Thursday, April 25, 2013

National Gallery of Canada Visit During NCPH

One of my favourite parts of the NCPH conference is how participants are encouraged to take a break from traditional sessions and explore the local heritage landscape.  Last year I look an amazing walking tour in Milwaukee and this year I had a chance to explore the National Gallery of Canada. Despite living in Ottawa a few years ago, this was my first visit to the Gallery.

I really enjoyed the contemporary art and Canadian art sections of the Gallery located on the first level.  However, I was struck by how little a presence indigenous art played in the main Canadian portion of the Gallery.  There was a small section of contemporary Aboriginal art amongst the main collection that showed a prominent Norval Morrisseau painting and a few other small works by Ontario based Indigenous artists.

This was paired with a small Inuit art exhibit that is tucked in the basement of the Gallery.  The exhibit was well done and featured a number of stone carvings and stonecut prints from the 1960s onwards.  The one thing that struck me about this particular exhibit was the lack of people looking at it.  The rest of the galleries were fairly busy during my visit, but the Inuit exhibit was quiet enough to hear a pin drop.  The signage to lead you down into the lower level where the Inuit exhibit isn't very prominent, so perhaps this contributed to the quietness.

One great experience I did have in the Canadian Art exhibit was participating in a Docent's Choice talk.  These 10-minute talks occur multiple times daily and feature a Gallery volunteer discussing one piece of artwork from the National Gallery collection.  Docent's Choice activities are free of charge with admission.  The Docent's Choice activity I participated in focused on Graveyard Entrance painted by Emily Carr in 1912.  

The volunteer who ran the activity spoke about the history surrounding a number of Emily Carr's works, Carr's role in the larger Canadian art scene, and her interactions with Indigenous people in Canada.  The activity also included a closer examination of the motifs and techniques used in Graveyard Entrance.  This talk was well done, interactive, and informative. I would recommend taking ten minutes out of your visit to the gallery to participate in a Docent's Choice activity.  The talks are different every day and are a neat way to learn something beyond a text panel.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Active, Digital, Public History

Friday morning at NCPH I presented as part of the "Reaching the Public through the Web: The Practice of Digital Active History" panel with Ian Milligan, Devon Elliott, Tom Peace, and Nathan Smith as the facilitator.  I won't rehash our panel as a lot has already been written to summarize our presentations.  Prior to the conference Ian wrote a great high level summary of our panel.  Following the session Clarissa Ceglio posted her rapid fire notes of the session in google docs and Jim Clifford provided a summary of the Active History panels at NCPH.

 Following our panel I sat in on the "Working Group: Teaching Digital History and New Media" session.  Despite this being a working group session the audience and the working group participants were both involved in the discussion of digital history.  The session participants were broken into three smaller groups for discussion and then reunited for discussion as a larger group.

I felt the session format was interesting but I would have been just as happy hearing some of the working group participants speak about their experiences.  The working group format is ideal for discussions being developed over longer periods of time with sessions being fruits of that discussion--by involving the audience some of that background conversation might have been missed.  That being said, the twitter back channel during this session was full of useful comments about digital history as public history and the teaching of digital history.

My Friday session attendance concluded with the "After the Cuts: The Future of History in Canada" roundtable.  The roundtable featured representatives from prominent Canadian heritage organizations including: Lyle Dick (CHA), Ellen Judd (Canadian Anthropological Society), William Ross (Canadian Archaeological Association), and Loryl MacDonald (Association of Canadian Archivists).  The session was packed and was standing room only.

The participants focused on the impact of recent cuts to government funding and problems communicating with national heritage organizations.  This panel highlighted the widespread concerns professional organizations have with Canadian heritage cuts, the loss of programing, and impending sense of doom surrounding many recent government decisions.  The session was recorded by Sean Graham of History Slam Podcast fame and should be available in some format in the near future.

National Archives at NCPH

The final session I attended on Thursday at NCPH was "Competing Narratives, Competing Needs: The Roles and Responsibilities of a National Archive and its Audiences."  The panel was comprised of staff from Library and Archives Canada (LAC) including: Rebecca Giesbrecht, Jenna Murdock Smith, Jennifer Wilhelm and Katherine Comber as facilitator. 

