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!

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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

The weight of decisions

Well,

All of the coordinators have been so busy at all the Campus Calgary Open Minds sites these past few weeks pouring over your applications, letters, and all the interesting material you sent us.

This is always the most difficult part of our year, because we never want to say no to any of you, or your wonderful students. We send many emails, meet in classrooms and coffee shops, send notes, and develop elaborate systems to help us fairly evaluate.

But it’s so hard.

We wish we could have all the classes who apply come to their site of choice; but we know, whether you come or not, Calgary students are lucky to have so many wonderful and creative teachers who will make their 2017-2018 year amazing.

May 1st is decision day. If by chance your proposal isn’t accepted this year, keep applying, keep developing inquiry in your programs, and keep being the wonderful teachers we know you are!

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).

What to write…

Lately when I have been sitting down with the intention to write a blog post I write a few sentences, then I get stuck. Then I stop. Then I add “write a blog post” to the back of my to-do list and go do something else.

It’s been awhile, so I thought I should devote some energy to really thinking about why it’s been hard for me to write. After much more procrastination, three snack breaks, a walk, and two changes of scenery, I think I’m starting to make a little headway.

I think it’s the same reason I don’t like to make art, or write songs, or draft a book… (I’ve rarely/never done these things, I just have an enormous faith in my creative ability – it’s a generational thing)…  It’s because I don’t really think I have anything important to add.

There’s already a million stories, songs, paintings, sculptures, and blog posts. If I’m not confident that whatever I’m putting out there is enriching and unique, what’s the point?

I am eternally baffled with all the pictures and posts on social media, clearly people feel the need to share – and I wonder, do they think the picture of their breakfast has value? What type of value? To whom?

This new world of sharing our ideas and opinions is both fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I love that I can stay connected to friends around the world doing interesting things, or ask someone far away for advice and get feedback immediately. In the museum today I sat in on a class about Blackfoot culture, the presenter Blaire Russell, showed a picture of Deerfoot a runner or message taker – who would run from community to community to share news – my, how things have changed.

But I also think that this new medium is having complex impacts on our culture, and the ways in which we relate to each other. I work a lot with youth, and the high levels of social anxiety they are feeling astound me. At the same time, they communicate freely over the internet, saying and doing things online that they would never dream of saying or doing IRL.

I’ve also noticed that online at least, we’re all becoming quite quick to judge and slow to have sympathy. In some ways I wonder if this is a natural consequence of social justice, and if marginalized folks are finding a voice and using it with a vengeance (fantastic!) But I also notice many of the judgments serve the interests of the status quo. Seeing the internet pounce on people is a terrifying thing, and intuitively I feel that it’s less of an “anonymous” thing with careful critical thought behind it, and more like a knee jerk reaction.

The proliferation of sharing, combined with the threat of enraging the cyber community, makes me extra reluctant to put anything out into the world. Firstly, who am I to think that anything I say or think is important enough for others to read?  Secondly, given that, as well as the threat of millions of haters, why bother?

I subscribe to the idea that art is a passion that is burning to get out of you. I don’t have much of that. Mostly I have “meh.. I guess I could make that.” And I’d rather not fill the world with my mediocre ideas. But I do have some passion, and some types of expertise… as all of us do. I’m in love with the idea that we can share those things with others – maybe blog posts are useful for that, but I’m sure there’s other ways too (I’ve always got the concept of the salon floating around on the back burner in my mind as a viable modern institution).

So I’ll keep posting here – when I feel like I’ve got something to share that I’m passionate about, or that I have an inkling is useful to you, given my particular expertise.

Otherwise I’ll keep my mouth shut and my photos of my breakfast to myself.

Keep posting yours though!

They fascinate me, and I do think they have some type of value and consequence… when I figure that out, I’ll write a blog post about it.

 

 

 

Go ahead and sketch with them

sketch by amanda

Early sketch by Amanda – [not pictured, a dinosaur I drew yesterday that looks exactly the same]

By the time I come into your classrooms to introduce the idea of sketching… it’s not really an introduction. Most students have begun drawing at least a bit, and (hopefully) you’ve been working with them on their sketching too.

But what if you’re not particularly “artistically inclined?”

