Boxes of possibility—and frustration

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Laura Peers

Museum collections are legacies of imperial and colonial histories. The dynamics of those histories mean that much Indigenous material heritage from what is currently called Canada is not held in Canadian museums. Much of this material resides in overseas museums, especially in Britain. This geographic distance complicates the ability of Indigenous peoples to access ancestral items. As many Indigenous mentors have instructed myself and my museum colleagues, ancestral items are not objects; they are imbued with animate spirits or potential. Herman Yellow Old Woman (Siksika) expressed this by saying, “When we come here [to the museum] we pray, we talk to these things you call artifacts. To us they’re not artifacts. They’re live; it’s a living thing” (p. 104). Such items are witnesses to and narratives of Indigenous histories as experienced by community members. Contact with them facilitates healing by strengthening the transfer of knowledge across generations and by sparking the narration of community and family histories. Work with historic collections constitutes a special form of historical research with deep meanings in the present.

As curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum (PRM) at Oxford since 1998, I have explored ways to make collections accessible to Indigenous communities of origin. This has been part of a broader shift in UK curation, one dependent on external research grants: it costs about $5,000 to move one item from the UK to Canada due to specialist crating, insurance, air freight and courier costs. Museums struggle to meet operational expenses—which don’t include loans, overseas research visits or repatriation costs—making external funding a necessity for access projects.

Despite these challenges, UK museums have begun to embrace such work. Online access to photographs and information, 3D digitization, and partnering in online portals to collections have all been part of this work. So has working with Indigenous delegations to UK museums and enhanced loans which include handling opportunities for community members. Such work has begun to improve access and, perhaps more importantly, to develop relationships between museums and Indigenous communities.

Two carved boxes

Figure 1 The Great Box and its child, Pitt Rivers Museum, 2015. Photograph by Robert Rapoport, courtesy Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

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Museums and Community Partnerships

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Meredith Leonard

At Halton Heritage Services, we’re all about working together with our community of heritage partners in sustained relationships of co-creation, collaboration and radical trust. In the last three years, we have engaged with community partners on exhibit development, building animation projects and school-age learning partnerships.

Community partnerships are essential to our work at Heritage Services because we no longer operate a traditional museum, but they’re also an important best practice for all museums. These relationships serve to open up the museum to new audiences, instill a sense of ownership and bring new voices and perspectives into the institution. Collaborative partnership projects are a lot of work, they take more time and effort, but they also produce a better product, more accessible history, offer ways to connect with new audiences and are just more fun.

Since 2014, our organization has transformed from a traditional settler-focused local history museum into a community-based heritage service provider. Like a traditional museum, we still care for the Region’s collection of artifacts and archival materials, create travelling exhibitions and deliver outreach programs. To those core activities, we’ve added professional services in exhibit planning and design, public program development, collections management and artifact conservation for regional heritage partners.

When we embarked on this new approach, we looked around the museum world for inspiration and found no shortage of innovative partnership projects – from exhibitions at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and Toronto’s Myseum to community-connected education programs at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. As a means of exploring what we’ve learned about this new approach to making heritage happen at the community level, I am going to discuss three collaborative projects Heritage Services has undertaken since 2017. Continue reading

History in Museums: It’s All About Audience, Focus, and Collaboration

Person in front a whiteboard taking a photo

B. Erin Cole photographs a whiteboard after a group brainstorming session at the History Colorado Center in 2014.

B. Erin Cole

Museums seem like the perfect place for historians to work, right? You get to talk about the past, teach visitors about why history is important, and show off cool artifacts and images from the collections and archives. It seems like a great job for people who are more interested in working with the public than going into academia.

Museums are great places to work. But in my nearly ten-year career in the exhibit field, I’ve had to learn a lot about audiences, collaboration, and how exhibits can work with the research and interpretive skills I learned as a historian. So here are three things I’ve learned about history in museums over my career.