Giesbrecht began the session by comparing display practices and national concern surrounding Canada's founding documents with that of the United States.  I wrote about my views on this drastic national difference in 2012 when I made a visit to the NARA in Washington, D.C.  Giesbrecht's presentation provided a framework of national identity to examine the treatment of 'founding documents' by archival bodies and provided insight into LAC's past and current preservation practices for founding documents.

Following Giesbrecht, Wilhelm discussed the role documents held at LAC have played in relation to the Indian Residential Schools legacy.  Wilhelm also spent considerable time explaining the creation bias and archival bias that impacts the IRS documents held by LAC.  How LAC describes IRS photographs and documents is linked to archival standards, which often results in titles of records reflecting the Euro-centric views of their creators.  Wilhelm also mentioned Project Naming a LAC program designed to identify Inuit in photographs of Canada's north and LAC's participation in past Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) national events.

The panel concluded with Jenna Murdock Smith looking at the changing archival policies surrounding documents relating to the Japanese Canadian Redress Secretariat.  The Japanese Canadian Redress was the first instance of an individual compensation process being created in Canada to address historical wrongs.  Smith's presentation focused on the archival apprasial of case files relating to the Redress.  Early on these case files were considered not of archival value for LAC and slated for destruction, even though these case files contained massive amounts of individual and potentially relevant information.  Smith described the challenges of attempting to find a new home for these records and the ultimate the decision to keep the case files because of a technology failure that lost related information.

This was an interesting panel.  It was great to see staff from LAC engaging with the public history community and sharing their experiences documenting Canada's 'official' past. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

Cultural Landscapes at NCPH 2013

Tongariro National Park, NZ
Thursday afternoon I attended the "Whose Public? Who speaks for Cultural Landscapes" session at  NCPH featuring Susan Gray, Elizabeth Pishief and Aurelie Gfeller.  This session was a more traditional format with the presenters each reading a formal paper.  The common theme in the session was the preservation of cultural landscapes and the connections that indigenous people have to traditional landscapes.

Pishief spoke about her experience in the development of  land use and cultural landscape policies in New Zealand.  Pishief's presentation provided insight into the cultural practices of the Maori people and the impact of their beliefs have had on the development heritage discourses.  Perhaps most signficantly, Pishief described the Maori understanding of land as being both material and spiritual and uniquely connected to a sense of place and belonging. This presentation provided food for thought regarding Canadian indigenous conceptions of land and stewardship. 

Gfeller's presentation was focused on the UNESCO world heritage designation process.  Though this presentation was not focused directly on indigenous conceptions of heritage, Gfeller did explain the roots of UNESCO designation and the difficulties many indigenous communities have getting their cultural landscapes recognized.  Gfeller indicated that indigenous communities are often hampered by the UNESCO application process, the need to apply through formal government channels, and the need to explain non-tangible conceptions of cultural landscapes. 

This panel concluded with Gray's description of her experience working as an expert witness during litigation surrounding the 1836 Treaty of Washington with an emphasis on the historical and contemporary definitions of settlement.  I found Gray's discussion of settlement as a European term which is closely linked to the transformation of forest into farms intriguing and appropriate considering the many land disputes that are still occurring in North America. Understanding  language used in original treaty documents is crucial to land dispute resolution.

Overall, I found this panel to contain a lot of interesting ideas about indigenous and settler conceptions of cultural landscapes across international boarders.  The only drawback of the panel was that the format left limited time for audience questions and interaction.

NCPH2013 Thursday WordPress Thoughts

My time at NCPH 2013 actually started on Wednesday.  The majority of my Wednesday activities revolved around networking and talking with new and old colleagues from Western University. Interesting discussions but not really blog post fodder.  As such I'm skipping to Thursday in my run down of this year's NCPH experience.

WordPress as a Public History Platform
The first session I attended at the conference was on using WordPress in a public history setting, with an emphasis on using WordPress in a classroom setting. A couple of the presenters were sick and unable to attend the session, but Clarissa Ceglio, Jeffrey McClurken, and Erin Bell did an excellent job of leading an interactive panel which invited audience participation.

