Thursday, December 20, 2012

Looking Back: Top Heritage Experiences of 2012

This past year has been filled with a variety of heritage focused experiences, archival moments, and history based exploration.  Below are some of my favourite public history moments from the past year:
  • The best museum experience I had this year was hands down my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. I wrote about my experience here.
  • The best conference experience I attended was the National Council on Public History 2012 conference.  The dynamic nature of the conference, the variety of attendees and general history goodness won me over. 
  • Similarly, the best historical tour I participated in 2012 was at the NCPH conference.  It was a walking tour of downtown Milwaukee put on by Historic Milwaukee Inc.  The weather was on the chilly side during this tour and I remember the wind being particularly harsh, but I loved learning about the built heritage, early history, and local events of Milwaukee.  The tour was well contextualized and provided a great introduction to the history of Milwaukee. 
  • Best natural heritage experience of 2012 is a hard choice.  I'm torn between the drive along the beautiful North Shore of Lake Superior and seeing the Agawa Pictographs.  Both were memorable experiences and spoke volumes about the rich heritage that exists in Northern Ontario. 
  • I was fortunate to celebrate Canada Day  at The Forks heritage site in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  This was probably the most memorable and most diverse celebration at a heritage site.  It was great to see a natural heritage space being used for events by the general public and to see the in progress building of the Museum of Human Rights.
Other heritage highlights of 2012 include seeing the Body Worlds Vital exhibit at Science North, drinking tasty beer in the Third District in Milwaukee, being proposed to with a piece of estate jewelery, the Truth and Reconciliation event I attended in Toronto last February, and having the time to read about aspects of archival practice, public history, and Indigenous heritage that I'm interested in.  Looking forward to many more heritage filled moments in 2013.  Providing the world doesn't end tomorrow, of course.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Canada's Churches: A Struggle of Built Heritage and Social Services

It won't be surprising to anyone to note that Christan church attendance in Canada has been declining in recent years.  The United Church of Canada, which has been seen as one of the more forward thinking and social activist churches (ordaining women ministers in the 1930s, tolerant and supportive of gay rights since the 1980s and promoting rational thought in the church since the 1990s) has had a declining membership since 1965. The once dominant Protestant churches in Canada are feeling a similar decline in membership.

In the small town of 1200 people where I live, there are five Christian churches which hold services on Sundays.  On the average non-holiday Sunday most of these churches see under 30 people in the pews.  Many congregations are struggling with financial concerns, lack of new members, and aging congregations. 

Looking at the United Churches in the North Shore region of Ontario paints a rather dismal picture.  Many of these churches are struggling to keep their doors open.  The congregations simply do not have the financial means to heat, maintain, and repair the historic buildings the churches call home.  In many cases the unwillingness to let go of these historic buildings is slowly resulting in the demise of congregations.  Ministers, secretaries, organists and other once essential staff are let go in hopes of saving money to support a building.  These decisions to discontinue with paid staff often result in further instability and additional church members leaving the church.  All for a building.

I find this instance on identifying a church with a building mind boggling.  Similar to service clubs (which are also facing declining membership), churches have long been community staples, providing community services and a sense of working for the less fortunate/the greater good.  Churches have served as gathering places and places of community spirit.

Historically, the social role of church has been just as significant as the heritage buildings the church communities have built. Many early church congregations met in community halls, private homes, and schools.  The location where these congregations gathered didn't make them any less of a church.  The congregations still worshiped and worked together to improve their community.  The Church buildings came much later, as the congregations grew in size and prosperity.  Logically, if there has been a drastic decline in size and prosperity the church building should reflect that. 

 By no means would I want a historic building to be torn down or simply abandoned.  But, I can't see the value in a handful of people holding onto a building after the worship and social components of a church have been lost.  The financial burden of a large church is huge. The winter heating costs alone can be crippling.  Desperately holding onto a building that you can't afford in the long run seems like a form of denial and simply delaying the inevitable. 

There are a number of adaptive reuse possibilities for churches.  In the small town of five active churches which I spoke about earlier.  There is a sixth church building which stopped operating as a church in the 1990s.  Since that time, the building as been a public library, town offices, and an arts center.  The building still exists and many people have entered it that never would have had it stayed a church. Church buildings in larger cities have been turned into condos, office space, fitness centers and used for a whole range of other purposes. 

People don't like change.  But, declining membership numbers and financial reports speak for themselves, ignoring them doesn't make them go away.  Many church congregations and communities need to take a serious look at their future and decide how to move forth in an increasingly secular society.


Additional Reading:
The Globe and Mail article on "The Collapse of the Liberal Church" from June 2012 is an interesting read for anyone looking to learn more about the place of liberal Christianity in Canada and the United States.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Conference Engagement: Presentations and Papers

Anyone who has attended Canadian Historical Association or Association of Canadian Archivists or any other mainstream academic conference is familiar with what more traditional conference sessions look like.  There are typically two or three presenters per session and the majority of presenters simply read a formal paper.  These papers are at times accompanied by a powerpoint presentation but many of them are simply stand alone papers.  Reading of these papers is typically followed by an extremely short question period, in which a small handful of the audience asks questions.

People reading can be engaging, but it depends on the topic, style of writing, and reading style of the presenter. Some people are dynamic and engaging while talking and don't really need additional props.  But there are also the monotone presenters, those who hardly look at the audience, and obscure topics that aren't contextualized for the audience.  Often the content of the presentation has the potential to be interesting, the format of the presentation just lacks any level of engagement.

One of the many reasons I loved the National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference last year was the dynamic, engaging nature of many of the sessions.  The formal reading of papers is fairly non existent at NCPH conferences and I found sessions which involved active audience participation to be the ones which stuck in my mind, provided stimulating thoughts for future projects, and were generally the most enjoyable.

Recently, an email was sent out to NCPH 2013 presenters that reinforced the idea of engaging presentations at the annual conference.  It was suggested to presenters:

1) not to read your presentation if you can help it, but to present as if you are teaching or interpreting at a historic site;
2) bring the audience into the program (don’t leave the audience only five minutes at the very end for questions);
3) see the session as an energetic, highly-informed start of a conversation, not simply a report on work done in the past.
I  really love the idea of presentations as conversations that involve the audience.  I also like that there is an emphasis on "presentation" not "papers."  A thoughtful carefully written academic paper is not the same thing as a well crafted interactive presentation. Many attendees of the NCPH annual conference come from outside of academia.  I'm sure that this in part is due to the spectrum of people engaged in public history, but I think it could also be attributed to the style of the conference -- those not well versed in academic conferences feel completely comfortable presenting in their own style, which might not fit into more traditional conferences.

I'm looking forward to NCPH 2013 which is being held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in April 2013.  The conference program and registration details are available online.

