Category Archives: History

“Honoring who we are” is rooted in honesty

I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.

I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.

But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.

Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too.  In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.

If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.

This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.

When you come to the museum, expect honesty, and bring your courage (too). It’ll be beautiful, it’ll be surprising, it’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it.

 

Summer School Part One

 

Summer can be a fun time for a museum educator.

Many of our team members go on to interesting projects during the summer months. Some of us use our teaching skills, and go work at places like the Zoo or Spark. Others take up projects in our areas of interest like archeology, anthropology, and local or natural history. Some of us use summer as our time to engage more fully in arts practice, or take classes… one of our educators is working on an MA at Emily Carr in the summers too.

Me? I spent my summer at a small town museum, curating exhibits, writing, text, and exploring the community’s ideas about who they are.

It was an immensely rewarding experience to look at an exhibit in a different way, not as  the deep looking-sketch book holding-class leading-educator. Instead I had to imagine that person, and all the other type of people that could possibly enter that space, and try to create something that would be engaging for them all. A museum is a place for everyone after all.

The most exciting part for me, was getting to know the community. Learning about all the interesting stories, the parts of themselves they hold dear, and the times when their strength of community was tested and needed. It’s these stories that I hope you see when you visit the small town museum too.

But they’re not always obvious. Not all museums in small communities have the opportunity to hire professionals. Many are assembled lovingly by volunteers or local people. These museums often have great stories, but they can be harder to read, because the folks who put them on display know them so well, they forget to give you the details.

So my recommendation? Visit a small town museum near you. Make a day of it. Go get lunch in some small hamlet, explore their sights, and check out their small museum. Bring your sketchbook… take some time to really connect with an artifact or two. Try out a thinking routine, maybe even ask your family to try one along with you too. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret the journey.

 

Places for Understanding Who We Are

In early march, we had a (n actually, not so rare) bit of serendipity at Museum School. As John Ware School was preparing to use the Museum as a place to investigate the connections between citizenship and identity, Glenbow had just opened a contemporary exhibit about artist’s experience of place! The gallery’s pieces, including ‘s Jim Me Yoon’s Regard (which in itself is a reflection of Jim Me Yoon’s moving Group of Sixty Seven), Kimowan Metchewais’ Cold Lake Venus, and Maxwell Bates’ Tourists in Victoria, provided rich opportunities for us to examine national culture, what it means to be Canadian, and how place and identity are related.

If that wasn’t enough, by pure chance, the Glenbow Museum was also selected as a site to host a Citizenship Ceremony on the last day of John Ware student’s visit!

There were a few strokes of luck here, firstly, that everyone at ICC was so very accommodating when we told them we wanted to bring 30 extra people, and their journals, to their ceremony. Secondly, that the students were exactly the special people that they were, because the ceremony was both long and incredibly important; these students fully embraced the need for them to witness, and not detract from the moment for the new Canadians. Thirdly, that their teacher is exactly who she is, because from the moment that we knew we had this amazing opportunity she embraced it, providing scaffolding for the students to understand the ceremony and connecting it to their learning.

Afterwards, the students expressed how surprised they were to see the diversity of the new Canadians, who were of varying ages from very young to senior, and who were from countries across the globe. They also told us how moved they were to watch the expressions of the new Canadians as pride, happiness, and even tears lit across their faces. They were impressed by the seriousness and formality of the event, and noted that when you are living in a culture, it’s hard to identify what makes is unique; but that this was a  Canadian ritual, proof of our distinct culture.

There were several special guests who presided over the ceremony, member of parliament for Calgary Center Kent Herr, Chair of the Glenbow Board of Directors Irfhan A. Rawji, respected Blackfoot Elder Clarence Wolfleg, and author and philosopher John Ralston Saul. We noted the different ways each one welcomed the newcomers based on their own culture and identity, with campaign style speeches, warm personal connections, prayer, and advice.

The highlight for me, was when we finished the week with a sharing circle, sitting under the contemplative eyes of Yoon, and her mother in the Regard works. The portraits told us that there were many meanings to the place we were sitting, and reminded us to be thoughtful about be the people we are, and the place we live.

KHS01482-min KHS01820-min

 

This post was made for the Campus Calgary Open Minds Blog then re-posed here. Head on over there to check out all the interesting things happening at sites around the city!

