Category Archives: Museums

general museum interest

Museum Advocate

Recently I had the incredible opportunity to attend the Museums Advocacy Day in Washington DC. Admittedly, it was an academic exercise and I did very little advocacy for Glenbow with American politicians. What I did do was learn how the American Alliance for Museums  (AAM) advocates for museums, and what museums without patrons are doing to ensure their sustainability. I also spent as much time as possible in actual museums.

Advocacy  Day was so interesting! The premise is that arts and culture organizations are perhaps lacking lobby skills, so the AAM gathers everyone up and tells them how to make a good case for their museum. Some of this year’s key points were the contributions museums make to employment, taxes, and community, and how they are most often endorsed and enjoyed across political lines. The take away for me in terms of advocating for the Canadian museum industry, is that relationships with politicians are key to actually getting things done. The AAM suggested building those relationship with stories to help them understand why your cause matters, and show them how to relate to your museum personally. I definitely felt empowered leaving the meetings, and encouraged that even small folks like me can help impact the minds and decisions of politicians.

And after the meetings… did I ever have fun! For those that haven’t been to DC, it’s basically a museum mecca. The National Mall is a giant park full of museums, monuments, parliament buildings, and of course, the White House. The mall is lined with a ring of Smithsonians, which are the national repositories for many collections. The newest of these is the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It’s so new in fact, that they use timed entry to let folks in. I had to be up and fighting for my ticket at 6:00 AM (lucky it’s an online thing). I’m still sorting through all my feelings about that museum, it was so impactful, but it didn’t help me feel any better at all about the current issues black folks in America are dealing with, so… complicated! My usual go to when I’m feeling muddled is the academic literature, so maybe I’ll write some more when I get there.

Another museum I made it to was the Newseum – which came super highly reviewed. It’s not in the Smithsonian family, so it was quite expensive. But, they know you’ll never get through everything in one day so your ticket is good for two. What I really enjoyed about that museum is how relatable everything was; they did an amazing job of connecting the past and today. Everything felt really personal, and the concepts from the history of news publishing were always connected forward to events from the public memory. The one omission for me was the future of news… which I think is a pretty pressing issue. I’d love to see what the team at Newseum does with that issue.

I also made time for some Historic Houses. I just love the feeling you get when you walk into an artifact. I love the tension between the real history and the restoration – the space between authentic and imagined and how that interacts with your visceral experience (this is also why I love haunted houses).

I dragged my journal everywhere with me, but didn’t really make time to work in it. If anyone has tips about how to get your head out of that “in the moment” and into the “reflection IS in the moment” space, I’d love some help.

Okay – Guess I’m headed back to work!

Memory Sketch

Memory sketching is one of the thinking routines that we recommend getting your students used to before coming to the museum. Basically, you have them look at something, then later, ask them to sketch it.
You can work up to this by giving them an object to sketch, taking it away, and having them sketch immediately. This builds up the skill so students aren’t so intimidated when they’re tasked with drawing something they haven’t seen in a while.
Doing this helps them build skills in pattern and design element recognition. Also it takes some of the pressure off making exact sketches. Like most things we do, it’s helpful for you to lead by doing. Show them your messy abstract drawings of everyday things and they’ll know it’s okay to try.

book photo Journal drawing

Making an impact

Did you know that there have been studies of the long term impact of Open Minds sites? (Maybe I already mentioned it)

Gillian Kydd, who pioneered the program made a video recording of students who participated in Zoo school 7 years earlier. Through that experience we learned some interesting (if slightly anecdotal) things, including:

- Students remember tactile and sensory things (like smells and playing with snow)

-Students don’t often recall programs, or activities that they did. They remember the things they saw more than the tasks they completed

- Upon reflection, the students realized that the experience taught them that there were more ways to learn than the “classroom method” and that these other ways were valid and important

- Each participant shared their intended career path, and attributed that path to something they learned at Zoo School (so the learning is deep, and the lessons are sustained although perhaps not immediately recognizable)

And…

- Students totally forget facilitators, but they have strong memories of their teacher and parents (if they participated) from that time.