  1. Know your audience

The most important thing I’ve learned in my museum career is that exhibits need to meet the needs of museum visitors. Who is this exhibit for? Older adults? Multi-generational groups, including school-aged children? Under-served audiences who don’t often visit the museum, or visitors who already visit frequently? People who already know a lot about the topic, or people with a more general knowledge?

Who the exhibit is for affects how the exhibit is put together, what interactive things there are to do in the exhibit, how the text is written, and so much more.

My first museum job was as a part-time exhibit researcher for the new History Colorado Center in Denver. I was still ABD. The Colorado Historical Society was building a new history museum with immersive and interactive exhibits. My first project was Destination Colorado, an exhibit about Keota, a small boom-and-bust farming town on the Colorado plains. The audience for this exhibit? School-age children accompanied by adults.

My job was to research and write short “context reports” for the exhibit developer, giving her information she needed on the Homestead Act of 1862, dryland farming, the development of the railroad, the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918, and other topics contextualizing Keota’s rise and fall in the early twentieth century. To me, short meant three or four pages. To the exhibit developer, it meant much less—a page at most. What she needed from me was a simple ask: what are the one or two things this group of visitors absolutely needs to know about this topic? Continue reading

Practicing Theory: What’s Really Happening When You Write Exhibit Text for Museums

Person reading exhibition text.

Museum visitor reading exhibition text. Photo by author.

John Summers

Ostensibly about the preservation, display and interpretation of objects, museums are also full of words. From way-finding signage (as anyone who has ever visited with a small child knows, a successful museum experience can critically depend on being able to locate the nearest washroom!) to fundraising, written text is an important part of what museums do.

In the fall of 2018, I developed and taught a new course for the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto. Entitled “Artifact, Audience, Text: Writing in the Museum,” it introduced students to the theory and practice of writing text for museum exhibits. In it, I highlighted both the interdependence of theory and practice and the complexity of even apparently simple types of writing such as artifact labels.

There is a lot at stake when you write text for museum exhibits. For one thing, your words will probably be on display for several years and seen by thousands of visitors. For another, exhibit texts tend to be shorter rather than longer, so individual words and phrases are much more visible than if they were buried in a bigger piece of writing. Finally, exhibit text is usually written to serve the widest possible audience; although you may direct it at particular types of visitors, it will also be read by many people who don’t fit into those categories. Text written for an academic project, journal article or book is not suitable for the informal learning environment of a museum gallery.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the words that accompany artifacts in exhibits. Works such as Beverly Serrell’s Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach and Kris Wetterlund’s If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing are excellent resources for writing public-facing museum text. Beyond the straightforward considerations of sentence structure, tone of voice and the length of text blocks lie larger issues relating to the politics, production and consumption of text. To understand these, we need to look beyond practical writing advice and delve into some theory.

Museum practice and museum theory have had a long and occasionally uneasy relationship. Theory has sometimes been dismissed as irrelevant to “real” work, and museum staff may not feel connected to the thinking that emanates from university museum studies programs when they’re up to their elbows in day-to-day operational issues.

As the students and I worked through the course, we kept returning to a few fundamental ideas about the nature of language. I’d like to walk through these and think about what they mean for the text used in exhibits. Continue reading

The Life of an Artifact at the Western Development Museum

Purple and yellow chevron wall hanging with fringe on bottom

Saskatoon Capitol Theater Wall-Hanging, Artifact ID WDM-2018-S-29, Western Development Museum Collection.

Alex Emery and Kaiti Hannah

The Western Development Museum (WDM) is the largest human history museum in Saskatchewan. We are a network of four museums in four cities (North Battleford, Yorkton, Saskatoon, and Moose Jaw, with a Corporate Office in Saskatoon). As Curatorial Assistants at the Corporate Office, we routinely handle artifact donations and public inquiries. Alex works with the public on their prospective artifact donation offers, while Kaiti works with the donated items once they’ve been accepted into the WDM collection. Often, the WDM receives offers of items that are over-represented in our collection such as sewing machines, pianos, pump organs, and wedding dresses.  We tend not to accept them, as we are looking for items that tell a uniquely Saskatchewan story.

