The Enlightening Museum: Can Collections Combat Discrimination?

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to visit the Portland Art Museum for the first time. Although on the pricey side of admission ($19.99 per adult), The P.A.M. left a lasting impression on me for many reasons; the spacious facility, friendly and knowledgeable front-line staff, extensive East Asian collections, and their superb temporary photography exhibition, Force of Nature.

Above all, the permanent collections at the P.A.M. conveyed to me a message of tolerance, respect, and celebration of difference: diverse cultures, backgrounds, identities, orientations, and forms of expression. As I walked through their American Art Gallery, I noticed the multicultural names and origins of many of the artists. Info panels next to each piece revealed that many of these venerated American artists came to the U.S. as immigrants or refugees, such as Albert Bierstadt, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, or Jan Matulka. Such works were displayed side-by-side with Indigenous and American-born artists. It got me thinking about Syrian refugees, and the unwelcoming attitudes towards them and other migrants being perpetuated by many public figures. Did they know that most of their country’s museums, galleries, and libraries are filled with the works of immigrants and their descendants?

Our next stop at the P.A.M. was the European Art Gallery. Here I came across an intriguing painting: created in the mid 1700s, it showed a masculine figure in female clothing. The work was entitled Il Femminiello, and the info panel next to it explained that some transexual and non-binary gender identities were accepted in eighteenth-century Naples. Thinking about the discrimination my own trans friends were facing in the twenty-first century, I wondered if people could become more accepting of different gender identities if they learned about this painting and its history.

guiseppe bonito, il femminiello, 1740-1760, oil on canvas.jpg

Finally we made sure to stop by the Asian Art Gallery, which featured an impressive collection of objects from East Asia and the Middle East. As I admired the exquisite illustrations from Iran, and the decorative vessels and mosaics from Iraq and Syria, I wondered what impact they might have on those who harbour Islamophobia or hatred towards Arabic peoples.

Bird Cage, iranian, 18th C, stonepaste with blue decoration under clear glaze.jpg

How might a visitor become more tolerant or enlightened from a museum or gallery visit? Even though such institutions are often criticized for focusing on Western, white, male, middle-class, and heteronormative narratives, I believe they still have plenty of lessons about diversity and equality to share. A visitor might learn that Andy Warhol was gay and from an immigrant family; that eighteenth-century Naples was accepting of transexual identities and cross-dressing; that Islam has inspired some of the most beautiful artwork ever produced; that modern-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria are the cradles of some of the world’s first complex societies and scientific breakthroughs.

Although I am not a resident, I love the United States. In fact, I share my life with an American. I find much of the gleeful America-bashing that prevails here in Canada to be hypocritical, ignorant, and insufferably boring. Yet it is true that much of the intolerant discourse that now circulates in U.S. media and politics does not seem to reflect the very foundations of the country’s greatness – diversity, courage, and acceptance. Imagine if Mark Rothko and the rest of his Russian Jewish family had been barred from entering the U.S. in 1913 for being religious minorities? Facing persecution and fear in Russia, he may never have become one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, nor contributed to America’s postwar art boom.

Recently, the Mayor of Winnipeg, Manitoba publicly invited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump north of the border to visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, so that he might “develop a more profound sense of compassion and tolerance for others”. Perhaps Trump and others of his ilk need not travel to Winnipeg to become enlightened; they can learn the same ideals of diversity and respect from their very own museums in the United States.

Museum collections already contain some wonderful tools to combat discrimination, hatred, and fear: museums need to recognize these assets and use them to effect positive change in society.

Labeling Colonialism

Short but but effective exploration of some challenges faced by museums when interpreting colonial histories, with some great suggestions on how to overcome them.

Public Historian

When history museums interpret stories of colonialism and oppression, words matter. But which words are the right ones? Museums that interpret charged historical stories are often criticized as preachy or politically correct if they use certain words, or cowardly if they avoid them. But words like “colonialism” can also be overdetermined, too filled with ambient cultural meaning for visitors to approach their real significance for people’s lived experiences. Such words can also be too clinical, inadvertently serving to mask experiences and incidents that more specific phrases can reveal.  

So how do you choose the right words for exhibit labels that can help visitors engage with histories of oppression?  You need to be intentional about some key choices.