What makes a good conference session? Have you attended a conference that used an innovative presentation style?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Archives Music

When you think of music you probably don't instantly think of archive themed songs. Yet, there are a surprising number of lyrics that mention archives.  For your listening pleasure on this snowy Monday:

John K. Sampson's "When I Write My Master's Thesis"contains a great reference to archives: "Oh the hours I spent in the archives wearing cotton gloves, shuffling photos from the night at Sanatorium..."  The image of white gloves tends to draw to mind the idea of dusty papers and rooms filled with boxes, but it is definitely an archives reference in an alternative rock song.

There is actually a London, England based band named Archive.  They are well worth a listen, even if the only reference to archives is their name.

Though more of a library reference than an archives shout out,the Arkells song Book Club contains the amusing line "You're my library, always open for business." Additionally, many of the Arkells songs mention well known (and at times historic) Hamilton landmarks.  Some of the more well known references include the Snooty Fox, Jackson Square, Frank McCourt, and McMaster.

The "Little Boxes (In the Archives)" parody  is about as archive oriented as a song can get.  There are mentions of Hollinger boxes, grey boxes, folders, flattening, material types, reference, and genealogy.  Check out the full song:

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Digital Map Making Roundup

I've recently come across a lot of great material focusing on digital map making, bottom-up cartography, and the linkage of digital maps to the physical world. A few of these great posts have been listed below:

Mapping our Learning Worlds by Lyndsay Grant on the DMLcentral blog
This post does an excellent job of highlight the usefulness of maps in education -- with an emphasis on what maps can teach us about the world.  The link to Jerry Brotton's A History of the World in Twelve Maps, is particularly interesting in it's focus on what maps can tell us about their creators (rather than the physical landscape).  Grant's post also dives into a discussion of digital senses of space and open source map creation. 
Spark interview with Andrew Turner focusing on bottom up and digital map making.  
This interview highlights the interactive possibilities of maps, the integration of maps into mobile devices, and the possibilities of place paced inter-connectivity and personalization.  Turner presents an interesting discussion of the authoritativeness of open source maps, contested map spaces, and potential future digital mapping developments. 
Digital maps as art: Google Street View inspires an art and architecture show
"The Skyliner's new exhibition will look at the streets and buildings and people of Greater Manchester via artistic interpretations of that modern phenomenon, Google Street View. "
Mapping Zombies, Visualizing data at the Oxford Internet Institute. 
So this last reference might not be the most scholarly map ever, but it has entertainment value.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Oral History and Documentation Sharing

Earlier this week, Canada's History Society hosted an oral history webinar with Alexander Freund.  The webinar focused on the basics behind oral history, planning and implementation of oral history, and general best practices for oral history projects.  The webinar was recorded and can be viewed online. 

The webinar provided a good starting point for those with little or no exposure to oral history. Freund's presentation was broken down into preparation, interviewing, processing and dissemination.  He provided high level overviews of each oral history component using general examples and suggestions.  

I was particularly pleased to hear Freund's emphasis on the need for oral history projects to work with archives from the very early stages of the project.  Freund suggested that projects should be conducted with a long term goal of archival preservation and that archives should be consulted regarding preservation, donor details and other pertinent documentation.  As someone who works in an archive and who has used archived oral history recordings, Freund's emphasis on a proactive collaborative approach makes me very happy.

Though the content of the webinar was fairly introductory, the resources and samples provided as part of the webinar have the potential to be invaluable.  These resources included items such as an interview guide, audacity audio software guide, sample forms, and interview checklists. Having examples of other policies, guides, and best practices greatly assists in the creation of program specific procedures.

Anyone who has ever written a best practices manual, training guide, or policy knows the value of not reinventing the wheel.  I find looking at the established best practices of other organizations is one of the best ways to gain perspective on your purposed best practices.  Granted, these established practices can (or should) very rarely be copied wholesale -- rather they are considered, incorporated, elaborated on to fit your organization.

Currently, only a limited number of heritage organizations post their documentation online.  It seems redundant for every heritage organization to start each policy from nothing, when so many other organizations have essentially the same basic policies. In particular, smaller organizations with limited resources can gain a lot from looking at studies, working groups, and policies that have been crafted by larger resource rich institutions.  This can apply to everything from effective collection policies, heritage specific software guides, to donor forms. This webinar highlighted the value of sharing resources and community collaboration.  I sincerely hope that as online collaboration increases that so does the use of shared resources in the heritage sector, as most organizations have much to gain from joint efforts.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Aboriginal Archives and the Division of Community and 'Professional' Archives

South Australian Museum, shields
Somebody, somewhere, decided yesterday was (unofficial) Aboriginal Archives Day.  Google failed in finding a definite answer in who was promoting the day, but by the looks of it the University of Manitoba may have started it as an internal event and promoted it via social media; which resulted in a handful of other archives 'participating'.  A handful of archives and organizations shared resources, collections, and special events via social media.  Some of the highlights include:
I think perhaps the most notable point here is that none of the organizations who shared resources were First Nation or Tribal heritage organizations.  There continues to be a divide between grassroots Indigenous archives and more formalized institutional based archives. 

The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does have a Special Interest Section on Aboriginal Archives (SISAA).  According to the summary on the ACA website, SISAA aims to act as " an interface between the community of Canadian archivists and Aboriginal communities and organizations and to form a base of expertise, advice, and support on archival issues that can be shared with Aboriginal communities and organizations."  The most well known example of this is the 2007 SISAA publication of their Aboriginal Archives Guide which serves as an introduction to archival practice for Aboriginal organizations and communities.  

I find the above statement about SISAA unsettling.  The statement speaks of sharing expertise with Aboriginal communities and the separation of the archival community from Aboriginal communities.   Yes, archivists do have expertise, however there is a tremendous amount of knowledge that archivists can also gain from viewing Aboriginal communities as the experts -- traditional knowledge, oral traditions, and cultural heritage can provide a breadth of understanding to archivists that can potentially enrich archival collections.  Additionally, Canada's colonial past and resulting collection with consultation has long been detrimental to the material cultural of Indigenous people in Canada.  Active and equal collaboration has the potential to benefit the archival and Aboriginal communities.

Though perhaps the SISAA is merely attempting to grapple with its current state -- very few archivists or archives staff from smaller more community based archives participate in ACA's annual conference, special interest groups, or membership.  Many of the members of SISAA are archivists who work in more traditional institutions which hold substantial collections created by or relating to Aboriginal people (eg. LAC, provincial and local government archives, HBC, etc).

Smaller resource limited archives tend to be disengaged from the ACA and more broadly the Canadian archival and heritage profession. In the US, the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) has worked to engage Tribal based cultural institutions and to provide training and services that are geared to the specific needs of Tribal organizations.  Granted, this still separates Aboriginal heritage organizations and professionals from the rest of the profession, but at least important services are made accessible via ATALM.

In Canada, many archives have worked to established community level collaboration and relationships with Indigenous people.  Currently, these connection just don't seem to transfer into the national level or the realm of professional associations.  Given the current dismal state of government heritage funding, it seems unlikely that ACA and other professional organizations will change their approaches to Indigenous heritage in the near future. 