To give some insight into the journey of an artifact from its initial offer through to its acceptance into the collection and to final storage at the WDM, here is the story of a wall hanging from the former Capitol Theatre in Saskatoon (built in 1928-29 and demolished in 1979).

Our acquisitions process is guided by the WDM’s Strategic Plan and Collections Management Policy. Decisions about whether to accept an item or not are determined by criteria set out in our policies. The WDM also intends to develop a Collections Development Plan to further standardize the acquisitions process. The Collections Development Plan will set out specific guidelines for how to enact the Collections Management Policy over five years. Continue reading

Museum Theme Week Introduction

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Active History Museum Theeme Week March 4 -8 written on black background

Carly Ciufo and Krista McCracken

Here at we define active history as “history that listens and is responsive; history that will make a tangible difference in people’s lives; history that makes an intervention and is transformative to both practitioners and communities.” For many of us, Active History is also about community and reaching audiences outside of academia. Active History encompasses the work of publicly-engaged historians, public historians, archivists, museum professionals, and other community-centered scholars.

Despite this broad definition of Active History, many of the posts written on are still written by academics or those whose work brings them into contact with the academic world. This theme week recognizes the importance of listening and engaging with voices centered outside of post-secondary institutions; its emphasis is on sparking dialogue with our museum colleagues.

Both of us have backgrounds in museums. Krista started their career as a public historian by volunteering at the Museum of Dufferin and many of their early work experiences involved small local museums. Krista’s current work at the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is also tied to museum practice with some of their job including exhibition development and educational outreach. Between taking contracts at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Carly worked as a media librarian at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and an archives assistant at the National Ballet. Carly’s currently researching human rights museums to investigate the activist capacity of human rights museum workers.

We designed this theme week to encourage a conversation between museum professionals and historians. Both often have overlapping interests and similar concerns surrounding the preservation of the past. Museology and history may be two distinct disciplines, but they are well-served when they communicate openly about their work.

All of the week’s posts are written by people who have had experience working in museum settings. The contributors highlight current museum realities and concerns within the museum profession.They tackle issues of invisible labour, exhibit creation, and the legacy of colonial collecting practices. Many also discuss the collaboration that occurs within museums as well as outside of them.

We designed this week to spark dialogue and deepen discussions between museum professionals and historians, so please be sure to engage and further the conversation in the comments section and on Twitter. You can reach us at @ActiveHist, @kristamccracken, and @CarlyCiufo.

Only Dramatic Reductions in Energy Use Will Save The World From Climate Catastrophe: A Prophecy

This is the third post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?“. It is hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Climate History Network, and

By Andrew Watson

There is no longer any debate. Humanity sits at the precipice of catastrophic climate change caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[1] and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)[2] provide clear assessments: to limit global warming to 1.5ºC above historic levels, thereby avoiding the most harmful consequences, governments, communities, and individuals around the world must take immediate steps to decarbonize their societies and economies.

Change is coming regardless of how we proceed. Doing nothing guarantees large-scale resource conflicts, climate refugee migrations from the global south to the global north, and mass starvation. Dealing with the problem in the future will be exceedingly more difficult, not to mention expensive, than making important changes immediately. The only question is what changes are necessary to address the scale of the problem facing humanity? Do we pursue strategies that allow us to maintain our current standard of living, consuming comparable amounts of (zero-carbon) energy? Or do we accept fundamental changes to humanity’s relationship to energy?

