Resolve to evolve

After diving into a term paper right after the CMA, I can finally sit down and share some of my thoughts and experiences from the conference.  For anyone who attended, feel free to share what you took away from the CMA.

There were many great speakers and presenters, so I will just highlight a few of the recurring themes I picked out.

Technology. Of course, a conference themed “Evolve or Die,” would have to talk about technology.  People were tweeting (#cma11), presentations were being taped for future webcasts and there were several panels about new tools available for creating online exhibits, utilizing social media and just generally creating an online presence.  However, there were also lots of people who weren’t just talking about the tools, but they were talking about the way the digital age fundamentally changes the way museums function.  Loren Fantin from Our Ontario put it best in her panel “The Evolution of the Online Museum” when she called for a shift to a “digital mindset.”  Museums have traditionally been one way exchanges of knowledge – you go to a museum and a curator has provided you with their interpretation of history through an exhibit. Curators and museum professionals have had an authority, or monopoly, on information in museums.  However, this is no longer the case in the digital age.  Technology has greatly facilitated a two way exchange of information.  With the use of social media tools, audiences are much freer to voice their opinions, provide feedback and share their ideas.  Technology has created a much more participatory environment and museums, and all heritage institutions, need to understand and embrace this new relationship with their public.

Community. Much related to technology and the digital mindset, is a move towards greater community involvement.  This is something that I think about a lot . There seems to be a lot of emphasis on museums and tourism and I often wonder if this is to the detriment of our communities.  I saw a wonderful presentation by Madelaine Callaghan from the Scarborough Museum in the panel “New Roadmaps and Uncharted Waters.” Unfortunately, I don’t have notes on this presentation, as there was standing room only for this portion of the panel (and kudos to the Hilton for putting a chair underneath me very quickly)!  Madelaine was sharing success stories from the museum’s youth and mentorship programs.  She explained that the museum wanted to do something for the community to combat the reputation Scarborough was receiving by the media as a violent place. Youth volunteers got involved with museum programming and the community, developing a range of skills in the process.  I wish I had the stats to share with you, but the number of volunteers over the years skyrocketed and the kids often stay with the museum as employers or mentors to new volunteers.  Here is one of those success stories from one of the young volunteers.

One of the evening’s keynote speakers, Dr. James Bradburne also encouraged a greater connection with the community.  Currently director general of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi in Florence, Dr. Bradburne spoke a bit about the need to revitalize Florence. As he put it, you wouldn’t think that Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, would need to be revitalized.  However, he argued that the city was too consumed by tourists who come for the day to see David and buy tacky souvenirs.  Dr. Bradburne called for greater quality in tourism and heritage institutions and said that we should take care of the local residents first.  Ultimately, what is good for them will be good for the tourists, too.

Power of Museums. Everyone involved in this field believes in the importance and power of cultural institutions.  Yet, it seems we sometimes get paralyzed.  We are so used to taking a back seat to other industries that we’ve come to accept our bottom rung status.  One of our keynote speakers, Eddie Friel, ignited a fire under us (hopefully) and truly made us believe that we can make a difference.   Mr. Friel was appointed the chief executive of the Greater Glasgow Tourist Board in 1983 and is responsible for completely revitalizing the city. Once an important shipbuilding town and thriving European city, Glasgow’s economy was in terrible decline and the city in poor shape.  By investing in museums, heritage and the arts, Mr. Friel completely turned the economy around and the city is now a cultural hub.  In less than 10 years after Mr. Friel’s appointment, Glasgow was named the European City of Culture for 1990.

The main message of Mr. Friel’s inspiring talk was that cultural institutions need to be seen (by ourselves, the public and the government) as essential places.  We shouldn’t be the first to have our budgets cut, nor should we allow it.  This, of course, is a completely overwhelming idea and someone in the audience voiced all of our thoughts when he stood up and simply asked “how?” Good question.  How do we completely change the way this industry is viewed in society? How do we get people to value, support and encourage us? Glasgow was proof it could be done, but we still needed more.  Mr. Friel provided two answers, with which I will now leave you:

“Start an engine and everyone will want to hitch their wagon to it.”

“Success has 1000 founders – failure has 1.”


“Evolving” at Canada’s History and the CMA

Anyone who has gone through this Public History program can probably relate to how I feel right now.  With just 3 weeks left in the term, there is SO much work still to be done.  Yet, it’s very hard to focus on school because I’m much more excited and interested in the next part of the program.