Monday, November 26, 2012

Memoirs and Our Perception of History

I recently participated in a discussion focusing on the benefits, nature, and drawbacks of the memoir genre.  In the past decade the memoir genre has experienced a huge serge in popularity.  This serge has not been entirely smooth, controversies have surrounded many memoirs in recent years.  Perhaps, most famously James Frey's A Mission Little Pieces was exposed as being a fictional fabrication after being promoted as a truthful memoir on a variety of media outlets. The controversy surrounding Frey's use of fiction in a memoir is not a singular event, in April 2011 Greg Mortenson was sued for including potentially fabricated details in his memoir Three Cups of Tea and the content of many other memoirs has been questioned.

If nothing else these controversies tend to highlight how firmly the general public believes that literary works purported as truthful must adhere to a strict code of reality.  Based on this logic memoirs can be self serving, full of bias and pride but must not include excessive fabrications or stretching of the truth.  Memoirs present only one point of view and tend to present an edited view of a persons life -- does this make them any less of a valid literary work? Or a valid personal history? The point is debatable, but I tend to think they
 are valid on both points, they just need to be treated with care and with an understanding of their nature.

This discussion of the nature of memoirs led to me thinking about the nature of established histories.  Archives and historical records can be just as biased as memoirs.  For example, correspondence that acts as a historical record or an archival source is often fraught with contention.  A written letter only tells a specific story, the one written on the page.  What the author left out, the reasoning for including particular references, and additional context can at times be inferred but can rarely be known with certainty. 

Similarly, ledgers, statistics and other quantifiable records are not always hundred percent truthful.  Look at wartime statistics, the number of enemy kills is often approximated or exaggerated to garner wartime support.  Granted, the fallibility of these statistics often comes to light at the conclusion of war, but 100% accurate numbers often don't appear.  Another example of the fallibility of historical statistics can easily be found in the case of Residential School records.  Quarterly returns, the student lists submitted by school principals to Indian Affairs to gain a per student compensation rate, often included 'errors' which would result in the school gaining additional funding.  Students who had left the school or passed away were at times left on the official class list, gaining the school funding for a student who wasn't in attendance.  Statistics are not always the ultimate historical source when looked at in isolation. 

Additionally, archives, museums and formal histories are not the be all and end all of history.  Selection procedures and display policies all impact what history is kept, recorded, and presented.  Visitors to a historic site are seeing a curated presentation of the past.  It is physically impossible to keep or display everything.  Researchers and the general public need to be aware that just because something isn't prominently display or well represented in an archival collection, doesn't mean that it didn't happen or impact historical events.  

Most records and perceptions of the past have some kind of inherent bias.  Personal correspondence, official business records, government records, etc may all contain underlying motives that aren't apparent at first glance.  Contextual analysis and examining documents in an inclusive manner can help bring about the most representative truths from documents.  Looking at history from a variety of vantage points helps expose hidden aspects of the past and helps drive further historical research. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Where The Old Stuff Goes: The Importance of Appraisal

Institutional archives tend to gain the bulk of their records via a records management program and directly from the institution they are part of.  Thematic archives are typically not linked with an institution in the same way and must look beyond a single organization for records.  This results in theme oriented archives relying on collection policies to dictate the type of material they collect.
 
Properly functioning records management programs provide a constant supply of new archival records.  Theme basic archives typically have no idea when the next donation might appear on the horizon.  This can result in what some have termed a 'keeper' mentality or a vacuum approach (sucks up everything in sight) to archival selection. Frank Boles in Selecting & Appraising Archives & Manuscripts provides a thoughtful summary of this type of fear based approached to selection,
"The uncertainty inherent in collecting records is real, but in many collecting archives it has been linked to the 'keeper' mentality...this linkage has further lessened the urge to plan.  If an archivist cannot know what tomorrow will bring, this line of reasoning argues, then perhaps he or she should simply seize what is at hand and preserve at all cost." (p. 65)
 Having spent the last two years working in an archive that operated for 30+ years without a collection policy or trained archival staff, has highlighted how this urge to keep anything that might be tangentially relevant can create chaos in any archive.  It isn't physically or financially practical to keep everything.  There is no need to keep 45 identical copies of an event program or every brochure that has ever been mailed to an archive. Think of how many documents you make in the course of a single day -- how many do you throw out or delete as soon as you're done using them? These transitory records have little value beyond their immediate use and are not normally candidates for archival preservation.

The lack of a well conceived collection policy can contribute to resources being spent on material that isn't useful to researchers or community groups the archive aims to serve, collections being accepted that have no 'intrinsic archival or research value' and a whole range of administrative problems such as collections on deposit and a plethora of missing donor information.  Collecting everything in sight can even contribute the collection of items which can be detrimental to the physical collection as a whole -- eg. Collections that contain mold, insects, nitrate negatives without proper storage, etc.

Having a strategic plan, collection policy and mandate can benefit archival staff, researchers, and community groups.  Once collection priorities are established archival staff can focus outreach on potential donors with relevant collections, instead of waiting for scraps of maybe relevant material to be handed to them.  Many useful fonds and collections are not necessarily the largest in existence, but the ones which are well documented, have rich provenance and have been arranged and described with care.  An archive which has many poorly described, non related collections is far less accessible to researchers than an archive which focuses on providing clear access to a well defined type of collection.

Most of the general public sees archives as general storage places for 'old stuff.'  Archives need to actively work toward educating the public and researchers about the purpose of collection policies, acquisition strategies, and archival mandates.  Having strong collection policies makes it easier for archival staff to make appropriate appraisal choices, which in tern makes it easier for archival staff to explain to the public why they don't act as a repository for every old piece of paper. 

Photo credit: wj_souza

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Archival Advocacy: Canada and Abroad

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the twitter and blog realms about SAA's new publication Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives. The publication garnered a heated post on the "You Ought to be Ashamed" blog, this post spurred a charged the twitter debate and number of other blog posts.  See here and here

For those of you who have missed the discussion, it boils down to a criticism of the use of volunteers in place of paid archival staff and a subsequent criticism of SAA's lack of advocacy for paid archivists positions.  Personally, I see volunteers and students as a great thing, but they do need guidance and proper support from trained staff.  Many organizations couldn't survive without the hours put in by their volunteers.  But organization also can't flourish without consistent trained guidance.  I think this issue highlights the need for archives to make the general public, stakeholders and funding organizations more aware of what archives actually do and what specialized skills are held by trained archives staff.

Many people have limited knowledge of what terms like appraisal, processing, arrangement, preservation, etc mean.  As a result archives are often seen as storage rooms for old stuff.  Explaining the value of organization and documentation can be a starting point for introducing archival skill sets to the general public. A lot of misconceptions can begin to be altered through community outreach and active advocacy.

The other point which this discussion highlighted for me was how much more involved and active archival professional organizations seem in the United States.   The Association of Canadian Archivists (ACA) does hold an annual conference, publishes a newsletter and journal, and has a growing social media presence. The ACA also released a number of news bulletins and a letter writing campaign when cuts to Library and Archives Canada were announced.  Despite these efforts, Canadian archivists on a whole just don't seem to be engaged in national professional dialogues to the same extent as their American counterparts.  Though perhaps I'm just observing the wrong segments of the web-- in which case please correct me. 

