation
Kapuskasing
1914-1920
Kingston
1914-1917
Niagara Falls
1914-1918
Petawawa
1914-1916
Sault Ste Marie
1915-1918
Toronto
1914-1916

Internment camps in Ontario during World War II:

Camp Location
Dates of Operation
Chatham/Fingal
1944-1946
Gravenhurst
1940-1946
Espanola
1940-1943
Mimico
1940-1944
Monteith
1940-1946
Bowmanville
1941-1946
Kingston/Fort Henry
1939-1943
Petawawa
1939-1946
Neys
1941-1946
Angler
1941-1946

For those interested in learning more about a specific camp Library and Archives Canada has a guide to the history of internment camps in Canada. A map of the camp locations and smaller off site work camps can be seen here.

I was surprised by prevalence of camps in remote communities and the use of POWs in lumbering, farming, road building, construction, and pulp mills. A number of the internment camps were located in Northern remote areas or areas in need of labour for development.

Some of the larger camps — Kingston and Petawawa are well known and seen as historical significant.  The Fort Henry Camp in Kingston is a national historic site for it’s role in the war of 1812 and it’s use as an internment camp.

However, many of the more remote camps have little signage (some do have historical plaques) and aren’t immediately recognizable as historic sites.  Many of the sites have been overtaken by nature with little visual evidence of their nature. Perhaps the desire to forget this aspect of Canada’s past has contributed to the lack of public knowledge around Canadian internment camps and the sparse interpretation of these sites.

Art Exhibit Labels

Exhibit labels take way more thought than most visitors realize.  Decisions about design, layout, wording and content all take time and effort.  My most recent challenge has been moving from the creation of museum exhibit labels to the creation of art exhibit labels. 

Though both types of labels serve similar purposes — to inform patrons about the work on display, the style of the labels can very greatly.  Ideally both museum and art labels should link back to the theme of the exhibit and support a general interpretation plan.  Introductory, background, gallery overview, and individual work labels are all common art exhibit label types.

My history background urges me to fill labels with historical context and biographical type details. Cultural and historical context are still important in art labels but so are references to artistic style, technique, process and linkages to the visual works.  Like museum exhibition labels there is always a struggle to include relevant information in a clear, concise, and appealing way. 

Personally I find introduction and gallery overview panels the most difficult, as these tend to be the most text-heavy labels.  When I visit art museums or galleries I like reading overview labels, but I often find that I skim longer labels and by the end of the gallery I have label fatigue.  There needs to be a middle ground between over explaining/labeling items and not providing any context. 

A few resources I’ve found helpful when just beginning to learn about art labeling practices:

Feel free to mention any resources you’ve found helpful in the comments.

Virtual Tourism and Audience Engagement

A recent issue of The Public Historian contained an interesting article, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” by Anne Lindsay.  The article highlighted the ongoing challenges that cultural heritage sites in engage new and diverse audiences.  Lindsay focused on the potential of institutional web presence in the development of audience and donor relationships. 

On a basic level the article highlights the fact that digital content has become an essential and expected part of any guest interface.  Lindsay also argues that websites have the potential to create spaces of engagement and promote different types of educational interaction. 

However, Lindsay does indicate the online tools should be used as “a gateway to a more encompassing educational environment” [1].  Essentially the narratives of online content and physical content should be interconnected.  Historical narratives of particular groups (eg. women, slaves, farmers etc) should not be relegated to purely online content.  Rather, traditional interpretation should be expanded on online and there should be clear linkages between digital and physical experiences. The two platforms can have different content but the essential mission of the heritage site should be reflected in both the online and physical presence.

Lindsay’s focus on virtual narrative and the potential of virtual spaces for education and outreach is reflexive of a general feeling in the cultural heritage field.  Many smaller organizations are struggling to develop digital content and platforms that appeal to changing audience needs.  The technical knowledge and staff time commitment to create a changing web presence (something more than a digital version of a brochure) can be daunting.  The cost vs benefit of any new initiative is always in the forefront of heritage institutions who are facing an uncertain fiscal future, especially when it includes venturing into uncharted territory.

However, increasingly cultural heritage organizations are realizing the importance of digital content and digital engagement.  Countless number of articles, professionals, and organizations are talking up the potential of digital engagement.  There is a whole realm of potential donors and potential “virtual tourists” for organizations to engage on a purely digital platform.  Additionally, digital content has the potential to enrich visitor experience, provide additional educational material, and create learning opportunities that sometimes aren’t feasible onsite.  For example, a seasonal site that closes during the winter can still interact with potential visitors and donors online during the off-season, opening up expanded programming and outreach possibilities.