This idea is well established in research – emotion and learning are closely connected and student teacher bonds are an important part of student success.

 

But don’t worry – we don’t get down on ourselves because we’re ultimately forgotten! Because for the brief period that your students are here, we know we’ve captured their attention.

Thank you Marnie! from Nakoda AV Club on Vimeo.

 

 

Second Nature

So I said I would start putting more of my journal pages in the blog, and here I am making good on my promise. When the new exhibits went up this fall, I thought I had forever to spend with them. Now that Lawren Harris’ works have gone, DaveandJenn’s The Wellspring has moved on, and Jennifer Wanner’s Second Nature is going dark this week… I can’t help but think I NEED MORE TIME!!!

I did take an afternoon to spend with Wanner’s beautiful images before the holiday started  – and I used one of the classic thinking routines: See Think Wonder. Using three columns, make note first of what you see, then what you think, then what all those combined make you wonder. Seems a bit basic, but once you try it, you get a sense of actually how helpful it is for organizing your thoughts. Or even just moving your observations to a deeper level. Next time you’re standing in front of something and not quite sure how to feel (which, for me is basically all the time), and give it a try in your head.

My sketchbook entry & an example of the thinking routine See Think Wonder

My sketchbook entry & an example of the thinking routine See Think Wonder

This is the last weekend to see Wanner’s haunting and beautiful exhibition Second Nature at Glenbow, so you’ve still got time if you haven’t seen it yet.

 

 

Not that we don’t have some great shows coming up next….

It’s okay to be uncomfortable

My partner and I have an agreement, and it involves me seeing a lot of movies that I really don’t want to see (but in exchange he accompanies me to Haunted Houses, which he hates). This week I found myself at yet another theater watching something I really would have rather watched at home. REALLY. It was the kind of movie where you feel uncomfortable with the content, but also with the laughter of those around you. I just wished I had a journal, a pause button, and a chance to google before deciding if a joke was funny or not. In short, it was a very uncomfortable 103 minutes.

But… that’s okay (and not just because it means next October I get to go to the haunted corn maze again). Sometimes uncomfortable is where you need to be.

In my life, there are not too many places that I go where I feel uncomfortable. I can generally set up my day to avoid things that make me squirm. This isn’t so for many people, and it’s a facet of my privilege that I live life this way.

I used to work for a First Nation. I could always feel the dread welling up in me whenever I knew I’d have to stop at the Gas Bar. At first I just thought it was because I worried that I didn’t belong there. I’m a sensitive person, and I felt that maybe my presence wouldn’t be welcomed in that space. That’s probably partially true, but I think the more relevant reason I didn’t like going there was that I wasn’t used to being a minority. It felt uncomfortable. When I finally put a name to my feeling I understood a little better what folks of color, and others who may be marginalized, might be feeling in situations where they are the minority. They enter those situations a lot more than I do. It was important for me to identify with that type of discomfort, and learn from it.

My discomfort in the movie was more closely related to the discomfort people seem to come across in Museums… the feeling of not being sure how you feel. Art can be controversial, it can be shocking, it performs all sorts of roles and functions. And it can be really uncomfortable not to know what it means, or how you’re supposed to feel about it.

I see that particular kind of discomfort when students look at artifacts from other cultures, or non-representational art for the first time. This discomfort illustrates a gap in our knowledge. It forces us to ask, “What does this mean?” So the discomfort really comes from a place of vulnerability. Not knowing, and not wanting to make a mistake.

During this movie, I sat there, wondering how to feel. Which is not exactly a fun experience, but certainly not a bad one. It forced me to wade around in my own thoughts. To dig through the files in my brain, and to swirl around the puddle of feelings to see if there was any sense I could make. This process, has led me to interesting conversations with my partner and friends. It’s let me to engage with ideas in my own mind, and with others. It’s helped me to grow.