Ask for Help

It is logistically and schedule-wise very difficult to run all your labels by your community partner group (you are not planning to develop an exhibit on colonialism by yourself…

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The Ideal Museum: Reflections on European Institutions

I recently spent two weeks in Europe visiting family and friends, and had the opportunity to be a tourist as well! Experiencing several museums, galleries, and historic sites in London, Amsterdam, and Rome in quick succession allowed me to compare and contrast my visits. I began wondering if there were such a thing as an “ideal” museum. If so, what would such a place look like? Are there qualities all museums should possess? Are there aspects that no institution should have? Although there are no definite answers to such questions, I’ve taken the liberty of creating a list of four characteristics that all modern museums, in my experience, should possess.

Opportunities for immersion (and explanation!)

One of the most common things people want when visiting a museum or historic site is to experience a sense of escapism and immersion – to feel that they have entered a different time period. Historic sites obviously have an advantage over museums and galleries in this regard, but institutions such as the British Museum have done an excellent job of designing exhibits that resemble historic spaces as diverse as Greek temples, Sumerian palaces, and eighteenth-century libraries.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

The Great Court at the British Museum.

On the other hand, immersion in the sights, sounds, and textures of the past needs to be tempered with historical context and clear explanations through audio guides, info boards, and interpretive staff; a challenging balance that highly-protected historic sites such as the Roman Forum have difficulty achieving.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

The outstanding ruins of the Roman Forum, with the Colosseum beyond.

One of the most successful combinations of immersion and explanation that I encountered was The Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. The museum is comprised of two halves; the first half is the original house belonging to seventeenth-century artist Rembrandt van Rijn, expertly restored to its former glory with knowledgeable interpreters and hands-on demonstrations to boot. The second half is a modern gallery which features more detailed information about Rembrandt’s historical context and methods, as well as a large collection of his etchings.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at Rembrandt's House Museum.

A visitor tries their hand at historic etching techniques at The Rembrandt House Museum.

Effective, sensible use of modern technology

The ubiquity of smartphones, tablet computers, GPS, and other technological innovations has permanently changed the way people learn and experience the world. This has created unprecedented opportunities for visitor engagement in museums, but is not without pitfalls. Touchscreens, apps, or audiovisual displays that are faulty, ill-placed, or difficult to use won’t be tolerated by an increasingly techno-savvy public. The use of modern technology in museums is a great way to connect with new audiences and keep exhibits relevant, but is best avoided if it cannot be well integrated or maintained.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

Moving holograms in the Rijksmuseum.

One excellent example of technology used effectively that I encountered was at Amsterdam’s famous Rijksmuseum. Re-opened in 2013 after 10 years of renovations, the institution is now a shining example of modern design and technology in a world-class museum. For example, their impressive collection of historic ship models are brought to life with detailed moving holograms, demonstrating the many activities that took place on a vessel.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

The exterior of the Rijksmuseum, with bike paths running through the centre.

Opportunities for rest and refreshment

Museum fatigue is a phenomenon that affects almost every museum visitor, even heritage professionals and museophiles such as myself. This combination of mental and physical exhaustion prevents guests from being able to enjoy and learn, often cutting visits short. That is why it is so important for large museums and historic sites to offer opportunities for rest and refreshment (especially outdoor space) which can be accessed at anytime during a visit. Some of the best examples of these amenities I found were in Rome.

Although this was not my first time in the Eternal City, I was thrilled to finally be able to visit the Vatican Museums on this trip. I knew the size would be overwhelming, the crowds enormous, and the collections astonishing. In all of these aspects I was not disappointed. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the several gardens, cafes, and resting places available throughout the museum complex. This allows visitors much-needed opportunities to reflect, relax, and put their weary feet up whilst exploring one of Europe’s largest institutions.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter's Basilica beyond.

Surprisingly peaceful gardens in the Vatican Museum complex, with St. Peter’s Basilica beyond.

A short walk from the Vatican, the ancient mausoleum and fort Castel Sant’Angelo features a cafe with great views of the city – a perfect way to relax after exploring this massive Roman site.

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant’Angelo

A clear and consistent photography policy

Debates have raged over photography rules in museums and galleries for years, and have been complicated even further by the recent advent of the selfie stick. Regardless of individual opinions about an institution’s photography policy, the regulations need to be clear and consistent. As a museum worker and a museum visitor, there is nothing more annoying or confusing than a photography policy that changes depending on what space you are in or which device you are using. Most people want to respect rules and boundaries, but they don’t want to have to constantly re-assess what those are during their visit. While it’s understandable that institutions want to allow photography as much as possible, in my experience, an “all or nothing” policy is usually best for everybody. Institutions such as Hampton Court Palace and the Vatican Museums allow photography in most areas, but not temporary exhibitions and the Chapel Royal in the case of Hampton Court, and the Sistine Chapel in the case of the Vatican. Although it is perfectly valid to ban photography in these instances, it does make it confusing for visitors (and a headache for staff) to police these changing rules in different areas. An institution-wide policy, such as the photography ban within Hever Castle, makes things easier for everyone.

