I’m embarking on my first MOOC (massive open online course) and have dusted off my old blog so I have a place to chronicle my adventures. I’ve signed up for E-learning and Digital Cultures through Coursera, which will look at online learning in theory, popular culture, and practice (I think). I don’t know what to expect, both in terms of topic and format, but I’m looking forward to it!

So, hello to my new peers!


A brief hiatus?

Don’t worry, friends — I haven’t lost my virtual voice! In mid-May, I started my internship at Canada’s History Society, where I’ve been busy with web editing, a bit of writing and, a new blog.

As you can see by the number of posts, I’m finding it a bit difficult to write about my internship under the banner of my employer. It’s not that I have anything negative to say but it’s hard to impart advice as a young historian when I’m still learning so much myself.

So, while I’ll be concentrating on my blog with Canada’s History, keep my Virtual Voice in your bookmarks, as I still may come here to write some of my thoughts.

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.”

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.”


(Fuzzy) Moments of Inspiration

Last week, we were encouraged to reflect on how we became interested in history.  I’m a bit late with my post, mainly because I felt I didn’t have a particularly interesting or specific story like some of my classmates.

My history career begins with a very vague childhood memory of my Dad taking me to a museum in St. John’s.  It’s one of those memories where you aren’t even sure that it happened or if it was something you dreamed or made up (and I suspect my Dad will be unable to confirm that this occurred, as if it did it was probably just another way to keep me out of the house while my mom rested after working the night shift as a nurse).

In any event, this really is a terrible story, because I don’t remember exactly where we went or what we saw.  I do, however, remember feeling completely fascinated by the objects and thinking that wherever we were, it was very special and cool.

Fast forward to high school, where my memory is a little better (but not much).  I had a boring and grumpy history teacher and I don’t remember the class being particularly interesting to me.  I do, however, have a very clear memory of studying for an exam (or, to be more accurate, cramming for an exam).  I remember sitting on the floor in my basement with all of my notes and text books spread out around me.  As I finally sat down to learn the material, I became totally captivated and interested all of a sudden.  It is here that I would have to add a vote for the Seven Years War to Prof. MacDougall’s tally.  I remember actually processing the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, imagining what it looked like and understanding what it meant for Canada.  My Dad makes another appearance in this memory, as I recall running up the stairs, excited by what I was learning and eager to share it with him.

Lucky for me, my history memories are not restricted to these two moments and I’m continually adding to the collection.  Many more occurred while I was traveling throughout Europe a few years ago and many are being created as I complete this degree.  I guess that’s how you know if you are in the right field – you keep having  these moments of inspiration.

The Permanence Problem

Historians struggle with the idea of commemoration. Whether it is a historic site, event or a significant person, there are so many questions that need to be asked.  How do we decide what warrants commemoration? Who should decide this? What form will the commemoration take – will it be a statue or a plaque? Where will it be placed? These are just some of the questions that need to be considered.

However, these are also questions that need to be considered by historians who are writing history. What should we write about? Who should we write about? What should we say about them?

So why is it that commemoration is such a hot-button topic that is seldom without controversy?

One (perhaps obvious) answer is that commemorations take on a much more public form.  A lot of our written history affects only those who already have an interest in the subject and actively seek out history books, articles or journals. Works of commemoration, however, affect people on a larger scale.  National historic sites (and the content contained therein) are not only consumed by history enthusiasts, but by tourists and school groups, for example.  Smaller forms of commemoration, such as statues and plaques, can be placed in busy urban areas or central spaces that receive high traffic on a regular basis.

Another reason that commemoration can be so difficult is due to its permanence.  We are used to history being written and rewritten, as society changes and we adopt new ways of thinking about the past.  However, when we commission a stone monument and put it in a public space, very little can be done to change its message.

The example that I have in my head as I write this is the Famous Five monument, which we discussed in class this week.  There are actually two Famous Five monuments, one in Calgary and one in Ottawa (on Parliament Hill) and they serve to honour 5 Canadian suffragists who were key in promoting women’s rights in the early 20th century.  They are best known for the “Person’s Case,” of 1929 in which they challenged the Canadian Senate’s ruling that a woman was not considered a person under the British North America Act of 1867 (and was therefore excluded from sitting in the Senate).  The women then  appealed the Senate’s decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and were met with success.

While this was unarguably a defining moment for Canadian women’s rights, creating a monument to honour these individuals proved to be difficult.  These were women of the early 20th century and, aside from their progressive views for women, they maintained what we would perceive today to be racist and elitist mentalities. Some of these women openly participated in Canada’s eugenics movement and advocated for strict immigration laws.  There are some historians who have argued that suffragists were not as concerned with women’s rights as they were with having more power with which they could exert their social values.

It is difficult to commemorate one aspect or contribution of an individual (or group, as in this case), without condoning other actions or beliefs that are perhaps not worthy of commemoration.  In the case of the Famous Five monument in Ottawa, organizers used the unveiling ceremony as an opportunity to frame this particular period of women’s rights as just one in an ongoing history. The ceremony included performers from different cultural and language groups so as to celebrate the inclusiveness that these five suffragists did not.

Although the Canadian government attempted to address the complexities of this particular commemoration, once the celebrations were over Parliament Hill was left with a stone (and, from what I understand, large) structure of these women.  The contextualization that was provided in the unveiling ceremony is no longer available to first time or unknowing visitors.  A cursory search on the web reveals very little information about the unveiling ceremony. The Canadian government’s website for Parliament Hill does not discuss the ceremony, nor does this site from virtualmuseum.ca.

It seems as though the monument’s permanence has prevailed in the commemoration controversy.

Contingency History

I just want to share a blog that I recently started reading and, in particular, its most recent entry.

The blog is called Letters of Note and is edited by a freelance writer and a “self-styled ‘curator of correspondence'” (this is in and of itself interesting, in light of recent discussions about the web and new forms of history / historians that it enables – and, to clarify, I don’t mean that in a negative way).

Letters of Note essentially finds and shares interesting archival material – whether in the form of personal letters, faxes, post-cards, etc.  It doesn’t seem to have any intentional boundaries in subject matter and includes letters from Frederick Banting (!), Mark Chapman, Conan O’Brien and one from the creators of the South Park movie to the Motion Picture Association of America regarding the rating of the movie (that one I’m not going to link – you can guess why).

The most recent entry, was called In the Event of a Moon Disaster and was a contingency speech written for President Nixon to be read should the Apollo 11 astronauts be stranded on the moon.  It is a very eerie look into what could have  easily been a very different (and sad) version of this event.

This letter, to me, demonstrates the value and power of archival material. As historians, we know that we are dealing with at least two versions of history: what we think happened and what actually happened.  This letter forces us to think of history differently – it terms of what almost happened and what people thought might happen.  If you consider what people were thinking (and have evidence of such, like this letter), then you would likely evaluate their actions, motivations and decisions in a different light.

Also, to tie this into Digital History – I just want to point out the way the editor has been able to organize his past posts. Using tags, he is able to categorize his material in several (6) ways, including by author, by correspondence type, and chronologically.  Tagging his entries likely took little time and provided his readers with many ways to search, browse and consider the posts.  Also, by using a “category” tag, it also creates new relationships between the materials that would perhaps not be obvious before.