Sometimes it’s alright to be uncomfortable, to let some silence hang in the air if no one seems to have the answer. To let kids grapple. To leave a question unanswered for a while. To put ourselves in positions that we’d be more comfortable avoiding. Ultimately, a little discomfort can lead to… lots of important things.

Blogs are Digital Journals!!

So, every few weeks the Calgary Campus Open Minds team (all the folks who coordinate sites, and all the reps from CBE and CCSD) get together to compare practices, share insights, and conduct a book study. These meetings are inspiring, because we learn about the exciting things happening at other sites, and also because we learn about the tools that other coordinators are using which work well.

Our colleagues over at Zoo school mentioned that they have been sharing their journal entries with teachers, and I had the super obvious revelation that this blog is in fact a digital journal. So I think over the next while, I’ll start interspersing pages from my journal between the more traditional blog entries. Let me know what you think!

 

Journal by Amanda

 

 

The Museum Balancing Act

 

One of the things that you learn in any foundational museum studies course, is the sizable role that P.T. Barnum had on the development of museums, particularly in North America. Depending on the type of museum person you might look back on this part of our past with shame, or enjoy it immensely.

I don’t condone the shady practices; Barnum’s reputation for animal care is rumored to be the original impetus for PETA (just kidding), and his care in purchasing artifacts was downright embarrassing even by historic standards (he had all manner of artifacts with questionable provenance and authenticity). But Barnum forces us to recognize that museums are not purist, objective, academic institutions, they usually need to make money to survive, and they always need to maintain public value. As the great educator Seymour Skinner once said “Every good scientist is half B. F. Skinner and half P. T. Barnum.”

Okay, that’s a complicated statement. But regardless of how you feel about his academic legacy, B. F. Skinner did do some pretty entertaining things… like teach pigeons to play ping pong. (My favorite part of that video is where he claims it’s a “real game”).

I digress… but what I’m trying to say here is that our field has these interesting and divergent origins, one as the lauded ivory vault of knowledge, and another as a cabinet of curiosities; and we’re still sort of dancing between these two worlds today.

When you picture the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you’re meant to imagine that imposing building, all important, and filled with facts and knowledge. That’s why many museums are designed the way they are. They’re supposed to be intimidating, it encourages you to believe in, and believe the value of, the stories they tell.

For P.T. Barnum and his ilk (namely the world’s fairs), exhibitions were for the masses. They were entertaining, and often academic rigor was sacrificed for audience engagement (that’s an understatement, and by audience engagement I mostly mean showing things that people would pay money to see). But folks like Barnum understood that in order to be relevant – museums had to be interesting, and there is value in that beyond money for modern institutions as well.

Museums today are nuanced spaces, but still they manage this same complex balance. It’s the tension we experience every time we pick up an artifact in Museum School. Does the artifact have more use in a grade school student’s hands? Or in a credentialed researchers? Does the spark of imagination create value, or is the value inherent and it’s our job to safe guard it? Does this question feel any more important if the artifact in question was made by a people who would like it back? This debate has gravity.

 

 

I am still curious about those cabinets. I’m interested in that part of museum history. If you are too I recommend The Feejee-Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History, Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, and Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums. Don’t those all sound like fun titles?

Fun trivia moment… have you seen the Feejee mermaid in Banff? This one is actually a merman, but it’s the same concept.

It’s a little late for Halloween, but here’s a scare anyways!

W1siZiIsInVwbG9hZHMvcGxhY2VfaW1hZ2VzL2E5YjRlYjg0YjA4MzRhNDQ0NF9TY3JlZW4gU2hvdCAyMDEzLTA0LTE1IGF0IDYuMzIuMDcgUE0ucG5nIl0sWyJwIiwidGh1bWIiLCJ4MzkwPiJdLFsicCIsI

To get back to my point…

The balancing act occurs every day in museums across the world, and I think also in the hearts of the folks who work with artifacts and the people who could benefit from access to them too. The role of museums is debatable, and we do well to debate it often.