The path to digital engagement doesn’t happen over night. But low cost options and documentation surrounding planning are becoming  increasingly accessible to organizations of all shapes and sizes.

_____________________
[1] Anne Lindsay, “#VirtualTourist: Embracing Our Audience through Public History Web Experience” The Public Historian 35, no.1 (Winter, 2013) , 77.

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Following my trip to Ottawa for the NCPH conference, I was in Montreal for the Quebec National Truth and Reconciliation Commission event.  While in Montreal I had an opportunity to check out some of the local built heritage and heritage organizations.  Part of a day was spent exploring the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  

Having just visited the National Gallery of Canada a few days prior, it was hard not to make comparisons between the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  Overall, I think I actually liked the Montreal Museum better, the layout, exhibits, and overall feel just tended to sit better with me.

The Montreal facility isn’t as large as the National Gallery, however the exhibit space is still sizable.  I found the layout and flow between exhibits in the Montreal space better (eg. I didn’t end up all turned around in a gallery space with no idea of how to get out, like I did at the National Gallery).  The signage at the Montreal Museum is well placed and helped indicate a clear progression through the exhibits.

I found the mixture of eras at the Montreal Museum well done.  There was a number of galleries that contained modern and contemporary art, contrasted with gallery spaces featuring classical/early international art.  The balance of the the new and older art provided a sense that there was plenty to look at in the museum for everyone regardless of your art preference. I found the balance of gallery content much more evenly dispersed in the Montreal Museum than in the National Gallery.  The early international art collection in the upstairs of the National Gallery seems to go on forever, which though interesting can be overwhelming.

The Montreal Museum also has a substantial Archeology and World Cultures collection.  This collection includes artistic heritage items of numerous origins (Egyptian, Roman, African, Oceanic, Islamic, and Asian, etc).  This collection was displayed according to culture of origin and was well presented.  The variety of items in each exhibit was impressive and most of the items were surprisingly well documented considering their age and acquisition dates.

Overall I had a great visit to this space.  The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has free admission to all of their permanent exhibits. So, if you are in Montreal  have the time I would recommend taking a couple of hours to explore the facility, it’s a great space architecturally and has a lot of visually and historically interesting artwork.

Active, Digital, Public History

Friday morning at NCPH I presented as part of the “Reaching the Public through the Web: The Practice of Digital Active History” panel with Ian Milligan, Devon Elliott, Tom Peace, and Nathan Smith as the facilitator.  I won’t rehash our panel as a lot has already been written to summarize our presentations.  Prior to the conference Ian wrote a great high level summary of our panel.  Following the session Clarissa Ceglio posted her rapid fire notes of the session in google docs and Jim Clifford provided a summary of the Active History panels at NCPH.

 Following our panel I sat in on the “Working Group: Teaching Digital History and New Media” session.  Despite this being a working group session the audience and the working group participants were both involved in the discussion of digital history.  The session participants were broken into three smaller groups for discussion and then reunited for discussion as a larger group.

I felt the session format was interesting but I would have been just as happy hearing some of the working group participants speak about their experiences.  The working group format is ideal for discussions being developed over longer periods of time with sessions being fruits of that discussion–by involving the audience some of that background conversation might have been missed.  That being said, the twitter back channel during this session was full of useful comments about digital history as public history and the teaching of digital history.

My Friday session attendance concluded with the “After the Cuts: The Future of History in Canada” roundtable.  The roundtable featured representatives from prominent Canadian heritage organizations including: Lyle Dick (CHA), Ellen Judd (Canadian Anthropological Society), William Ross (Canadian Archaeological Association), and Loryl MacDonald (Association of Canadian Archivists).  The session was packed and was standing room only.

The participants focused on the impact of recent cuts to government funding and problems communicating with national heritage organizations.  This panel highlighted the widespread concerns professional organizations have with Canadian heritage cuts, the loss of programing, and impending sense of doom surrounding many recent government decisions.  The session was recorded by Sean Graham of History Slam Podcast fame and should be available in some format in the near future.

