Since 1977, International Museum Day has taken place across the world on, or around, the 18th of May. This day is meant raise public awareness towards some of the daily challenges that museums face and allows members of the public a glimpse into the way a museum operates. Each year the International Council of Museums (ICOM) chooses a theme that it encourages participating museums to work with, and the theme for 2010 was Museums for Social Harmony. According to ICOM’s Theme Statement, museums “are in a position to address the urgent need for safeguarding cultural diversity and bio-diversity as the common heritage of humanity.”
As a student in the MA Public History program at the University of Western Ontario, I’m currently completing an internship in Gatineau, Quebec, at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC). I knew that the museum had some special plans for the day, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to see how the CMC planned to share some typical challenges faced by museums with the general public.
I think that one of the most important things that a museum can do is to facilitate open interaction between the public and museum professionals. I also think that it is the duty of a museum to make itself accessible to the public, and the CMC did an excellent job of this on International Museum Day. Although admission to the museum was not free, visitors had the opportunity to see, and participate in, many special activities that museum staff had prepared. In anticipation for their temporary Horse exhibition, visitors were able to see what an exhibit looks like while it is being constructed. Similarly to this, for visitors who entered Canada Hall and saw the replica of a Montreal jail cell, they were greeted by staff who had set up a large flat screen TV that cycled through photographs of the exhibit area being constructed. Some of these pictures revealed some important aspects of exhibit design, including the process of artifact selection, painting murals on the walls, and construction of a wooden door.
The CMC offered a number of special talks to the public, and the one that I heard was put on by the museum’s archives and library staff. The public was invited into the Canada Pacific Railway exhibit for a talk on how to search the museum’s library and collections online. The staff even had acquired an old gramophone with music on wax cylinders for the public to enjoy. The staff who presented the information on searching the museum’s databases were very knowledgeable and invited guests to ask any questions they could think of. Sure enough, many questions arose, from the preservation of nearly extinct Native American languages, to a simple query on how to navigate the database.
As a student and museum enthusiast, it was very interesting to watch the way that museum staff interacted with everyday people. Before the presentation began, I worried that the presenter would take on a condescending, or perhaps elitist, tone towards the general public in the room. I couldn’t have been more wrong! The material was presented in an easily accessible manner that anyone, regardless of education or preexisting knowledge, could understand. Not once were questions met with condescending answers, and I really think that this will contribute to a positive view of museums and museum staff. From my own experiences, it’s evident that the CMC did an excellent job of catering to their public, something that I think will contribute to lasting interest in the museum.
Tasha DiLoreto is a MA student in the Public History program at the University of Western Ontario, currently interning with the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, QC.