Making the making visible – the Black Gold Tapestry

 

If you haven’t heard about it yet… well, you’re about to. The Glenbow just opened a hand full of brand new exhibits (and I mean a handful! Everyone around here has been so busy, building walls, tearing down walls, painting walls… we do a lot with walls here).

One of the most talked about has been the Black Gold Tapestry. A recent Museum School student described it as “basically the history of the whole world but through the idea of oil.” The piece is 67 metres in length – a scale equivalent to two city blocks or the height of a 20-story building. The artist, Sandra Sawatzky, spent an average of eight to ten hours a day – every day – on the project, researching, drawing, planning and embroidering… for nine years! NINE YEARS.

If you’ve ever done any hand embroidery, you know just how much work an undertaking of this size is. I’m currently embroidering my Halloween costume, and frankly I’m even starting to bet against myself that I’ll have it done in time.

black-gold-tapestry-1

This is one of those pieces where the craft really reveals itself in the viewer’s experience. Often on the first day of museum school students will say things like “that’s art?! I could make that” (by the end of the week, that sentiment is long gone, and replaced with a much more reverent “I understand how much work went into that.”) Sometimes the mark of great art is to remove the technical, and allow the viewer to interact directly with the subject – in other words, to make the labor invisible. This definitely isn’t the case with the Black Gold Tapestry. When you view it, you cannot escape the time that the artist spend with her material, and so in addition to the story the work tells, you can also get a direct sense of the story of the person who made it.

Maybe this is why, when Sawatzky popped into museum school last week, the students nearly died. (Not literally, I mean that they nearly died like I did that time I met Fred Penner). It felt to them like meeting a celebrity – not to say that she isn’t, I don’t decide such things – and they were beside themselves with awe.

Personally I’m  curious about the decisions she made, because this is a piece that purports to tell a story about ourselves, but it’s very clearly from Sandra’s own point of view. So at the same time, the Tapestry shows us who Sandra is (through the medium she is ever present) but it attempts to obscure her perspective, by placing the story she tells in historic terms. Some of her decisions around color are particularly revealing, and I could see how some visitors may be shocked by the ways she’s used it. (Shocked may be too polite a word…) I think this is a piece that will certainly ignite debate!

Come check it out and see what you think.

 

 

Museums with a bang!

One question that often comes up with students, particularly after a trip to the Warriors Gallery, is some form of “but do these things still work?”

In most cases, those “things” they’re most concerned about are guns, muskets, and bombs.

Depending on my mood, I have a whole host of answers for them… but the business of making dangerous objects safe in museums in most definitely an ongoing one, as The Rooms Museum in St. John’s Newfoundland found out this week!

Read the story from CBC here.

Basically their staff found a mislabeled box, containing WWII explosives. Apparently that particular problem is common in the region and the law enforcement knew just what to do.

The real answer, that I should be telling the students, is that museums always have a policy and a plan.

 

 

 

Welcome Back!

 

 

Every year in fall we seem to write a post that goes something like… “wow fall again already…” which is partially about us being excited about a new year with you, and partially about us feeling guilty that all our big plans for the blog last year didn’t …. Ahem…. Materialize? (See how I made that objective there – took my own responsibility right out of the mix… museums can be good at that) ;)

Anyways… this year we’re going to try again.

Our aim with this virtual space is really just to share interesting things we’ve come across that we think may be of some use to your journey of your museum school year. But we know that you’re busy people, and we’re busy people, and we just don’t want to waste time putting out information that doesn’t seem useful. So… We’d love your help. Anytime you’ve got an interest in something that you think we could explore, do you mind letting us know? Perhaps an issue you’ve come across in classroom, or a topic you think we might have some knowledge about, or even just something related to arts and culture that you’ve always wanted to know? We won’t blow your cover – feel free to ask questions anonymously. Or on the flip side, maybe you want to be a guest blogger for us? This is a journey that we’re all on together. Just like in your classroom, the more voices that are here the more rich our learning together will be.

Looking forward to trying again this year & welcome back to school to you all!

Amanda