Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Public History and Environmental Engagement: Scotland's Coastal Heritage


The recent special issue of The Public Historian focused on public history and environmental sustainability.  This issue builds on the sustainable public history theme that was the focus of the 2014 National Council on Public History conference and the digital collection Public History in a Changing Climate which appeared on the Public History Commons.  The special journal issue contains a number of interesting articles on the desire to engage the public with environmental history and a changing environmental landscape. 

The article "A View from Scotland's Coast" by Tom Dawson which looks at coastal erosion and the impact of erosion of heritage sites provides a glimpse into the potential of engaging the public in issues of heritage, climate change, and natural heritage. 

Dawson's writing focuses on the work of the Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion Trust (SCAPE Trust) and highlights examples of coastal erosion's impact of heritage sites in Scotland.  For example, in Bora, a small coastal town in Northern Scotland, industrial buildings from the sixteenth century were uncovered on the coast.  Beginning in 2004 SCAPE worked with the local community and organizations to excavate buildings and begin to document the site.  However in 2012 a winter storm destroyed the sixteenth-century salt pans that had been uncovered.  All that remained were piles of ruble on a beach below.

This and other examples of heritage sites endangered by coastal erosion reminded me a lot of my trip to Ireland.  While touring the Dingle Peninsula there were a number of site that had been partially destroyed be erosion or were at risk because of the changing shoreline.  I remember thinking at the time about what could be done to save such sites, particularly in a country that is filled with similar heritage structures.

Dawson argues that "being able to demonstrate the value of an asset is key to getting the item preserved, or at least recorded before it is destroyed."  Heritage sites need to advocate for the value of their existence and preservation, especially if an economic advantage to preserving the site isn't immediately apparent. 

SCAPE believes that involving communities and local populations in archaeological and preservation projects is key, "working directly with heritage gives people a greater understanding of its importance, and this appreciation spreads through the community and beyond"  Additionally local residents often hold valuable knowledge which has been passed down through generations about local heritage sites, landscape changes, and past events. 

SCAPE's development of the Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk Project (SCHARP) highlights a collaborative effort to engage communities in preservation.  The project relies on the public to update and correct information collected via coastal surveys and report any changes to the sites.  The SCHARP project website includes data for 12,000 coastal sites and invites the public to update information based on local knowledge.  The site is relatively user friendly and interesting to explore even for those without a local connection to Scotland.

SCAPE also asks community members to nominate sites for preservation.  Though the ShoreDig project SCAPE works with communities to facilitate community excavation and to encourage engagement with threatened local heritage. 

Dawson's work highlights the crucial role the public has to play in the preservation of coastal heritage.  Community engagement is essential to assessment of local heritage sites and working with the public can help preserve information and sites which would otherwise be lost in changing landscapes.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Signage and Not So Common Sense in Galleries

The Art Gallery of Algoma is currently featuring an exhibit titled Imagery from the Canadian North in its Project Room gallery. The exhibition contains works in a variety of mediums from the AGA's permanent collection that were created by artists from Canada's North. 

The small exhibit contains wall hangings, prints, drawings, paintings, and stone carving.  The pieces included provide a small glimpse into the rich artistic traditions in Canada's arctic and Indigenous art in Canada.  I particularly enjoyed an untitled wall hanging by Joanne Akoptanuak depicting both humans and animals sharing a space.

However, very little contextual information was included in the project room about the featured artists, the impact of climate on art, and where in Canada's North the works were created.  Two maps were included as part of the didactic material in the exhibit but didn't really provide detailed context about the location of the Northern artists whose work was being featured.

While taking in the exhibition a few other visitors to the gallery were also in the space.  The exhibition features a few soapstone carvings on pedestals without a glass enclosure.  The signage at the entrance to the space did include a note about not touching the artwork.  However, during my time in the space I had to restrain myself when two other visitors repeatedly touched the uncovered artwork.  The one visitor also commented to a friend, "oh these pieces are uncovered, that must mean they want us to touch them."  Cringing and sideways glares abounded.

If nothing else that experience reminded me of the importance of exhibition design, signage, and security in galleries and museums.  Things gallery staff might think are common sense aren't always.  Having visible signage explaining appropriate conduct, contextual information, and educational information is a crucial part of any exhibition.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Group of Seven in Algoma

I recently visited the Art Gallery of Algoma (AGA) to take in their fall exhibitions.  Though I have worked with the AGA a number of times on collaborative exhibitions I haven't really explored the gallery as a visitor before.

The main exhibition at the AGA right now is the Group of Seven in Algoma and a Mysterious Death.  The show is part of the Algoma Fall Festival and focuses on the Group of Seven's connection to Northern Ontario and the impact that the artists continue to have in the artistic world.

 The Group of Seven portion of the exhibit features 38 pieces of artwork done by different members of the Group and was guest curated by Tom Smart, from the Art Gallery of Sudbury.  The exhibit contains pieces from the AGA's collection but also brings together works from other private and public collections around Ontario. 