In his new book, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet, Charles C. Mann uses the life, work, and ideologies of Norman Borlaug (the Wizard) and William Vogt (the Prophet) to offer two typologies of twentieth century environmental science and thought. Borlaug represents the school of thought that believed technology could solve all of humanity’s environmental problems, which Mann refers to as “techno-optimism.” Vogt, by contrast, represents a fundamentally different attitude that saw only a drastic reduction in consumption as the key to solving environmental problems, which Mann (borrowing from demographer Betsy Hartmann) refers to as “apocalyptic environmentalism.”[3]

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Recognizing Active Historians

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In early December, we put out a call for nominations to recognize historians or projects that model the practice of Active History. We received several nominations, all of which were deeply engaged in a responsive historical practice that aimed to make a tangible difference in people’s lives. Though selection was difficult, two submissions stood out to the adjudication committee.

In the category of notable submissions to, the committee found Crystal Gail Fraser and Sara Komarnisky’s 150 Acts of Reconciliation especially worthy of recognition. Rather than using our traditional essay format, Fraser and Komarnisky’s contribution to was formatted as a succinct list of daily tasks to help cultivate a culture of Truth and Reconciliation. Their list provides a wealth of resources, insights, reflections, and recommendations aimed at helping settlers better understand and grapple with their roles in the Canadian settler colonial nation-state. As such, it is one of our most read submissions, with about 50,000 unique views. With its obvious uses for educators, activists, and citizens, 150 Acts of Reconciliation represents the very best of Active History: engaged writing that brings historical knowledge to a broader audience, in the process enriching understanding of contemporary issues.

In the category of exemplary practices of Active History, the committee felt that Lilian Radovac’s Alternative Toronto project was most deserving. Alternative Toronto is an archive and exhibition space that documents the history of radical, counter cultural, anti-racist and trans/feminist/queer activism in Toronto between 1980 and 1998. Unlike similar projects, Alternative Toronto consists of digital items (flyers, videos, posters, zines) that were uploaded by people who were there and carefully kept in homes and storage units as personal archives. By involving unions, advocacy groups, activists, artists, and others in the archiving process, this project has established a laudable model for participatory, community-engaged research. In doing so, Radovac’s digital archive demonstrates how community outreach and collaborative practices can create a new type of grass-roots, accessible and innovative archive. The project is actively recruiting new contributions and – if you are in the Toronto area – will be holding an event this Wednesday (Feb 27 2019) at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Two additional nominations are worthy of mention. Christo Aivalis, one of our editors, was nominated for his work in the media. In addition to conducting television and radio interviews, Aivalis’s work has been published on the Globe and Mail, Canadian Dimension, MacLean’s and Washington Post. Our francophone partner site was also nominated. In both cases, the editorial collective and the awards committee felt it would be inappropriate to consider these nominations for awards due to their close involvement with the Active History project. That said, we want to recognize them for the important contribution that they make to cultivating a practice of Active History and acknowledge that others see their work as worthy of this type of recognition.

Taken together, each of these projects challenge us, through critical community-engaged history, to recognize the ways in which historical exclusions continue to structure our Canadian present. As an editorial collective, and on behalf of the editorial collective, we wish each of these historians our hearty congratulations!

Untethered: Precarity, Place, and People

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Treed area with a bridge crossing water

Yitzhak Rabin Park in Montreal. Photo by author.

Andrea Eidinger

On April 3rd, I was on my way to class, when I received a phone call from my husband. It was the last day of the winter semester, and my students had organized a potluck to celebrate. My husband has battled Crohn’s Disease for the better part of ten years, and had decided to stay home that day because his symptoms were severe. Over the course of those ten years, we’ve been through several flares (as they are called), and knew what to do. So my husband calling me right before class time was quite out of character. And for good reason: he called to tell me that he needed to go to the hospital. After a brief discussion (he wanted me to go to class, I told him he was being ridiculous), I popped into class to explain what was going on, and then ran to catch the bus. That was one of the longest commutes my entire life, both literally and figuratively. I arrived at the hospital to find my husband curled up on the benches in the Emergency Room. While I didn’t know it at the time, we had just entered a two-month-long hell-scape that involved multiple emergency room visits, two major surgeries, and a lot of waiting. I’m happy to report that my husband is now doing fine, but the entire ordeal has highlighted the invisible costs of precarious academia, particularly those costs that arise from academic relocation.