A number of Canadian archival institutions use twitter and facebook to promote new collections and services.  However these accounts rarely engage on topics related to the archive profession itself. 
Almost all of the prominent individual archives blogs and individual archival users of twitter tend to be from the United States.  Frankly, I can't see an ACA publication causing such a stir in the Canadian archival community even if it was controversial in nature.

This lack of professional dialogue or national community on the part of Canadian archivists can be disheartening at times.  Canadian archivists are angered when cuts are made to archival funding and tend to rise up in the face of crisis.  But on a daily basis very few archivists are engaging in discussions about how to improve the field or change public perceptions.   Last minute action isn't always the best method and continuous education, promotion, and outreach has the potential to root out some problems before they begin.

Additional reading:
Adam Crymble's 2010 Archivaria article, "An Analysis of Twitter and Facebook Use by the Archival Community," provides a good analysis of the different uses of social media by archival organizations and individual.  Despite the data being from 2009-2010 the conclusions about types of usage and outreach are still very relevant.

Some Canadian Archives Twitter Folks:
@deantiquate
@rgscarter
@allen_heather
@mistydemeo
@ArchivesSarah

Monday, November 12, 2012

Crumbling Communities: Declining Service Club Membership

My most recent post can be seen over on the Active History site.  The post focuses on the development and rich history behind prominent service clubs such as the Lions Club, Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.  The post also addresses the recent history of the clubs and recent declining membership rates.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Small Town Gossip and E-Books

Anyone who has ever lived in a small town has probably experienced the power of the small town social grapevine at one point or another.  You told one person news or did something unusual and suddenly the everyone you run into is asking you about it.  Sometimes it feels as though people are by hyper-aware of each others actions and options. 

Perhaps this small town mentality is what caused me to be so shocked when I heard member of the library staff talk down e-books and e-readers.  On a couple of occasions in recent months I've witnessed this person talk about how ebooks can't compare to 'real books', that e-books dissuade people from visiting the library, and that ebooks can negatively impact your brain function.  After reflection I began to wonder how many other people in the library heard these statements and repeated them as fact.  Or have noticed that the library is one of the few in Ontario that seems to have opted out of Overdrive (the Ontario Library Service digital book portal).

I love my physical books.  I am also an active user of a Kobo and I routinely read online.  I also still visit my local library on a fairly regular basis.  In my mind there are distinct benefits to both physical and electronic forms of reading and I like each for different reasons. I can understand librarians (and users) being frustrated with ebooks terms or use and lending conditions.  But, being frustrated with a flawed usage agreement is no reason to discount an entire type of reading or user group. 

On any evening visit to the library the entire bank of computers is typically home to a number of local children and youth, all engaging in digital content in some shape or form.  I have rarely seen these same children/youth browsing through the physical stacks.  Anecdotally this might suggest that these library users are looking for a different type of library than one which focuses solely on physical books.  In this respect the local library is making strides by making a wii available, hosting community events, having an active facebook account and digitizing their local history collection. 

E-books have the potential to be just one of the many services offered by a public library.  Encouraging people to explore digital publications does not mean that libraries will cease to exist.  It merely means that the range of services and focus of the library expands to include digital formats.  Additionally, ebooks have a potential to engage younger users in reading in a way that physical books might not.  I really hope that the small town grapevine doesn't spread the evils of e-readers and that people examine their benefits before making a decision about their value. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

History Education: Remembrance Day

There was a great segment on CBC's Morning North today.  It focused on Canadian teachers who visited France this past summer to visit WWI and WWII battlefields as a means of learning more about the Wars, soldier experience and historical landscape.  The idea being that this experiential learning trip would provide the teachers with better tools to teach their students about the World Wars. This particular program is run by the Juno Beach Centre, which offers a number of different education programs focusing on tangible history and remembrance.

The CBC segment highlighted the teachers experience making gravestone rubbings, collecting rocks and dirt and taking many videos and photographs of the landscape.  All of these collected items have the potential to illuminate a segment of the past beyond what is written in a textbook.  For example, one teacher spoke of collecting rocks from the beach at Dieppe to help explain why the assault was such a huge failure.  The rocks on the beach have been smoothed by the ocean, making it impossible for soldiers and vehicles to gain traction on.  By bringing back rocks from Dieppe students are able to touch and actually see what the landscape would have been like for solders. 

Using physical objects to explore the past helps explain history beyond textbooks and make it increasingly tangible to students.  Additionally, the days leading up to Remembrance Day provide a time that many teachers utilize to introduce students to Canada's involvement in the World Wars.  Personally, other than making poppy wreaths out of construction paper and memorizing In Flanders Fields I don't really remember learning all that much about Remembrance Day or being taught the context behind the day.  I'm sure it was included somewhere, but the method of instruction clearly wasn't memorable.

For those people looking for instruction ideas, Veterans Affairs has a number of great resources and guides to focused on Canadian war efforts.  Canada's History Society also has a number of lesson plans that focus on Canada's role during wartime. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Digitization and Holistic Approaches to Data Sets


Over the past two years I have spent a lot of time working with Residential School quarterly return reports.  These reports were completed four times a year by School principals and contain the names, admission date, ages and discharge information of the students who were in attendance at the school.  The set of returns we have is far from complete but they do act as one of the best documents for providing proof that an individual attended IRS.

The majority of the work I do with quarterly returns is dictated by reference requests from former students, staff, families, and communities looking to find information about a particular individual.  While processing one of these typical typical reference requests, I typically flip through a binder that contains all the quarterly returns for a school and pick out any references to a specific individual.  I would then scan or photocopy the relevant pages and send them to the interested individual.  Though this process involves the quarterly returns it never led to me considering the returns as a whole. 

A recent project I've worked on helped me take a more holistic approach to looking at some quarterly returns.  The returns are one of the most frequently accessed documents in the archive I work at and staff spend a considerable amount of time manually searching returns for relevant information.  The majority of the quarterly returns are handwritten and many of them are poor quality copies.

The handwritten nature of the returns means that using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software to make the documents full text searchable isn't possible.  But given the importance of these records and the frequency of access, creating a searchable transcribed version of the quarterly returns was seen as valuable. Currently, we have only undertaken making searchable the records for the schools that are accessed most frequently.

 Though time consuming, this task has not only increased access to the quarterly returns but provided some insight about the schools as a whole.  For example, the returns often indicate if a student is in the hospital or infirmary.  The process of transcribing and making these records has made it easier to track outbreaks of illness within the schools.  For example, at the schools in Spanish Ontario there were 28 boys sick in December 1943, which is almost 20% of the entire male student population.

Similarly, looking at the returns more holistically has also highlighted education trends within the school.  Often a trade or industry of study is listed for the boys school.  The most common trades include : farming, diary, carpentry, poultry, cooking, tailor and shoemaker.  It is now possible to group data by trade and determine which trades were more popular at particular periods. 