Mid-click in the grounds of Hever Castle. Photography is only allowed outside of the building.

Your humble writer mid-click outside of Hever Castle. Photography is not allowed within the building.

Although there are many other wonderful features I encountered in my visits to European museums, these are four aspects that I believe are integral to an ideal visitor experience.

What additions or changes would you make to this list?

Jack the Ripper, ‘interesting history’ and masculine violence

Thought-provoking response to the new Jack the Ripper Museum in London, and current trends in public history. What do you think?

Lauren Johnson

The revelation that a museum promising to be ‘the only dedicated resource in the East End to women’s history’ is instead opening as a Jack the Ripper Museum – telling the story of a Victorian serial killer – has rightly sparked outrage and astonishment. But eschewing social history in favour of misogyny and murder is far from uncommon in our public historical storytelling. One of those behind this museum, Mark Palmer-Edgecumbe, explained his decision to change its focus:

‘We did plan to do a museum about social history of women but as the project developed we decided a more interesting angle was from the perspective of the victims of Jack the Ripper.’

(You can read more of the original planning application here.)JRM pic

This project is only the furthest extreme of a general trend in historical presentation, which takes ‘interesting history’ to mean ‘violent and masculine’. I had…

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The “Why?” Museum: Bringing out a Child’s Inner Historian

Any parent or caregiver of young children will attest that kids love to ask “why”, often to the point of exasperation! Children are naturally curious and question everything that they see and hear – and often a short answer is not good enough. In fact, sometimes kids won’t stop asking follow-up “why”s to every answer they are given until the adult gives up altogether! The comedian Louis C.K. performs a hilarious segment about his own experiences with this phenomenon (warning: contains foul language).

Although I do not have my own children, as a museum educator I work with young people on a daily basis. I can empathize with parents and caregivers about how tiresome and frustrating constant questioning can be, especially when the reason seems so simple or obvious.

Courtesy of KarmenRose via Flickr.

Courtesy of KarmenRose via Flickr.

Yet as a historian, I believe “why” is one of the most important words in the English language. It is fundamental to my practice as a researcher, heritage professional, and overall fulfilled human being. Questioning why certain things have been done in the past, why they have changed (or haven’t), and why we act and think as we do today can help provide the foundations for justice, equality, efficiency, and happiness.

In the context of a museum, gallery, or heritage site, encouraging young visitors to ask “why” is one of the most valuable things we can do as staff, teachers, parents, and guardians. Questions such as “Why are we learning about this?”; “Why was this place built?”; “Why aren’t we allowed to touch this?”; and “Why is this event/person/thing important to me?” are just some of the queries that can enhance a child’s understanding and encourage a lifelong love of learning.

It’s so important for museums and educators to show children that historical events as we comprehend and present them are not inevitable, natural narratives, but rather the results of deliberate human decisions, beliefs, and actions (or non-actions). By encouraging visitors of all ages to ask “why”, we not only encourage them to join us in the constant pursuit of greater historical understanding, but also to reflect on the norms and assumptions of modern society.

Courtesy of Marco Bellucci via Flickr.

Courtesy of Marco Bellucci via Flickr.

Curating Exhibits: Difference Between Museums and Art Galleries

Intriguing discussion about curatorial differences between museums and art galleries.

Rereeti - Revitalizing Museums

Goa-based art historian and curator Lina Vincent Sunish reflects on the distinctive roles of museums and art galleries, highlighting their functional and aesthetic aspects for visitors.

Nehru Centre Art GalleryImage: Nehru Centre Art Gallery, Mumbai.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the debate on curatorial practices has been steadily growing around the world, and especially in India, which saw a rise in the number of new museums and art gallery openings in the last decade. In particular, there has been concerted effort and engagement to understand the increasing influence that cultural institutions hold on a diverse set of audience. Museums are considered places of entertainment and education, where different exhibits and curated spaces impart knowledge about the historical significance of an object. Art galleries, on the other hand, are perceived to serve a different purpose, more in tune with the aesthetic on consuming art for pleasure.

Delhi Art Gallery, Kala GhodaImage: Delhi Art Gallery, Kala…

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The Best Free B.C. Museums

On International Museum Day 2015, which also coincides with Victoria Day Long Weekend here in Canada, I’ve been thinking about how few people know about IMD (even those in the industry), though it has been celebrated on May 18 around the world for nearly 40 years. How can museums, galleries, and heritage sites spread greater awareness about themselves to the general public?

