The Collaborative Museum or: Some Thoughts on the c̓əsnaʔəm Exhibitions

Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the new c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver. It provides an unprecedented look into the past and present of the Musqueam people, who have lived in what is now Vancouver for thousands of years. The project was developed with advisors from Musqueam First Nation, and the words and voices of their community are central to every aspect of the exhibit. This is a step forward in the effort to raise awareness about Aboriginal culture, and its exclusion from the public eye. In the words of Musqueam cultural advisor Larry Grant, the goal of the c̓əsnaʔəm project is “to highlight the community’s role in shaping the City of Vancouver.”

Display about hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the Musqueam language.

Display about hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓, the Musqueam language.

Yet this laudable aim is not the only groundbreaking aspect of the exhibition. What I find equally fascinating about the c̓əsnaʔəm project is the collaborative, cross-institutional approach to its development and presentation. In fact, the exhibition is currently being hosted at no fewer than three sites in the city: the Museum of Vancouver, the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, and the Musqueam Cultural Education Resource Centre and Gallery. These three institutions worked together to create the overarching vision of c̓əsnaʔəm and present three distinct but related exhibitions in each of their spaces.

Your humble writer absorbing some Musqueam oral history.

Your humble writer absorbing some Musqueam oral history.

Having already visited its counterpart at the Museum of Anthropology back in February, I was able to make connections between the two exhibits that made my M.O.V. experience more meaningful. I was first introduced to the concept of content “layers” in museums several years ago while working at a well-known palace in the U.K. The basic goal of layers is to provide visitors with multiple levels of information about an object, allowing them to choose how deeply they want to engage with the content. For example, the title, origin, and date info next to an object might be the first layer, followed by a paragraph of panel text, followed by an audio recording of the curator’s insights, followed by an app or link to online content, et cetera. The c̓əsnaʔəm project takes the idea of layers to a new level (no pun intended); each exhibition can be enjoyed and understood independently, or as part of a broader city-wide, multi-day experience.

Imagine cross-institutional exhibits that transcend regional or national boundaries! Museum visitors in different parts of the world could experience the same overarching vision simultaneously, within the context of their own space and culture. Perhaps the collaborative approach of c̓əsnaʔəm is a glimpse into the future of museum curation and community engagement.


The Satirical Museum

Should museums provide opportunities for humour, satire, and irony?

I would argue that – under the right circumstances – they can and should!

Recently, one of my characteristically tangential conversations hit upon an intriguing idea; what if there were a temporary exhibition based on satire? More specifically, what if we created an exhibit centred around subtle humorous anachronisms, where nothing was quite what it seemed? It would not only be fun to create, but could also raise important questions about what we desire from visitors, and what the public expects from museum experiences.

During Hallowe'en at New Westminster Museum and Archives, we are permitted to add a little humour (and horror) to our exhibits!

During Hallowe’en at New Westminster Museum and Archives, we are permitted to add a little humour (and horror) to our exhibits!

I have encountered several museum spaces dedicated to the history and culture of comedy; the House of Humour and Satire in Bulgaria, the 2012-13 Carrying on “Irregardless” exhibition about humour in Aboriginal art at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, and Harlekinäum in Germany, a small gallery displaying works of humour and irreverence.

But what if humour were the fundamental curatorial philosophy behind an exhibit? Rather than observing, analyzing, and displaying comedy, could an exhibit become a satire about itself? Museum curators, educators, and interpreters already include opportunities for silliness and play for younger visitors – why not for adults too?

Comedian Jeff Wysaski recently played an April Fool’s joke on bookstore patrons by replacing book jackets and shelf tags with his own satirical versions. The prank was subtle enough to go unnoticed by less observant customers. What if museum curators and educators could use the same subversiveness and irreverence to promote better visitor engagement in their exhibits and encourage the public to give all displays more than just a cursory glance? My first idea for a potential satirical “artifact” was a beautiful illuminated manuscript with incongruous text, such Wu-Tang Clan lyrics or an instruction manual for a vacuum cleaner (the more unexpected, the better). On first glance, the manuscript would be indistinguishable from the medieval originals, and would require closer investigation to notice the joke. Thus, the exhibit would not only explore the role of satire in museums, but also encourage curiosity and closer observation among visitors. A virtual museum would be another great medium for this experiment, such as the Tumblr-based Gluten Free Museum I recently shared.

American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Even us professionals like to get a little silly during  museum visits.

American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Sometimes even us professionals like to get a little silly during museum visits.

In her blog post on the subject, Nina Simon writes that most museums are “laugh-impaired” because humour inherently undermines authority and relinquishes interpretive control. Moreover, many of the topics presented by museums are of a serious or sensitive nature. Yet in the right circumstances, I believe a well-designed satirical exhibit could go a long way towards improving visitor engagement, inclusivity, and empathy – all of which are major challenges for many museums.

Should museums have humorous or satirical exhibits? Have you encountered any? I would love to hear your thoughts!