The transcription process has also illuminated the fallibility of these records.  One of the most common mistakes in the returns is misspelling of family names.  The transcription process highlighted how depending on who filed the return the spelling of a name could change (eg. Corbiere or Corbier or Coribiere).

Overall, the process of being able to access information and process requests more efficiently is always a great thing in my mind.  More importantly, this experience has highlighted the potential of records to provide contextual information when looked at holistically and contextually.  Considering the difficulties (eg. missing records) that many people working with residential school records come across, it is important to use the information that does exist to its fullest potential. 

Library and Archives Canada has compiled a guide to conducting Residential School research that might be useful to anyone beginning to work with IRS documents.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

'Tis the Season for Writing

A number of members from my writers group are participating in this years National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you haven't heard of NaNoWriMo before, participants aim to write 50 thousand words in the month of November, the idea being that a time frame forces you be consistent in your writing practice and can help you get the novel onto paper.

The local literary group where I live, Stories in the North, is hosting a number of writing events in November as part of NaNoWriMo.  This includes a kick-off party, 'write-ins' around town and a wrap up event.  Many of the write-ins take place while I'm at work, but I love the idea of bringing the local writing community together and creating positive communal work spaces.

In the academic world Charlotte Frost recently announced AcWriMo (academic writing month) and is encouraging academics to tackle their own writing goals.  Check out her announcement to see the full 'rules' and details.  Participants are encouraged to post their goals, efforts and results using the #AcWriMo hashtag.  
I've been struggling with the concept of NaNoWriMo -- mainly because I'm realistic about how much time I can feasibly devote to writing each day.  I also have a lot of non-novel related writing that I would like to spend more time on.  AcWriMo seems like a good fit for my current goals and schedule.

What do I want to accomplish as part of AcWriMo?
  • Spend at least an hour a day on writing. 
    • I'm going to say that blog writing can count toward this time.
  • Have finished drafts of two articles I've been pushing to the back-burner for ages.   
    • One article is a short 3,000 word case study, so seeing that article in polished form and ready for critique would be nice. 
    • The other article needs a bit more research love.  Having a workable draft by the end of the month or a near to finished draft of this article, would be ideal. 

Are you participating in any form of NaNoWriMo? How do you stay on top of your writing goals?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Active Learning and History Education

In September I talked about the online records management course I'm currently taking.  As the course has progressed I have thought a lot about content delivery and methods of active engagement.  One of the mandatory course features is participating in at least one online chat session.  The idea being that chats can provide a real time chance for discussion amongst course participants. 

The idea of fostering active discussion is great.  But without proper facilitation discussion can easily fall flat.  Discussion can turn into monologues, question/answer session, and conversations that fail to inspire further depth to class topics.  Thus far I've attended two of the chat sessions and both times was left with a feeling of wanting more.  Neither of the chats actually fostered any substantial discussions.  Rather, students peppered the instructor with questions for 45minutes without connecting thoughts or engaging each other. This situation isn't unique to online delivery -- poor facilitation can occur in the classroom just as easily as online.  It is also possible that in this case, Q&A is what the instructor saw as being valuable to students than a discussion based meeting.

Perhaps, my desire for meaningful discussion is somewhat inspired by time spent in classes where the core element of the course was discussion. Many upper year and graduate history courses I took focused on student interpretation and moved away from a teacher telling students all 'the facts.' Personally, I found this style of education more conducive to my learning style than large lecture classes where I will admit to doodling or snoozing away more than a few classes.  

So, is discussion a necessary element in a learning environment? I'm not sure it is essential in absolutely every situation, but students and teachers/facilitators find it beneficial. Of course, lecture style presentation does also have a place in education and can work well alongside discussions.   Discussion allows for a different form of learning and creates a level of personal engagement that is often not included in more formal lecture style approaches.  Some of my most worthwhile and memorable education experiences occurred outside of a classroom.  I have little memory of what my first year Russian history professor lectured on, but I can tell you all about the discussions my Historical Approaches class had during a prof's office hours which were held once a month in the campus pub. 

Small workshops, group tours, and hands-on-learning are all methods of facilitation which can encourage discussion amongst participants.  Many heritage organizations and public history practitioners see history education as a dialogue that tries to actively include the audience in the learning process.  With a topic such as history, that many people associate with boring elementary school lessons, I think active approaches to content delivery are key.   Heritage organizations that see regular visits from the public are in a unique position to reach audiences that may never open a history book.

What have been some of your best education experiences?  Has a museum or heritage site visit inspired you to look at history differently? 

Photo credit: My Silent Side

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Public History on Stage: Theatre and the Past

The latest issue (Vol. 34, No. 3) of The Public Historian finally arrived at my house this week.  The issue presented a number of interesting field reports and case studies, many of which focused on areas of nontraditional historical practice.  One article which drew me in, was "Theatre: A Neglected Site of Public History" by David Dean.  Admittedly, the draw was partially the Canadian content, but I was also intrigued by how public history and theatre co-exist.

Dean's article focuses on the use of theatre as a point of historical interpretation.  Dean's particular case study examines Vern Theissen's play Vimy.  Theissen's play uses the context of the battle of Vimy Ridge addresses subjects that many Canadian historians have struggled with --- the nature of memory, attitudes toward war, Canadian nationalism vs. regionalism, and myth making.  A visit to the Canadian War Museum includes exhibits which explore many of these issues with in a more traditional public history setting.  

Prior to reading Dean's work I hadn't actively given much thought to theatre as an interpretive style for traditional history. I like theatre and I like history and I also love historical film, so I'm not sure why I hadn't previously made the connection before.  Perhaps, my ignorance is in part due to what Dean points out as a lack of traditional acceptance of theatre as historical interpretation and a general lack of professional writing on the subject.  That being said, Dean does an excellent job of making a case for historically informed theatre as a valid method of historical interpretation.

Theatrical productions can be dynamic, emotional, and historically accurate means of engaging a larger audience.  Perhaps the stage production of The Sound of Music (no matter how great might be) isn't the best introduction into Nazi Germany.  But, more historically researched and accurate productions such as Vimy can provide an excellent introduction to a range of historical topics.   

Comparing theatre to film, living history animators, and re-enactments highlight the logic behind the acceptance of theatre in historical interpretation.  After all, re-enactors and living history site staff are all acting and tend to be using a script to guide their actions.  This scripted interpretation is exactly what is occurring in a theatre setting.  Just like any other form of historical interpretation theatre is susceptible to  poor research and misinformation, but this is just as likely in a museum panel as it is in a well researched play. 