In just a few weeks, I will be packing up and heading to the sunny prairies for my internship at Canada’s History Magazine (sorry, Southern Ontario, I know it’s cold in Winnipeg, but at least the sun helps keep your spirits up). I’m looking forward to my internship for many reasons:

Feb/March Issue of Canada’s History Magazine

#1. Canada’s History is doing great things with new media and utilizing the internet.  In addition to publishing the magazine, they have a ton of content online and they really seem to be exploring the potential of the web.  I like technology for technology’s sake, but even more importantly, this signals to me that they’re an energetic and innovative organization and I’m really inspired by the atmosphere this creates.

#2. I’ll be working with Joel Ralph, the magazine’s Education and Outreach Manager. I’ve always been interested in education, but never quite felt like I should be a teacher, so I’m excited to get involved with other forms of teaching (isn’t that what public history is all about?).  Also, Joel is a graduate of Western’s public history program and did his internship at Canada’s History a few years ago, so I plan on picking his brain about the field, job hunting and the ultimate question – how did you turn your internship into a job (which is every intern’s goal and why Joel is a bit of a celebrity in the program).

#3. I have a (not so) secret dream of being an editor.  The job is a bit of a mystery to me.  What exactly is it? How do you become one? It seems that it is something I might enjoy and be good at (despite the fact that I ended that phrase in a preposition), so I’m pleased that my history internship landed me at a magazine.  I’m looking forward to learning the ins and outs of publishing.

As part of the “energy and innovation” I referred to earlier in this post, Canada’s History has put me to work already.  Next week, I will be attending the national Canadian Museums Association conference here in London.  I have gathered a few of my peers and we will be forming a “News Action Team” for the conference.  We will be speaking with presenters, panelists and participants and finding out what’s happening at the CMA this year.  Our interviews will be filmed and featured on the magazine’s website, so that the public and history professionals can learn about the conference.


My first copy of Muse – the CMA’s magazine

The conference’s theme this year is “Evolve or Die” – a bit drastic, perhaps, but accurate for the most part.  It’s time for museums to liven up and engage with the public.  I’m looking forward to learning about new approaches and initiatives in the field.

Are you going to be at the CMA this year? Are you interested in an interview and sharing your experiences at the CMA? Feel free to leave a comment, email ( or tweet (jo_dawson).  Or just track us down at the conference – we’ll be the ones in the awesome Tshirts!

Finding the Balance

Repatriation has become an important word in museum vocabulary.

In the U.S., the federal government passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990.  Under this legislation, any museums that receive federal funding were to conduct an inventory of their collection and identify any Native remains or cultural objects, with the ultimate goal of repatriating such items.

As you can imagine, this is a massive undertaking.  Some of these collections could be 500 years old and, as those in the museum world know, determining provenance of artifacts can be a challenge under the best of times.  Further, Native Americans have to deal with the sometimes impossible task of proving their relationship to or ownership of these items (with the added roadblock that only groups that are federally recognized are able to benefit from the legislation). While many items have been successfully repatriated to Native American groups, the legislation and process is so complicated that many cases will be ongoing for years to come.

This situation in Canada is quite different.  Although there is no legislation like NAGPRA, many museums and Aboriginal groups have taken steps to repatriate items.  In the past 30 years or so, Aboriginal groups have begun to assert their rights to items that were taken by early settlers under questionable or coercive circumstances and/or items that are of great spiritual significance.  Museums have (hopefully) become more critical of their role in Canada’s colonization of Aboriginals and are recognizing their moral obligations to these groups.

As a historian, and even from the perspective of a museum professional, I am supportive of repatriation.  Although some will claim that these items were taken from Aboriginals legally or given up willingly, the context under which these items were obtained is much too complex to make those statements.  For example, in Canada, many Aboriginals were forced to give up items when their traditional Potlatch ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government in 1884.

A prominent critique of repatriation I encountered in our readings argued that museums were institutions of public interest and, as such, should not accommodate special interests of certain groups.  Some argued that Native artifacts should be maintained and preserved for the benefit of the nation.

I don’t find this argument convincing with regards to Canada’s Aboriginals and repatriation, simply because I think museums have been greatly linked with colonialism and should work to rectify their mistakes.  However, I think this critique does raise an important issue.

If museums are funded by the taxpayers, as almost all are, then they do have a public interest to serve.  Removing objects from collections means reducing the public’s access and ability to learn about those items.  However, I think museums do need to be accountable to cultural groups in their presentation and interpretation of history.

As we get further into the 21st century, it seems this balance is going to be increasingly difficult for museums to maintain.  More groups are calling for a greater involvement in museum processes, which, I think, is beneficial to everyone.  However, museums will still struggle with defining and answering to the “public interest.”