Two of the biggest challenges faced by museums today are the issues of accessibility and inclusivity. Many people in British Columbia and around the world are unable or unwilling to pay entry fees due to tight budgets or a perception that museums are inherently exclusive and elitist. Many in the museum industry are working hard to address these issues and ensure that people of all backgrounds feel able and welcome to experience their institutions – after all, many of us museum professionals face lay-offs, underemployment, and economic hardships ourselves.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Putting affordable culture in the frame, Nanaimo B.C.

Although Canada does not have a plethora of large free institutions on the scale of The British Museum or The Smithsonian, there are still many opportunities to visit high-quality museums, galleries, and heritage sites without breaking the bank. In honour of International Museum Day, I thought I’d list 8 of the best free or by-donation* museums and heritage sites in British Columbia (in alphabetical order):

Burnaby Village Museum

Burnaby, B.C.

This delightful, immersive site represents a typical 1920s Lower Mainland community, complete with costumed guides, a historic tram car, and a working carousel from 1912.

Contemporary Art Gallery

Vancouver, B.C.

Located in the trendy Yaletown neighbourhood, this small yet thought-provoking gallery presents a variety of compelling exhibitions throughout the year, representing some of the best contemporary art Vancouver has to offer. Their admission-by-donation policy is refreshingly accessible in one of the city’s most expensive neighbourhoods.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Tim Etchells installation, Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver B.C.

Hastings Park

Vancouver, B.C.

Hastings Park isn’t a museum or heritage institution per se, but the site has been the location for several important events in Vancouver’s history, such as the first Pacific National Exhibition in 1910 (where it continues to be held to this day), and the key staging area for the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Today, the Park features a large duck pond and fishing area, the Momiji Japanese garden, skateboarding and basketball amenities, and Hastings Racecourse opened in 1889, the city’s oldest continuously-used sports facility.

Historic Stewart Farm

Surrey, B.C.

On the banks of the Nicomekl River, this heritage site allows visitors to fully immerse themselves in the history of Surrey from 1890 to 1920. Features include historical re-enactments, heritage crafts, and baking from an authentic wood-burning stove.

Kamloops Museum and Archives

Kamloops, B.C.

This municipal museum explores the unique, multicultural history of Kamloops, from Chinese railway workers to European settlers, to Interior Salish cultures, and more.

Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre

Burnaby, B.C.

Located in an architecturally stunning building complete with Japanese-style gardens, this multipurpose centre includes exhibits, archives, events, and programs dedicated to the history and future of Japanese culture in British Columbia.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

Some beautiful cherry blossom trees near the Nikkei Centre, Burnaby B.C.

The Revelstoke Railway Museum

Revelstoke, B.C.

Full disclosure – this was the first museum I ever visited in British Columbia, so it holds a special place in my heart. Located in the stunning Columbia Mountains, this museum explores the dramatic history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The institution also commemorates the site of the “Last Spike,” where the CPR was officially completed in 1885, at their seasonal interpretive centre in Craigellachie, B.C.

Roedde House Museum

Vancouver, B.C.

Built in 1893, this lovely but often-overlooked historic house is nestled in the heart of Vancouver’s West End, and even allows visitors to handle certain artefacts (museum conservators, beware!).

Did I miss any great free museums, galleries, or heritage sites in B.C.? Please let me know!

*A note on etiquette: Even if a museum is promoted as “free,” it is always encouraged to leave a donation or make a purchase at the gift shop whenever possible.

N.B. Because I am based in Vancouver, this list is very skewed towards the Lower Mainland and in no way represents all of the wonderful, affordable cultural heritage B.C. has to offer! I have also chosen to omit the institutions with whom I am professionally associated from this list to reduce personal bias.

Women More Likely Than Men To Consider Country Houses And Castles As Important

Interesting study about England’s attitudes toward heritage sites. I wonder how results might differ in other countries.

Heritage Calling

We recently calculated that an amazing 99.3% of people in England live within a mile of a listed building or site – heritage is literally all around us. So, inspired by this fact, we commissioned YouGov to ask people across England what they really think about heritage.

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The Grant Museum

I’m sad that I will have to miss the Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London (my alma mater), so I thought I would share a link about it instead! The exhibition explores European depictions of newly “discovered” animals such as Dürer’s sixteenth-century Rhinoceros, and explores the ways in which artists, scientists, and the general public attempt to make sense of the new and the strange throughout history.

If you are in London before June 27 2015, please check it out on my behalf!

-Your Humble Writer