Dean's article also inspired a consideration of the prevalence of history in theatre. History, historic events and settings are often used as backdrops for theatre.  Settings, speech patterns, clothing and material culture are all aspects of history that can be portrayed (well or poorly) in theatrical productions.  I'd be interested to know if anyone has seen a seemingly well historically researched production recently or other examples of Canadian history on the stage.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Re-branding the Canadian Museum of Civilization

Today's announcement regarding upcoming brand changes to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) speaks to a change in how history is interpreted at Canada's federal museums.  As my recent post on National Conceptions of History in Museum Settings noted, the CMC has never been a museum focused solely on the history of Canada.  Rather, the CMC has always had an anthropological focus and many of the blockbuster style exhibits that are at the CMC focus on the history of cultures outside of Canada.

This re-branding is to coincide with the 150th anniversary of confederation which will occur in 2017.  It has been noted that exhibits will predominately focus on the monarchy, major milestones, and military history of Canada.  Considering Ottawa is already home to the Canadian War Museum, this focus on military history seems a bit strange.

The proposed changes see the CMC being renamed as a Canadian Museum of History and refocusing the content of the museum to more Canadian topics.  Some CMC staff have expressed concerned about the potential that "Canadian history stories that will be the subject of research and exhibitions will be identified by politicians across the Ottawa River rather than the museum’s own experts." [1]  The CMC currently operates under its own independent mandate without the influence of political forces.  It will be interesting to see if the objectivity and freedom of interpretation remains in this new incarnation of the museum.

The actual announcement occurred after speculation, cries of politicization and complaints were running wild throughout the media and twitterverse.  The remarks of Heritage Minister James Moore and Museum president Mark O’Neill attempted to address some of these concerns.  O'Neil maintained that the museum would continue to host international exhibits.  Some of these international exhibits will be housed in the space that is presently home to the Canadian Postal Museum.  The current re-branding plan includes the dismantling of the postal museum, with it's contents possibly being relocated. This relocation may be part of the new plan to link Canada’s network of museums with the Canadian Museum of History, with the aim of increasing accessibility.


All potential political motivations aside, the Museum of History is seeking input from Canadians about the content of the new museum.  By the looks of the new "My History Museum" site the CMC will be holding online and in person consultations about defining Canadian moments, important arfitcats, and influential Canadians.  I like the idea of crowdsourcing aspects of museum exhibits, and ideally this crowdsourcing venture will be paired withed strong curatorial insight.

It will be interesting to see how the $25 million dollar re-branding and renovation project unfolds.  I'm sure there are Canadians on both sides of the argument -- some wishing to see a more Smithsonian National History style museum and others wishing to keep the CMC in it's current state. Personally, I really hope this process allows for great attention to be paid to Canada's diverse past, including the history of Canada's Indigenous peoples and residential schools.  Though, I suppose if nothing else, the publicity surrounding the re-branding has the potential to draw attention to history education, museums, and the public history field in Canada. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Health Support and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The final museum I visited while in DC was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The Museum does an excellent job of approaching a difficult subject in a meaningful and respectful manner. The exhibitions are well contextualized and cover the Nazi rise to power, the final solution, response to the Holocaust, and contemporary forms of genocide. 

This permanent exhibit halls are set up in a way which guides visitors though a very narrow hall and surrounds the visitors with images, video, and artifacts which speak to the atrocities of the Holocaust and the people impacted. I found that this layout had a very successful visual impact but also contributed to congestion at certain points in the exhibit -- as the halls were often too narrow to allow people to pass a group that was reflecting on a particular portion of the exhibit. 

I think what shocked me most about the USHMM was the lack of formal health support readily available.  Given the subject matter and the emotional impact of the exhibits, I would have thought health support would have been readily available at every turn in the museum.  This is of particular note given the design of the permanent exhibit halls.  Visitors begin at fourth floor of the museum and are directed downwards through the next two floors of the exhibit, creating a feeling almost of being corralled through the museum.  There is not an easily apparent way for people who are experiencing distress to leave the exhibit hall without going through the rest of the exhibit.

Outside of the main exhibit hall, the Hall of Remembrance on the second floor of the USHMM does provide a safe reflective space for those interested in personal remembrance.  The Children's Title Wall located on the lower level also provide a place for reflection and a more child friendly atmosphere for learning (the permanent exhibits are not recommended for anyone under the age of 11).

I was also very glad the museum has instituted a no photography policy for the exhibit halls.  This policy helps maintain a sense of respect and remembrance while in the museum.  I think not allowing photography also encourages a more reflective museum visit -- instead of focusing on taking photographs to share the experience with others.  My visit to the USHMM was well worth it and inspired a lot of thought about the challenges surrounding the display of materials that can be emotionally and culturally sensitive. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

National Conceptions of History in Museum Settings

Amongst the museums I visited while in DC, my least favourite was The National Museum of American History (NMAH). Upon reflection, it is not that I disliked the content of the museum, I just had a hard time grappling with the national differences of conceptions of history.  I expected a grand narrative style of history in the museum and was confronted with something very different. 

Canada's national museum system does not include a museum dedicated solely to the history of Canada as a nation, but perhaps the closest would the Canadian Museum of Civilization.  The CMC isn't solely a national history museum, but it does currently give the most cohesive museum based look into Canada's past. But, the two institutions are so different comparing them is akin to apples and oranges.

One of the main things I struggled with in the NMAH was the focus on individual great figures.  I found the large overarching history of America was told most frequently through a great man style narrative.  The most prominent exhibits that stick out in my mind as falling under this category include : The American Presidency: A Glorious BurdenLighting a Revolution—Electricity Hall (focused on Edison), and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.  In each of these cases the emphasis tended to be on the individual not on larger historical trends.  

These exhibits also reinforced the extent to which Canadian Prime Ministers and US Presidents exist on very different plains of history in their respective countries.  Prime Ministers are viewed as players in history but Presidents seem to be points around which history revolves.  Presidents are seen as being directly associated (and responsible) for key events and developments, where as Prime Ministers are seen as parts in a larger less individualized narrative.  I'm not sure either interpretation is better than the other.  Rather, the interpretation reflects each country's unique view of the role of government and the past. 

I also struggled with The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH.  The NMAH website suggests "The First Ladies encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years."  To be honest, I had a hard time getting past the fact that the prominent items displayed about each Woman were dresses and dishes.  Similarly, the majority of the prominent text panels focused on the First Ladies' role as hostess, entertainer, and public face.  While walking through the exhibit part of me kept thinking "I wonder if they know that women can wear pants now."   The exhibit also left me wishing that there was more content in the NMAH about the history of women's rights and changing roles of women in America. 

Even with these conceptional struggles I did enjoy my visit the NMAH.  I think the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit.  I had never really considered the history of the first flag in America and the exhibit but the exhibit helped put that history into context.  This exhibit was also interesting to see from a curatorial perspective, as the flag is huge making special display considerations necessary. 

How do you see national conceptions of history being explored in museums?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

National Archives as a Destination

National Archive Building, Washington
When planning a family trip to Ottawa a visit to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is on the itinerary of very few Canadians.  The lack of visitors center and recent cut to open research hours makes visiting LAC difficult for researchers, let alone tourists.  LAC has no formal tourism competent and many Canadians would be hard-pressed to pick out the LAC building in Ottawa.