The past year has seen increasing discussion about academic relocation, addressing issues like the financial cost, the emotional impact of frequent moves, and the impact of moving on families. I have been particularly touched by Environmental History Now’s ongoing series, “Problems of Place,” which has featured work by numerous academics reflecting on the importance of place from a personal and historical perspective. For many years, my sense of self was intimately tied to my sense of place. In many respects, I had an unusual upbringing. I lived in the same house from the ages of two to twenty-two. My lived experiences were firmly grounded in my childhood landscapes. Even now, I can close my eyes and see myself standing on the walkway of the tiny waterfall at my favourite park (pictured above). But, as Jessica DeWitt eloquently noted, early career academics are constantly told not to put down roots. We are expected to be ready and willing to move anywhere at any time in pursuit of work, temporary or permanent. This is particularly the case for single academics without children, who are supposedly “unattached.”

But, as DeWitt noted, no one is unattached. To call someone “unattached” is to negate their humanity.” Though we are forced to move far away from our biological families, we create new ones, chosen ones. Graduate school takes time. We forge strong connections to our cohorts, we find romantic and non-romantic partners, and we put down roots. When I think about my time in Victoria, I remember the long walks that I took with my husband in our neighbourhood and the coffee shop where my knitting group would meet every Friday night.  And much like roots, these families and communities are very much tied to physical places, and when we move, they wither. Continue reading

Next Generation Nuclear?

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This is the second post in a collaborative series titled “Environmental Historians Debate: Can Nuclear Power Solve Climate Change?“. It is hosted by the Network in Canadian History & Environment, the Climate History Network, and

By Kate Brown

Climate change is here to stay. So too for the next several millennia is radioactive fallout from nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. Earthlings will also live with radioactive products from the production and testing of nuclear weapons.  The question as to whether next generation technologies of nuclear power plants will be, as their promoters suggest, “perfectly safe” appears to decline in importance as we consider the catastrophic outcome of continued use of carbon-based fuels. Sea levels rising 10 feet, temperatures warming 3 degrees Celsius, tens of millions of climate refugees on the move. These predicted climate change catastrophes make nuclear accidents such as the 1986 Chernobyl accident look like a tiny blip in planetary time.

Or maybe not. It is hard to compare an event in the past to one in the future that has not yet occurred. I have found researching for the past four years the medical and environmental history of the Chernobyl disaster that the health consequences were far greater than has been generally acknowledged. Rather than 35 to 54 fatalities recorded by UN agencies, the count in Ukraine alone (which received the least amount of radioactive fallout of the three affected Soviet republics) ranges between 35,000 and 150,000 fatalities from exposures to Chernobyl radioactivity. Instead of 200 people hospitalized after the accident, my tally from the de-classified archives is at least 40,000 people in the three most affected republics just in the summer months following the disaster.

We don’t have to focus just on human health to worry about the future of humans on earth. Following biologists around the Chernobyl Zone the past few years, I learned that in the most contaminated territories of the Chernobyl Zone radioactivity has knocked out insects and microbes that are essential for the job of decomposition and pollination. Biologists Tim Mousseau and Anders Møller found radical decreases in pollinators in highly contaminated areas; the fruit flies, bees, butterflies and dragonflies were decimated by radioactivity in soils where they lay their eggs. They found that fewer pollinators meant less productive fruit trees. With less fruit, fruit-eating birds like thrushes and warblers suffered demographically and declined in number. With few frugivores, fewer fruit trees and shrubs took root and grew. The team investigated 19 villages in a 15-kilometer circle around the blown plant and found that just two apple trees had seed in two decades after the 1986 explosion.?1 The loss of insects, especially pollinators, we know, spells doom for humans on earth.?2 There are, apparently, many ways for our species to go extinct. Climate change is just one possibility. Continue reading