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!

Looking ahead: Canada During it’s Centennial Year

Yesterday, for Jonathan Vance’s Social Memory class, I presented on Canada’s Centennial celebrations.  Dr. Vance provided me with the official guide to the Centennial year and asked me to consider what role history played in the celebrations.  Was the 100th year anniversary of (the start of) Confederation looking at the past or toward the future?

Based on my review of the guide and some additional research, I decided that Canada’s Centennial was much more about the future than it was about the past.  To illustrate what I mean, here are a few of the events / programs from Canada’s Centennial year.

Confederation Memorial Buildings

In honour of Canada’s Centennial, approximately $88 million was spent on the creation of new cultural institutions all across Canada. This program was designed to encourage and facilitate a national culture.  These buildings are located in Canada’s capitals or larger cities.

Investment in Infrastructure

In addition to this program, another $88 was made available to communities for local projects.  Parks, recreational structures, community centres and recreational areas were the 4 most common investments (at 78% the total number of projects), while the top 4 history-related projects (museums / art galleries, historic building restoration, erection of memorials) made up less than 10% of the total number of projects

Focus on Youth

Many programs were designed specifically for youth. There was a Youth Travel Program, where teenagers could travel to other areas of Canada using funding from the provincial and federal governments.  6,000,000 bronze medallions celebrating the Centennial were presented to school children all over the country.  Communities also participated in beautification programs, where primary school children helped plant trees and shrubs throughout their community.  The purpose of these programs was to instill a sense of nationalism and civic duty in the next generation of Canadians.

How was the past used?

I found that when history was used during the Centennial, it provided a very linear narrative to reinforce notions of progress.  The Confederation Train for example, which traveled across the country and was visited by 100,000s of people, contained a series of exhibits relating to the country’s history.  The themes of the cars were as follows: Prehistory, European Exploration, Settlement, Confederation and Industrialization. At the end of the train, visitors were encouraged to contemplate the future of Canada.  Using one of Canada’s most powerful historic symbols, the Confederation Train was an example of looking at history in order to think about the future.

More importantly, what digital tool did you use in your history presentation??

For my presentation, I traded in my Powerpoint template for the new presentation tool Prezi.  It was the first time I had worked with Prezi and, while there was a bit of a learning curve, I don’t think I will ever return to Powerpoint.  With Prezi, you basically add all of your points and images onto a large canvas and then create a path between each item to formulate your presentation.  It creates an animated and much more visually appealing presentation (although, it is possible to make your presentation too animated, causing your audience to experience waves of dizziness / nausea).

Prezi offers both paid and free versions, the main difference being that Prezis created using the free version are  made public on Prezi’s site (so if you are working on any top-secret projects, you should splurge for a paid account, which allows you to create private Prezis).  Prezis are created in your browser, but you can download a version so that you don’t need to rely on an internet connection for your presentation.

Here is a link to my Prezi presentation, if you are interested in learning more about Canada’s Centennial or Prezi!

Which way should the toenails face? On creating a display for the UWO Medical Collection

Today, some of us had the opportunity to help Dr. Shelley McKellar and Caitlin Dyer set up a display for the UWO Medical Collection.  We were given five (deceptively large) cases on the main floor of Weldon library on campus.

I was eager to help for a couple of reasons.  First, I don’t have much exhibit experience and this was a great way to get my feet wet, so to speak.  When we arrived at the office where the collection is stored, Dr. McKellar and Caitlin had several themes outlined and most of the objects selected.  There was still room to make some decisions, but enough structure so that we weren’t there for 3 hours figuring out what to display.

Caitlin, Brent and Jen deciding how to position the prosthetic leg.

When we got to the library, we broke up into teams of two and each of us were given a case and a theme.  Again, this was the perfect amount of freedom.  There were still many decisions to make within our own case (which items to include? which items to group together? how should the objects be laid out?), but it wasn’t completely overwhelming as I’m sure a large exhibit can be.  It was fun to watch other people work on their cases and offer (and receive) advice and opinions.

I was also interested in this opportunity because I have been working with a medical collection through my RA at Museum London.  As I am not a medical historian (far from it), I have struggled at times working with these types of items.  It can be alarming to open a box and find a prosthetic leg staring up at you.

However, I must say that I’m proud of the progress I’ve made with the collection – I am much more comfortable handling the items and getting much braver at Googling things like “tonsil guillotine.

Caitlin working on the display that she researched and designed herself. (PS: This smile isn't a pose - Caitlin was glowing with genuine excitement the whole time)

My main task at Museum London is to catalog the collection.  This involves unwrapping creepy medical artifacts from boxes, identifying them, conducting some basic research, entering them into a database, labeling them and putting them on a shelf.  Any research I do focuses on an individual item and so my understanding of medical history is a bit fragmented as a result.  It was neat to see these oh-so-familiar objects put on display so that they could tell their story.

Public Historian: Facilitator of Knowledge

Happy New Year my loyal reader(s?)!

It’s hard to believe that January is almost over.  My fellow public historians and I are well into the next term of our degree, which brings with it new classes, projects and experiences.  As our Digital History class is now over, my blog is no longer a course requirement.  I do hope to keep blogging, although I suspect my entries will be more irregular and infrequent than last term.

Today, I will tell you about my unexpected “A-HA” moment in my public history class yesterday.  We were learning about oral history and the seminar was lead, via video conference, by Dr. Steven High, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Public History at Concordia University.

As you can tell from some of my previous blog posts, I am struggling to fully understand and articulate what it means to be a Public Historian.  It’s a broad field with many different interpretations and definitions out there.  When explaining Public History to someone, I generally say that my degree is preparing me to interpret and present history to the public.  Yesterday, however,  Dr. High presented me with a definition that I would like to adopt, both in semantics and practice.

Dr. High has done fabulous work using oral history as a historical method.  He is currently involved in the “Life Stories” project, which is a huge oral history project to document the experiences of Montreal residents from Rwanda, Haiti, Cambodia, and Nazi Europe, who fled their homelands to escape violence and persecution.  I am still exploring the project (which I encourage you to do, as well), but it is extremely impressive and moving.  The research and interview process Dr. High described was highly collaborative and reflective, with the interviewees having a much larger role in the process than typical oral interviews.

Thus, for Dr. High, Public History isn’t history for the public.  It is history with the public.  It is learning with people and not just learning about people.

Sometimes I feel that I struggle with my field because I am so often overwhelmed and humbled by it.  Who am I to try to understand the effects of the Holocaust on its survivors or the experiences of Aboriginal children in residential schools? What qualifies me to interpret these events for other people? I will admit that these reservations have sometimes deterred me from working on such topics.  Ironically, these histories – ones that continue to impact our society and shape our relationships –  are most important to me.  History has a wonderful power to educate people, to make them think and feel and to create dialogue between different groups.

Thinking of Public History as history with the public and my role as more of a “facilitator of knowledge” than a historian has inspired me.  With this mindset, I’m encouraged to get even more involved with the public and to produce truly valuable work.