Conversely, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) building in Washington does an excellent job of packaging the Archives as a destinations for visitors.  For many visitors the main draw to the NARA are the historic documents that are on display -- the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence all reside inside the Rotunda of the NARA.

However, aside from these documents the NARA features a permanent exhibit  in an area called "The Public Vaults" and a rotating temporary Exhibit Hall.  The Exhibit Hall was closed during my visit but I did have a chance to visit the Public Vaults and the Rotunda. The Public Vaults display a number of interesting and historically significant documents and provide insight into archival practice.

What I found most compelling about the Public Vaults exhibit was the extent to which the exhibit educated the general public about the NARA.  For example, there was an interactive display that focused on what records are collected by the NARA and how to go about finding those records.  This display included sections such as "If my grandfather was in WWI would he be in the archive?" and "My ancestors immigrated to the United States, would they be in the archive?"  I liked this element of the exhibit as it highlighted the tangible uses of archival records and introduced people to archival research in a friendly way.

The Public Vaults also included an interesting section on conversation and preservation.  This section included information on the damage of light to paper records, fold damages, and the challenges of preserving so many different formats.  This section also highlighted the reasons why photography isn't allowed in the NARA and the damage that photograph could have on documents.

My love of archives might make me a bit biased, but I really think the NARA building in Washington is well worth a visit.  Seeing documents that helped shape the United States is an experience in itself.  Additionally, the public vaults exhibit at the NARA is well throughout, educational, and includes a number of electronic or hands on components.  The building is not  merely a place to look at paper in, it's a space that facilitates the active engagement of the past.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Community Curators and Interpretation: The National Museum of the American Indian

Earlier this week I spent a couple of days immersed in the museums, galleries, archives, and monuments that are located in Washington, DC.  After some reflection, my visit to the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) was by far the best experience of the trip. I was impressed by the inclusive curatorial practice, the building design, the collections in general, and their interpretive program.

I started my visit on the fourth flour of the NMAI exploring the "Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World" exhibit.  This exhibit looks at traditional spiritual worldviews help by Indigenous peoples from throughout North and South America.  Prior to my visit to the NMAI, I had no idea that the museum included content about all Indigenous peoples of the Americas, it was great to see so many distinct cultures represented.

The setup of the Our Universes exhibit really brought to light the inclusive curatorial practices of the museum.  Each section of the exhibit listed a group of "Community Curators."  These community curators are people belonging to the culture which is being interpreted and were often noted as elders and cultural leaders in the community.  A staff member I spoke with explained that the community curators worked with NMAI staff to select appropriate artifacts from the museum's collection and to select methods of display and label wording.  Each section of Our Universes was unique in it's layout and what aspects of worldview it emphasized, making it clear that each display was tailored to the needs and desires of the group it represented.

In addition to the inclusive curatorial practices of the museum, I was impressed by the how well thought out the design of the NMAI was.  The construction of the NMAI was based on intensive and in-depth consultation with the indigenous peoples the NMAI aims to represent.  Indigenous worldviews influenced many aspects of the construction of a building and landscape.  Some of the key architecture features include an east facing entrance, a dome that opens to the sky, a circular main room, and four elevators representing the four directions.  The gardens and grounds are also considered an extended part of the museum -- the gardens include over 27,000 trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants representing 145 species; these species represent a traditional landscape that no longer exists in DC. Forty Grandfather rocks, and four cardinal direction markers have also been placed outside to honour the Native cultures of the north, south, east, and west. 

Collections, exhibits, and design aside, I can't recommend the NMAI interpretative program enough.  The tour I took was by far the best part of my entire visit to Washington.  The tour I participated in was lead by a man who is from a small Indigenous tribe in Peru.  My guide (Jose) and many other Indigenous peoples from around the Americas now work at the NMAI and work to help patrons understand Indigenous culture.  Jose was well versed on the history of the museum and provided insight into the collections and architecture of the NMAI that I didn't get from a self guided tour.  He was well versed in the provenance of the artifacts featured in the exhibit we looked at.  He also spoke his own language and played a traditional instrument for our tour group, which made the experience very personal and unique. 

My entire experience at the NMAI highlighted the lack of dedicated museum space in Canada to Indigenous heritage.  The hall of First Peoples in the Canadian Museum of Civilization doesn't come close to exploring the rich diversity that exists amongst Canada's Métis, First Nation, and Inuit peoples. Many Canadians have little exposure to Indigenous history in Canada and it would be great to see a space dedicated to make this information more accessible to Canadians. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

Friday Links

It's Friday and it is pouring rain outside.  I figure the weather calls for some public history cheer.
  • The #whatshouldwecallarchives Tumblr feed is fantastic.  It animates and pokes fun at a lot of common archival problems and concerns. 
  • A college of mine recently spoke on CBC radio's Points North program about the work the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre is doing.  The interview focuses mainly on the creation of a cybermap and the role of the Centre in preserving Residential School history.
  • The North Carolina Records Management Blog  recently posted a great post on three simple record keeping tips that can help start a more comprehensive records management program.
  • Library robots.  The bookbot automated delivery system at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Continuing Education: Online Learning and Records Management

Kayla Jonas Galvin over at Adventures in Heritage recently wrote a great post about attending school while working full time.  Her post highlights a few tips which she has used to help her juggle education and work.  Kayla's post got me thinking about how I am going to approach a continuing education course that I just started.

This fall I am taking the online Records Management Fundamental's (RMF) course through the iSchool Institute.  I've been looking into continuing education options for awhile now and decided on this course for a number of reasons, including: the course is completely online and can be tailored to fit my schedule, it is seven weeks which is long enough to have depth without becoming too demanding, and records management has a lot of practical applications both inside and outside the heritage field.

I don't live close to a University/College that offers courses in my field, making an online course ideal.  However, prior to signing up for this course I had a bit of trepidation about the course format, mostly inspired by correspondence class flashbacks.  During my undergrad years I took two courses on women's history via correspondence.  I remember doing well in the classes and liking the content, but I also remember how horribly devoid of collaboration and communication those classes were. Learning through reading can have benefits, but I really wanted an interactive approach to continuing education.

The iSchool Institute uses Blackboard for its online courses.  Though Blackboard definitely has challenges and faults, it does allow for an online collaborative space.  The RMF class assignments include participation in online chats, discussion boards, and a project where students work with partners.  Students learn not only from written materials but from each other.  I think this is a particular benefit of taking a continuing education class that is made up of individuals from a wide range of professional backgrounds.  Everyone brings something different to the discussion and can provide different insight into common problems.

As for my approach to taking the class, I'm trying to set aside specific times early in the week to tackle readings and assignments.  Weekly assignments are due on Sundays each week, but I really don't want to be spending my Friday evening or Saturday working on the material.  I also believe that like in a classroom setting, you get out what you put into an online course.  Active participation is crucial to a good course experience, be it in a seminar setting or in an online environment.  