The exhibition features a variety of works, styles, and artists.  It was interesting to be able to compare the different styles within the group and recognize numerous locations in the paintings.  The exhibition featured a number of works by A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, and Franklin Carmichael that I hadn't seen before. 

The only disappointment of the exhibit was the lack of any work from Lawren Harris, who tends to be my favourite artist from the Group of Seven. But that's more of a personal preference and the exhibit is excellent regardless.

Paired with the works of the Group of Seven is George Walker's The Mysterious Death of Tom Thomson which contains over 100 prints made from wood engravings.  Walker's work initially appeared in 'wordless novel' format and highlight the impact of Thomson's impact on Canadian culture while telling the story of Thomson's life and death.  Digital reproductions of the 109 engravings can be seen here.

In addition to the over 100 prints the exhibit features a few of Walker's tools, original plates, and a reproduction skull of Thomson.  The prints effectively tell a life story without words and the intricacy of the woodcuts which created the prints was inspiring.  The Walker exhibit was an interesting contrast to the Group of Seven exhibit and worked well in the same space.

Group of Seven in Algoma and a Mysterious Death is open until October 26th at the Art Gallery of Algoma.  Since the event is part of the Algoma Fall festival the admission price is slightly higher ($9) than the regular ($5) gallery admission,  but it is well worth a visit.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Changing Expectations: Parenthood and Work Balance

I've started, rewritten, and deleted this post a few times.  I've been struggling with how to broach a topic that is intrinsically personal - pregnancy, parenthood, and workplace expectations - but has a need to be discussed more broadly.

 My partner and I are approaching a life changing event, the birth of our first child.  As the due date creeps ever closer I've been thinking a lot about how parenthood and concepts of gender interact with workplace expectations.  Particularly in relation to the archival profession, academia, and historical trends in Canada.

A few years ago I had taken a sick day and was shocked when a colleague responded with "You aren't pregnant are you?  Because you know that would pretty inconvenient timing for us all right now and throw a wrench in our plans."  At the time I laughed it off.  But now that I am actually pregnant the words shed light on some of the obstacles many women face in the workplace.

That single comment isn't representative my experience -- I'm extremely lucky to have a very supportive workplace and access to generous maternity benefits (yay for living in Canada).  I plan on taking seven months off work and my partner will be taking the remaining five months of the parental leave. I decided not to take the full year off work for a number of reasons - the desire that my partner have a chance to bond with the baby, a strong feeling that I might go stir crazy at home, and because I don't want my professional life to stop when I enter this new phase of my personal life.

On a professional level I've been struggling with how to prioritize my semi-work related commitments.  Things that aren't required by my job but that I've always associated with work and professional development.  Namely journal issues, book chapters, and conference panels I've been asked to contribute to.  I've declined a couple of contribution requests out of a desire to try and simplify my commitments in the upcoming year.  But, I've committed to a couple of lower pressure and longer deadline projects for 2015-2016 and hope to keep up with most of my current commitments (albeit scaled back a bit). I know my life is going to drastically change in the next couple of months and it's impossible to gauge how that will impact my commitments long term. 

When thinking about this issue I've found it helpful to read about the experiences of others in the heritage field and academia who are discussing work/life balance in the context of parenthood and gender expectations. A few of the most useful sites have been:
  • Nursing Clio a collaborative blog project that links historical scholarship to present day gender and medicine issues. 
  • The Women in Archives series on the Chaos ---> Order blog. A two week series focusing on the issues of gender and social inequalities in the context of institutional/professional/social legacies. 
  • Hook and Eye is a group blog dedicated to writing about the lives of women in the Canadian University system.  Contributors are from a range of backgrounds affiliated with universities such as undergrads, grad students, postdoc, sessionals, professors, administrators, alumna, emerita, etc. A number of posts have been written on parenthood, gender expectations, and life balance. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Orange Shirt Day

September 30, 2014 is the second annual Orange Shirt Day.  The day grew out of a residential school commemoration event held in Williams, Lake BC in Spring 2013.  During this event Phyllis (Jack) Webstad, a Survivor of the St. Joseph Mission Residential School described her experience of arriving at the residential school and having an orange shirt that was bought for her by her grandmother taken away from her.

Speaking about her experience Phyllis said that "the colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn't matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing.  All of us little children were crying and no one cared."  Phyllis complete story can be viewed here.

As a result of Phyllis' experience and the 2013 commemoration event Orange Shirt Day was created as a way to inspire conversation around residential schools and reconciliation.  Similar to the anti-bullying pink shirt campaigns, the Orange Shirt Day/Every Child Matters campaign encourages people to wear orange and begin discussing the issues behind the cause.  Many school boards across Canada are using this as an opportunity to begin discussions of residential schools in their classrooms.  More information about Orange Shirt Day can be found on their website and facebook page.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom

My latest post, "Bringing the Legacy of Residential Schools into the Classroom" can be seen over on Active History.  The post focuses on resources that can help teachers integrate residential schools into their lessons. I look a handful of education tools which can be accessed digitally and are good starting points for teaching the history of residential schools.