The Significance of Women in the Ontario History Curriculum: The Findings of an Undergrad

In recognition of International Women’s Day on March 8, and the celebration of Women’s History Month in March in both the USA and UK (Women’s History Month in Canada takes place in October), this post shares the findings of an undergraduate student from Seneca College about whether women in the grade 7 and 8 Ontario history curriculum were “significant.” Spoiler alert: They are not.

First, some background: Seneca College in Toronto, Ontario offers an Honours Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies that involves a three-semester Capstone where students engage in the proposal, collection, and analysis of primary research. I have supervised the proposal and collection courses of the Capstone since 2016.

In the fall term of 2018, one student, Jvalin Vijayakumaran, conducted research on the Grade 7 and 8 Ontario history curriculum to determine if women were “significant.” While both history curriculum and gender studies are both keen interests of mine, I was both surprised and impressed as to what Jvalin’s found in his research (for a topic I did not direct him toward despite all evidence to the contrary!). Because Jvalin is currently on placement as a requirement for his program, he provided me with his notes and analysis to share in this post.

Continue reading

Beyond Inclusion – Decolonising through Self-Representation in Eeyou Istchee

Wooden building shaped like a longhouse

Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute

Our research philosophy: ‘Nothing about us, without us’

For museums outside of Eeyou Istchee [1], we ask that we are consulted and treated as partners for any interpretative work on collections from our region. Museums need to understand that we are experts on all aspects of our culture.

We ask that museums, archives and heritage repositories do not reproduce or use photographs of our people without contemporary, informed consent from individuals or their descendants (especially photographs taken before the current digital / internet age). We are not objects for outsiders to interpret. The right to self-representation is guaranteed by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The OCAP® principles (ownership, control, access and possession), developed by the First Nations Information Governance Centre in 2011, guide how information about First Nations should be used, disseminated, protected and collected. These standards are referred to in the Tri-Council Policy Statement for Ethical Research Involving Humans, which is used by academic funding agencies within Canada. We ask that museums everywhere adhere to the OCAP principles and apply these to historic collections and documentation.

Our research focus centers on the interests and needs of Eeyou community members. With that in mind, our research and resources give priority to research instigated by Eeyou community members.

For external researchers, we are developing a Research Policy which will ensure that research is done with approval of Eeyou community members, and that external research is of interest to, and benefits the communities. Our General Statement of Research Principles guides our research approval process while our comprehensive policy is being developed. Our goal is for all external research to be undertaken in a good way, with decolonising principles in mind.

This post, like all work done at Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute  (ACCI), is representative of our ability to self-represent, indicates our survival, and ultimately highlights community resistance to settler colonialism and assimilation. Self-curation, within the framework of contemporary museological practice, through the use of  museum exhibits as complex sites of resistance recalls the words of Metis artist / scholar David Garneau:

The primary sites of Indigenous resistance, then, are not the rare open battles between the colonized and the dominant but the every day active refusals of complete engagement with agents of assimilation. This includes speaking in one’s own way, refusing translation and full explanations, creating trade goods that imitate core culture without violating it, and refusing to be a Native informant [2].

The overall impact of ACCI is meant to demonstrate Eeyou, “…maintenance of culture, treaty, history, and self within the historical and ongoing context of settlement…Indigenous people did not lay down and die; they persist, and in so doing, they defy all expectations – working resolutely to assert their nationhood and their sovereignty against a settler political formation that would have them disappear or integrate or assimilate.” [3] Continue reading

The Unholy Trifecta of behind-the-scenes worker, museum visitor, and front-line staff

Photograph of ‘Corpus’ by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Photo by Reg Natarajan, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48098569

Alexandra Cherry

When you work at a Museum, you live in one of two professional worlds: behind the scenes, or front of house.

Front-line staff can include those working at the ticket counter, educators, security guards, cleaning staff, a person who sells memberships, or a gift shop attendant. Their jobs are shaped by visitors who react to the choices made by their colleagues behind the scenes.  The roles of staff behind the scenes can be just as varied: communications, fund development, event management, conservator, researchers, project managers, historians, and yes, even curators.

Although not always clear-cut, these worlds often put you either in service of the objects or in service of the visitors. But no matter what you do, once a person learns you work at a museum, they will inevitably ask, “Oh, so you’re a curator?” The public assumption that the only type of professional job that you could have at a museum is behind the scenes when they often only interact with front-line staff is a frustrating one. It further increases professional divisions, preventing a proper understanding of what is perceived as museum work. This disconnect creates a series of expectations from the unholy trifecta of behind-the-scenes worker, museum visitor, and front-life staff.

And it extends to the tensions experienced between the expected museum visitor and the realities of an evolving audience. Museums are trying to diversify and expand their audience, but many in back-of-house roles retain a firm set of expectations of their audience: they will be older, have a general baseline of knowledge on a subject, are able-bodied, and can afford the ticket price. In many museums, the object dictates the experience rather than being driven by the needs of a diversifying audience. Curators, historians, and researchers determine the content and flow of exhibitions and museums as a whole. Interpretive planners bridge this gap, as do advisory groups and museological literature. But most choices made behind the scenes are carried out by front-line staff. This includes dealing with the vast differences between new audience realities and the spaces created with the “expected” visitor in mind.

What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading

Binding Ties: Family Relationships and the Museum Collection

Art instasllation including a video screen

Duane Linklater with Ethel Linklater and Tobias Linklater, From Our Hands (installation view), 2016.

Nadia Kurd

When I was a little girl I can remember my grandmother in the house
on the reservation. It had a big sun parlour and the walls of that sun
parlour were hung with all these Indian things … When the Duke and
Duchess … came the Indians dressed up in clothing from the collection
because they didn’t have their own ceremonial robes anymore. My
grandmother frequently lent the stuff out. Then the Indians would bring
it back to her.[1]

When one thinks of personal connections to museum collections, one may think of individuals or families who acquire and donate significant collections to museums, particularly as a means of legacy building. In these narratives, often objects are passed down from one generation to the next, and then eventually donated to an institution for posterity. Indeed, as illustrated in the quote above by the granddaughter of early twentieth-century Alberta settlers O.C. and Elizabeth Edwards, some privileged collectors can have deeply paternalistic and colonial attitudes towards the acquisition of objects. Their stories and legacies are often regarded as a positive step towards the preservation of culture, despite their sometimes dubious roots.

In terms of understanding familial relationships and collections, there is another way to reframe the ways in which family dynamics are embedded in museum collections.  The very artists and objects represented can often show how familial relationships are integral to articulating how a style or a way of working has become a prominent art form. This dynamic can often be seen with Indigenous artists who have passed down their art practice to their children or relatives as a way to maintain cultural knowledge. As Anishinaabe writer and journalist Tanya Talaga writes, “In Indigenous cultures, family units go beyond the traditional nuclear family living together in one house. Families are extensive networks of strong, connective kinship; they are often entire communities.”

These kinship ties are integral to the preservation of art forms that have been banned and sometimes subject to outright theft. Continue reading

Boxes of possibility—and frustration

      1 Comment on Boxes of possibility—and frustration

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.

Continue reading

Museums and Community Partnerships

      1 Comment on Museums and Community Partnerships

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

      1 Comment on Museum Theme Week Introduction

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

Carly Ciufo and Krista McCracken

Here at ActiveHistory.ca 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 ActiveHistory.ca 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.