Some Starting Points for Considering Cultural Appropriation

At our September Pedagogy night, some of you (very bravely) pointed out that sometimes the work we engage with in museums facilitates cultural appropriation. This is a profoundly important issue for museums, and not just because it’s come up in popular culture recently.

For decades, and especially since 1988 in Canada, museums have struggled with voice, and respecting cultures from which collections originate. But the very reason we have some of these collections is because that respect was missing for a significant portion of our history. Only recently have we begun the work of respecting voice, traditional law, and insider views of culture. So, right now we’re all in a bit of a mess together, and it will take some time and some work to figure it all out.

Luckily, the pop culture awareness of this issue has led to some great writing. Here’s a few articles that have some especially helpful thoughts on appropriation. Apologies for the language – understandably, some people are quite upset. I’ve tried to find articles that present a balanced view, but there are some NSFW words (and images) in some of these.

Kim Tran’s  article in Everyday Feminism  

Nadra Kareem Nittle’s article in ThoughtCo

I also want to share Jenni Avins article, which is a bit tone deaf, but I think speaks to some of the confusing ways we navigate our daily lives in a globalized world working through appropriation concerns.

And a follow up to some of Avins’ questions from Julia Brucculieri. I want to point out that these last two authors are representatives of the dominant culture, but Brucculieri cites people most affected by appropriation in her writing. I’m sharing this as an illustration of how Avins article is off base, but is part of a dialogue that we are really still in the thick of.

Lastly I just want to take a minute to say thanks to those of you that are willing to engage with this material. Its frightening in some ways, and it would certainly be easier to just avoid altogether, but we know Museum School teachers see the value of learning about other cultures for your students and we’re grateful for that.

8 Websites to Start Your Year…

Hello!

I thought I would share some links that could help you get your year situated for big picture learning. These are resources that Marnie and I use often, and that we hope are useful – but as always, we’re open to feedback.

The connection between all these sites it that we hope you’ll check them out at the beginning of the year, and if they’re useful, maybe you’ll integrate them into your practice and preparation for the museum.

 Thinking Routines

The purpose of these is just to make it easy for your students to enter into a dialogue with an idea, piece of writing, object, or concept. There’s two enormous sites that have all kinds of thinking routines we like, the Artful Thinking Project from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and an extension of that, the Project Zero webpage.

Museum Culture

Museum News from the Global Museum has all the most interesting world museum news listed regularly.

This website keeps tabs on museums across the globe. It’s new, so there’s still some bugs, but it’s a rabbit hole waiting to happen for sure.

Canada

World renowned for its impact on Indigenous people, and it’s origin story (the network started because peoples of the north took a stand and asked for  programming that reflected their culture and communities), Aboriginal Peoples Television Network has a great website. Contrasting their news section with other stations is always especially interesting. Like everything else in the world.. this channel is not universally liked.

The Virtual Museum of Canada is a great way to understand an exhibit without ever having to leave the classroom. If your students arrive with the understanding that an exhibit is like an overarching idea or story, and the pieces all fit together in some way, and by looking at them together you can learn so much more about each individual artifact… well you won’t even need us.

Glenbow

There are a few Glenbow sites that you might find useful over in the section for teachers. We also really encourage you to have a look at our main website to see our exhibit schedule and stay up to date on the interesting things happening here. If you regularly communicate with parents, you might remind them about our Free First Thursday program if their young folks are itching for another visit after their week.

You may also want to explore our collections. We’ve got a lot of interesting belongings and art here that can certainly supplement your work all year long.

Working to know truth

Some of you folks requested support connecting with resources to teach some of the harder parts of Canadian history in grade appropriate ways. There is just a ton of stuff online at the moment, so please consider this a jumping off point, but I’ve gone hunting of some really stellar resources to get you started..

1. First Nations Child and Family Caring Society’s Spirit Bear

This national organization based on the Squamish First Nation worked towards the betterment of families through research and best practice sharing. They recently developed the Spirit Bear Campaign (a book and a bear with teaching materials), and also have some classroom curriculum guides on their website (I feel they’re a bit dense, and sometimes seem off grade level, but there is so much in each one, and many ideas can be adapted).