Cultural Landscapes at NCPH 2013

Tongariro National Park, NZ

Thursday afternoon I attended the “Whose Public? Who speaks for Cultural Landscapes” session at  NCPH featuring Susan Gray, Elizabeth Pishief and Aurelie Gfeller.  This session was a more traditional format with the presenters each reading a formal paper.  The common theme in the session was the preservation of cultural landscapes and the connections that indigenous people have to traditional landscapes.

Pishief spoke about her experience in the development of  land use and cultural landscape policies in New Zealand.  Pishief’s presentation provided insight into the cultural practices of the Maori people and the impact of their beliefs have had on the development heritage discourses.  Perhaps most signficantly, Pishief described the Maori understanding of land as being both material and spiritual and uniquely connected to a sense of place and belonging. This presentation provided food for thought regarding Canadian indigenous conceptions of land and stewardship. 

Gfeller’s presentation was focused on the UNESCO world heritage designation process.  Though this presentation was not focused directly on indigenous conceptions of heritage, Gfeller did explain the roots of UNESCO designation and the difficulties many indigenous communities have getting their cultural landscapes recognized.  Gfeller indicated that indigenous communities are often hampered by the UNESCO application process, the need to apply through formal government channels, and the need to explain non-tangible conceptions of cultural landscapes. 

This panel concluded with Gray’s description of her experience working as an expert witness during litigation surrounding the 1836 Treaty of Washington with an emphasis on the historical and contemporary definitions of settlement.  I found Gray’s discussion of settlement as a European term which is closely linked to the transformation of forest into farms intriguing and appropriate considering the many land disputes that are still occurring in North America. Understanding  language used in original treaty documents is crucial to land dispute resolution.

Overall, I found this panel to contain a lot of interesting ideas about indigenous and settler conceptions of cultural landscapes across international boarders.  The only drawback of the panel was that the format left limited time for audience questions and interaction.

NCPH2013 Thursday WordPress Thoughts

My time at NCPH 2013 actually started on Wednesday.  The majority of my Wednesday activities revolved around networking and talking with new and old colleagues from Western University. Interesting discussions but not really blog post fodder.  As such I’m skipping to Thursday in my run down of this year’s NCPH experience.

WordPress as a Public History Platform
The first session I attended at the conference was on using WordPress in a public history setting, with an emphasis on using WordPress in a classroom setting. A couple of the presenters were sick and unable to attend the session, but Clarissa Ceglio, Jeffrey McClurken, and Erin Bell did an excellent job of leading an interactive panel which invited audience participation.

All three presenters highlighted some of the public history projects they have worked on recently which used WordPress.  Some of my favourite examples included:
Connecticut History site,  using WordPress to re-envision the concept of a state encyclopedia.  I particularly liked Ceglio’s emphasis on this site having an ongoing publishing effort and the fining tuning of WordPress for usability.  Ceglio also spoke about using the WordPress plugin in EditFlow to integrate editorial functions into the WordPress Site. 
UMW Blogs, a great example of  a university buying into the WordPress platform and using it for ‘official’ outreach.  This is also a great example of the possibilities of using WordPress as a multi-user platform. The site also has significant customizations and  for anyone having the misgiving that a WordPress site can’t “look nice” check out the UMW blogs.
The James Farmer Lectures site, a well done student created site that places the recorded lectures of James Farmer online.  The cleanness and effectiveness of this student site is what really won me over.  It’s a great example of the possibilities of students using WordPress.

The Question Session
The presenters in the WordPress session left ample time for audience questions and discussions.  Granted, the session as a whole was cut short because of a fire alarm — but that was clearly beyond their control.

Some of the interesting questions that arose:
-How do you manage the lifespan of a student driven WordPress site? 
McClurken spoke about his experience working with a range of student driven projects.  He indicated that in some cases students freely go back and update content on the site following the conclusion of a class.  There was also the mention of creating a digital repository to archive student sites or the possibility of partnering with an organization to maintain the site.
How much training do your students get when working with WordPress?
The general consensus was fairly limited training.  Most professors indicated that they only provide about half an hour of instruction before letting the students loose.  In this instance McClurken emphasized the importance of students learning by discovering and helping each other — that they should be “uncomfortable but not paralyzed” when learning”
How do you handle site promotion and comments? 
The panelists acknowledged the potential of comment features being a hassle.  However, they also indicated that the experience can be valuable for students.  One compromise that was suggested involved turning on the comments feature for the duration of the class and turning it off afterwards.