I’ll be honest, I feel like I hit a plateau in my drawing some time around age 14. I knew how to copy line drawings, but I had no clue how to move into drawing from life, and was worlds away from being able to draw real people (I do however have a very large, yet unimpressive, collection of anime style drawings of myself and all my teenage idols). I didn’t know how to learn more about drawing. I had heard (and said) that practice will make you better – but to be honest, after a certain point, your practice also needs to involve a great deal of reflection and analysis, which I didn’t know how to do.

Getting to that point is like shooting a basketball a million times and still missing the hoop. If you don’t know the technique to improve, you likely won’t.

So practice isn’t just about sitting alone and trying over and over, we are social creatures and we develop skills through the study of others.

I never cared enough that my drawing skills were nothing to brag about at parties, so when I hit that plateau, I just quit.

But – since being in Museum School, I’ve had to dust off those drawing skills. Marnie encouraged me, and told me that if I was getting the students to sketch, then I should be prepared to do it too…and absolutely she was right. I connect best with your students when we’re sitting on the floor sketching together. We wonder together, I stop answering questions, and I start asking them.

I learn a lot from watching your students sketch. Their technique, and their perspective. It has taken me some time to figure out how to crack open a conversation and learn from the students while we draw, and I don’t always get there, but when I do it’s awesome.

The other thing I learned is how to draw better. Literally. I took a class. (Okay – so all of us Calgary Campus Open Minds School folks had a super interesting lesson with Ron Wigglesworth, big thanks to everyone who made that happen). It was really stressful for me, way outside my comfort zone, but I think I learned a lot.

Letting yourself learn is an important activity for teachers. I think that when I am drawing beside your students I am letting myself learn too. It changes the dynamic between us.

I’m not going to try and tell you what I learned at the workshop. All I want to share is that it was good to be together working to improve a skill with others, being open to comments and suggestions, and learning from someone with an inspiring vision and a thoughtful approach.

I don’t really think that being a “good artist” would help me be a better educator. But I do think that the skills of sitting and reflecting, looking in new ways, and being critical of my work (or my impact) do help me be the best self I can be for working with your students. That’s also what I’m asking for from them.

 

I think sketching helps me practice that, and sketching together becomes our common learning experience.  We learn together.

The spambots love their own poetry

We have had the most overwhelming support from our fans (aka spambots) with over 250 replies on our last post.

 

It was a tough competition, but I’ve decided out of all the submissions, this will be the title of the poem:

 

I’ve discovered your October Already?!?  No texting and other evil spirits

 

Hopefully we won’t have any trouble when the folks come knocking with the Griffin Poetry Prize.

Journaling Technique: Found Poetry

Hope everyone is off to a great New Year!

Every week we get tons of comments on our blog posts! Unfortunately, pretty much all of them are from spam bots.

I’ve been meaning to clean out the comments, (New Year, new me right? Cleaning and all that stuff), because they back up in system; we approve them before they’re posted so you folks don’t get bothered by them & only the real comments get shared.

But as I was going through, I started to notice a pattern, and I thought I would use the opportunity to share an example of one of the journaling techniques that I like: Found Poetry.

The Calgary Campus Open Minds journaling book (which I’ve written about before), describes found poetry as a collection of words or phrases that can be picked from other types of communication. They suggest that it’s an ideal way for adults to participate in activities, and that recalling found poetry helps students remember their experiences and explorations. When I go to a classroom to do an outreach session I often suggest that parents or adults in the room use a journal to take notes or write some found poetry.

A found poem can take any structure, the only guideline is that the text comes from your source (say, for example, the students, an advertisement, a museum info panel etc.), and the arrangement of that text comes from you (the writer)

To demonstrate, I’ve made some found poetry from our spam collection.

For some reason, the Bots seem to occasionally pick up page titles and incorporate them into their comments. For reasons unclear to me, they seem to be particularly attracted to one of our incredible Blackfoot Educators Adrian Wolfleg (also previously featured on this blog). I think Adrian is fantastic, and apparently so do some bots, so here is a poem:

 

I decided to leave a message here on your Adrian Wolfleg

They too want to know what all the hype is

and why all those people are following you

 

I discovered your Adrian Wolfleg

Is this really what you want?

Your hard work could earn you more

 

I have been browsing your Adrian Wolfleg

Fascinating stories

Improve your readership now

 

I really like your Adrian Wolfleg

It’s so easy

Please tell me what you think of mine

 

I’d appreciate some help for the title, any bots (or people, I guess… ) out there wanna take a stab at it?