2. This Beautiful Map of Indigenous territories worldwide 

This map is still in development, but it’s a great tool to just pull up whenever you’re talking about a place. It helps add history to conversations about place, and reminds us of the layers on the land that stretch back in time.

3. The provincially developed lessons plans 

These have been through several iterations, and much consultation. Some Glenbow folks have helped with this process too. We’d love to know if any of you are using these, or what you think of them.

4. This Book List from CBC

There are a lot of Reading to Reconciliation lists, but many of them don’t have age listings with each book. This list does, bu it’s otherwise a bit sparse. Please add a comment if you know if a better one.

5. Canadian Museum of Human Rights Toolkit

This page has a whole directory of lesson plans that can be searched by grade, subject, province, and language. It’s an excellent resource for all kinds of difficult topics, not just Indigenous subjects.

P.S. – If you’re looking for sources of adult education… Marine recently took a MOOC and I am a near constant reader – we’d be be happy to make recommendations or exchange resources etc.

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.

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.

 

 

 

Book to share

I want to share a book with you…

In the museum school we are very lucky to have a beautiful collection of books. Some have been gifted to us by teachers who have been through the program, others we’ve purchased, some seem to appear out of nowhere… and some seem to be artifacts themselves (hello…cases of books published by Glenbow in the 1970s).

Marine and I are always on the look out for books that fit well with the concepts and ideas that our programs and collections highlight. Each class that comes to visit the museum brings a “big idea” and many of these focus on legacy, local history, and concepts of heritage; so we try to have books that support thinking about these ideas.

We also try to be particular about the types of books we have – recently you may have heard about the conflict surrounding author Joseph Boyden, but controversy over the rights to tell specific stories is not new. One of our Blackfoot Educators Sable Sweetgrass once told me that she attended an actual class on how non-native authors could find and take Native stories to turn them into children’s books for their own personal gain. (Don’t worry, in addition to being an excellent museum educator, Sable is a fierce author and storyteller, I am fairly confident after a discussion with her, none of the people connected with that class would consider making such a mistake EVER AGAIN).  We try to make sure the stories we have here are ones that are told in a good way, by people who have the rights to tell them (this is an important part of the Reconciliation process, and as many scholars and Indigenous people point out – this process will be long, complicated, and messy. There will be missteps and we’re all going to need to try our very best – here and here are some good examples of reconciling work in children’s books).

Sorry – I digress… the story I wanted to share with you is a more commonly known one, it’s a story about Winnie the Pooh.

Let me set the scene for you here… It was a Friday, one of those rare Friday’s where there were no students in the museum school. I dutifully carried myself into work anyways, because there were emails to send and files to work on. But halfway through the morning I was finding it hard to concentrate. When this happens I do one of two things, I take 15 minutes and either go for a walk around the collections and sketch, or I head up to the classroom and read.

I decided to try out one of our Cando seats (note point 4 in the description) which proved to be an awful choice, I have no idea how students can stand those things. The book I picked was an odd one for me. I’ve never really liked the Winnie the Pooh stories (Sorry! I know, to some that’s sacrilege), but I love bears. No I love bears. Ask the authors of local books on bears who mostly all have restraining orders against me (just kidding. But my partner does say that my correspondence with them comes off as a tad bit overzealous).  And the bear on the cover of this Winnie book was just too cute.

 finding winnie

Harry Colebourn’s (the soldier who first befriended the bear) great-grand-daughter writes the book, so the look and feel of the story is a fairly big departure from Disney’s franchise about this bear.

I’m sure most Canadians know the story, and for those that don’t I won’t spoil it here (you can just google that)… but there’s one part in particular that I love. After Winnie is left at the London Zoo, there’s this page…

image1

 “Is that the end?”

“That’s the end of Harry and Winnie’s story,” I said.

“But I don’t want it to be over,” said Cole.

“Sometimes,” I said, “you have to let one story end so the next one can begin.”

“How do you know when that will happen?”

“You don’t,” I said. “Which is why you should always carry on.”

Now – I am a bit of a crybaby (once a day whether I need it or not), but that really had me sobbing. I’m crying again now actually.