Monday, September 17, 2012

Canada’s Farming Roots: Agricultural Fairs and Education

My latest post can be seen over at Active History.  The post focuses on Canada's farmings roots and looks at the history of community agricultural fairs and large farming events such as the International Plowing Match.  I look at the importance of these events in creating communities and in educating both farmers and the general public.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Language Preservation and Digital Resources

Recently I've been reading and reflecting on numerous facets of Indigenous language preservation and revitalization.  Residential schools, colonialism, and general assimilation practices have all contributed to the loss and endangered states of many Indigenous dialects.  Despite this loss or impending loss there are a number of projects across Canada which are working to record and preserve Indigenous language.
  • The Michif language is the traditional language that was spoken by Métis peoples in Canada.  Like most Indigenous languages there are a variety of regional dialects to Michif, but the most commonly used form of Michif is based on a combination of French and Cree.  It is estimated that there are less than 1000 fluent speakers of Michif alive today.  
    • The Gabriel Dumont Institute has worked to create Michif curriculum for schools and communities.
    • The Dumont Institute has also made a number of audio and video recordings of Michif speakers available online.  A number of these recordings are also accompanied by English transcripts.
    • The Métis Nation of Ontario has also started to gather and promote resources on Michif, including audio and video recordings and a Michif word of the day program. 
  •  The Ojibwe language is the traditional language of over 200,000 people in Canada and the United States, making it one of the more common Indigenous languages in Canada.  Despite this heritage very few youth are taught Ojibwe and the language continues to be endangered.
    • The Ojibwe People's Dictionary was created by the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota.  The Dictionary utilizes content from the Minnesota Historical Society to create a virtual space which highlights audio and video recordings of Ojibwe speakers.  The Dictionary is searchable in English and Ojibwe and highlights historical photographs and documents to provide context to the language material.
    • Noongwa e-Anishinaabemjig People Who Speak Anishinaabemowin today.  This resources was created by the University of Michigan and features a number of online lessons, stories, listening exercises, and resources.  The interface is a bit outdated, but is fairly simple to use.
    • There are also immersion programs and formal Ojibwe language instruction programs all across Ojibwe territory.  Locally the College and University where I live offer language instruction, and there are two First Nation run immersion programs.
  • There are also a number of online resources being developed for the preservation of Cree, Oji-Cree, Inuktitut, and other traditional dialects.   
    • The Listening to Our Past website focuses on the preservation of Inuktitut. I wrote about this resource awhile ago on the Active History site. 
    • The Cree Linguistic Atlas combined geography with language learning.  The Atlas includes syllabics, audio recordings, and English translations.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Rolling the Dice With Guided Tours


Our group with our tour guide at the Ermatinger Site
Interpretation can make or break a museum visit.  Context, signage, and interpretation strategies are essential to creating a heritage environment which is inviting, educational, and ultimately enjoyable.  Properly trained interpretive staff can infuse a visit with enthusiasm, context, and information that isn't always accessible to the average visitor.  Untrained or less than great interpretive staff can also make a museum tour seem boring or uninformative.

One of the most surprising guided tour experiences I've had recently was at the Ermatinger-Clergue Historic Site in Sault Ste Marie.  I had previously visited this site with a co-worker who had previously worked at the Ermatinger site.  That visit was great, my co-worker talked a lot about the development of the Historic Site and institutional practices at the Site.

My most recent visit was with a larger group of 12 people and we had a formal tour provided by the Site's curator (who was in period costume for the occasion).  Our guide focused mainly on the history of the area, fur trade politics, and First Nation-Settler relations.  The majority of the group I was visiting with was from out of town and learned a lot about local history from our guide.  I was impressed by how well she geared her discussion and annotates to the interests and learning levels of our group.  The guided tour allowed me to learn more about the site than I had on previous visits and allowed our large group to partake in a shared experience that we could then discuss in a educational context later on.

Deciding to take a guided tour at an institution can be a dice roll between getting a tour leader/interpretive staff member that is knowledgeable or one who seems to dread their job.  Which leads to the question, is participating in guided tours worth the effort?  It depends on what type of museum visitor you are and what type of institution you are visiting.  Some people like to move at their own pace and read every artifact label in sight, making a guided tour too fast paced and broad sweeping for their preferences.

Many guided tours provide collection and institutional overviews.  This can be great if you have limited time, want to learn more about contextual factors that aren't mentioned in current exhibits, or as a new way of seeing an institution you have visited many times.  Guided tours are also great if you are visiting a museum in a large group, as it allows for a shared learning experience that is sometimes missing from large group visits to museums.

One of the easiest things to do is ask museum staff about the tour prior to taking it.  Ask about tour length, depth, exhibits/spaces covered -- does the tour let you into spaces that you can't see as a solo visitor, and about the staff leading the tour.  Alternatively, a lot more institutions are now posting detailed tour information on their website, making it possible to look into tour options before you arrive at an institution.  I find knowing what type of tour I'm entering into saves me a lot frustration and helps manages my expectations.

What was your best or worst guided tour experience? 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Natural Heritage: Agawa Pictographs

One of the many great experiences I had last week, as part of a trial summer institute being piloted at my work, included a trip to the Lake Superior Provincial Park to see the Agawa Pictographs.  Lake Superior Park is a beautiful park on the shores of Lake Superior and the Agawa Pictographs are just one of the many natural attractions within the park.

The earliest recorded mention of the Agawa Pictographs is in the 1851 writing of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The Pictographs are generally thought to be between 150 and 400 years old and were painted using red ochre paint.  Schoolcraft's writing describes the Pictographs based on images provided by Chief Shingwauk of the Garden River First Nation.  Cheif Shingwauk's early drawings outline two sets of Pictographs -- the one set is now known as the Agawa Pictographs and the other has never been located.

To view the Agawa Pictographs visitors have to climb out onto a ledge that extends over Lake Superior.  The ledge can be slippery at times and visiting the site during good weather and in groups is recommended.  The climb to the Pictographs is breathtaking and truly worth the effort, though I wouldn't recommend it if you are prone to fear of heights or have a fear of water.  The nature of the Pictographs -- painted using a natural substance and constantly exposed to the elements -- has contributed to the deterioration and fading of the images over time.  It is unknown how many other images have already disappeared or become inaccessible.

Some of the figures depicted in the Pictographs reflect spiritual and oral traditions in Ojibwa culture. One of the most visible and well known Agawa Pictographs is a depiction of Mishipeshu, the water spirit who lives in Lake Superior.  Mishipeshu is known as a water lynx and it is believed to control the conditions of the waters in Superior; if he was content the water would be clam but if enraged Lake Superior would be violently rough.

There is a slight irony in the fact that the Pictographs are located in what is now a Provincial Park.  The land which was once home to a nomadic and vibrant First Nation peoples is now owned by the government and used primarily by tourists -- the original peoples of the area were evicted by the government and relocated.  Granted, the Provincial Park has helped preserve this segment of Canada's natural heritage, but it is important that visitors acknowledge the traditional territorial rights of the area and are aware of the history that isn't presented by the Agawa Visitor's Centre.