It’s just such a beautiful thing to put into a children’s book. It’s real.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of other parts of the book that a less “real” … picture books can be a fairly unrealistic medium – and that’s great! I love the little pictures of the bear curled up under the army cot, and riding on the bow of the ship al la this titanic moment. There’s some other perhaps more problematic un-realness though; the story of Winnie has become a myth in Canadian culture, and seeing the real pictures at the end of the book of a small bear in big chains doesn’t exactly fit the story we like to tell ourselves about the lives of animals in the past (speaking of which… here’s a tragic one for you - I sort of rabbit holed into that one & thought I’d share).

The topics of historic animal human relationships, zoo ethics, myth making, and the flattening of history are important. They are stories that need to be told. Maybe books like this help us lay the foundations to explain these things to our children as they get older and have the framework to better understand them. But for students this age… I think this one simple truth is a valuable one.

It is important to carry on, because you never know what adventures might await.

 

 

 

As long as you’re human. The bear doesn’t fare well in this story – so that certainly says something about privilege and priority… there’s some class metaphor in there as well probably… again… important lessons for the teenage years.

Anyways! It’s a good page, in a complex story, and possibly offers a moment in which both I as the instructor, and your kiddos as students, can learn and reflect together, ultimately as humans.

(not bears).

Perspective & Productivity

Last week the Open Minds school teachers and coordinators met for a little professional development and a lot of new ideas. The theme for the evening was to look at our environments a bit more closely, and watch out for the things that we often miss. This was a great tie in to some of the more general themes of CCOM

The facilitators, those lovely folks who have the privilege of running one of this city’s most creative and engaging educational experiences, sent us all outside. It was an absolutely beautiful night, crisp and cool and a bit nostalgic with the long shadows in the fading light.

Our first mission was to explore on our walk through a particular lens. As we sat around tables in small groups, we discussed and debated and picked a role. One group chose poets, another chose by-law officers, another mathematicians. The idea was to look at our environment from the perspective of a particular role, and see what we might normally miss.

Our second task was to use a particular journaling technique to capture the insights of our new viewpoint. When teachers join the Open Minds School Program they’ve given a fantastic book called “Journey into Journaling” (here’s a description of the book based on the Calgary model, but described by the good folks over at Museum School London). The book describes all types of different tools to capture experiences through journaling. Some of the favorite techniques of teachers at our table were:

The 60 second sketch

(students put as much detail into their picture as they can, but only for 60 seconds, so a lot of the inhibitions of drawing are lost in the rush of time)

 Character creation

(students make up a character that may have used the object or interacted with the environment)

 Sense journaling

(students record senses connected with the object or environment)

My group chose to take our walk through the lens of a psychologist, using the journaling technique of just looking for colors. As soon as we went outside we realized that perhaps we set our own standards a bit high, and after a short discussion we changed our profession to architects (if only it were that easy!) But it was a great lesson; surely we could have done the exercise as psychologists, it wouldn’t have been impossible, it just felt too hard. How lucky that we, as adults, can just change the assignment to suit our needs. I wonder how assignments would change if I gave children the same power.

My big “ah-hah” moment of the night came as I was journaling. Just seeing the Calgary skyline through colors brought me to some interesting thoughts (nationalism, ecological design or the appearance of it, personal glorification, materials, etc.) and I found it interesting to apply a very specific lens to the view. Interesting and perhaps a little embarrassing, as I was drawing the Bow building in my black pen I wrote “Bow building…. Blue”

AH-HAH!!!

Oh boy. How many times have I looked at that building and not made that connection? But we’re not really trained to look deeper are we? (okay okay….I know I’m not really setting the bar very high here).

On our second walk about we were invited to look through whatever lens we wished, we weren’t bound by our group, nor by the facilitators. I get the sense that the second round was a lot more productive for folks, just because after you’ve been restricted, it’s so much more exciting to be free.

On the other hand, freedom does sometimes lead to chaos, and I know some of us likely just stood around and chatted for our last walk…

I think I’ll leave this post right there & head back to the students… thinking about how I can use their time here to be the counterpoint freedom to their lives at school, and how I can make sure that with freedom, they stay productive and make the most of their time together. Maybe I need to re-think what productivity really is…

A wonderful night, lots of learning, and a great opportunity to connect.