All three presenters highlighted some of the public history projects they have worked on recently which used WordPress.  Some of my favourite examples included:
-Connecticut History site,  using WordPress to re-envision the concept of a state encyclopedia.  I particularly liked Ceglio's emphasis on this site having an ongoing publishing effort and the fining tuning of WordPress for usability.  Ceglio also spoke about using the WordPress plugin in EditFlow to integrate editorial functions into the WordPress Site. 
-UMW Blogs, a great example of  a university buying into the WordPress platform and using it for 'official' outreach.  This is also a great example of the possibilities of using WordPress as a multi-user platform. The site also has significant customizations and  for anyone having the misgiving that a WordPress site can't "look nice" check out the UMW blogs.
-The James Farmer Lectures site, a well done student created site that places the recorded lectures of James Farmer online.  The cleanness and effectiveness of this student site is what really won me over.  It's a great example of the possibilities of students using WordPress.

The Question Session
The presenters in the WordPress session left ample time for audience questions and discussions.  Granted, the session as a whole was cut short because of a fire alarm -- but that was clearly beyond their control.

Some of the interesting questions that arose:
-How do you manage the lifespan of a student driven WordPress site? 
McClurken spoke about his experience working with a range of student driven projects.  He indicated that in some cases students freely go back and update content on the site following the conclusion of a class.  There was also the mention of creating a digital repository to archive student sites or the possibility of partnering with an organization to maintain the site.
-How much training do your students get when working with WordPress?
The general consensus was fairly limited training.  Most professors indicated that they only provide about half an hour of instruction before letting the students loose.  In this instance McClurken emphasized the importance of students learning by discovering and helping each other -- that they should be "uncomfortable but not paralyzed" when learning"
-How do you handle site promotion and comments? 
The panelists acknowledged the potential of comment features being a hassle.  However, they also indicated that the experience can be valuable for students.  One compromise that was suggested involved turning on the comments feature for the duration of the class and turning it off afterwards.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Public History and Administrative Skills

A lot of work I've been doing recently falls more under the project management and administrative support category than hands on archival work.  All of my jobs have included administrative and planning tasks that many people don't associate with public history.  Getting ready ready to go public takes a lot of work.  Exhibit schedules do not magically create themselves and educational programming doesn't just happen when visitors are around.

On that frame of mind, some of the administrative skills I've found tremendously useful to have in my public history tool box include:
  • The ability to create, implement and evaluate work flows.  I gained experience creating working flows while working as a Digitization Facilitator for the Our Ontario, Community Digitization Project.  That experience allowed me to learn how to organize the work of multiple staff working on collaborative and individual tasks. 
  • Short term and long term task management and planning. Juggling multiple projects, multiple priorities, and multiple stakeholders is fairly common in the public history world. Even more so if you are working in a smaller organization where you might have multiple hats.
  • Experience in general administrative tasks such as creating conference packages, troubleshooting printers, document formatting, book binding, filing, and general paperwork.  Creating good meeting minutes, agendas, and experience running meetings are also skills that can be invaluable in collaborative spaces.
  • Copy editing skills.  You know all those pretty exhibit labels, signage, handouts and other material created by heritage organizations?  Someone had to create all of that and chances are some serious effort also went into the copy editing of the text.  No one wants to see a giant sign go to print with the name of the organization misspelled on it.  
  • Knowing when to ask for help. No matter how hard you try you can't be good at everything.  It's okay to ask for help you need instruction or pass on a task because it is outside of your area expertise. 
This by no means a definitive list, but it's a good place to start thinking about the different type of work public historians do.  Yes, some people work purely with artifacts or archival records.  But, many heritage professionals are engaged in work that requires a diverse skill set.  It's worth thinking about all the things you do that don't fall under typical notions of heritage work. 

Monday, April 8, 2013

Preservation of the Northern Michigan Asylum

One of the highlights of my recent trip to Traverse City was visiting The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.  The built heritage preservation and adaptive reuse of the buildings contained in the 63 acre site is amazing and serves as a reminder of the possibilities encompassed by built heritage.  The Village is built on the site that was home to the Northern Michigan Asylum, later known as the Traverse City State Hospital from 1885-1989. 

The site comprises a large complex of buildings, with the main building being surrounded by cottages and smaller out buildings.  The main building (Building 50) is the last remaining Kirkbride style building in Michigan and large portions of it have been renovated and turned into public and private spaces.

The renovated building features a Mercato market space which features shops, restaurants, and  hallways filled with artwork.  The building also includes a number of residential spaces and office space.  During my visit the space was also home to an indoor farmers market.  The variety of adaptive reuse options that have been used on this one building are amazing, historical spaces have been converted to a variety of modern uses that have broad appeal and sustainability. 

In addition to the amazing adaptive reuse the site is located amongst 480 acres of preserved parkland.  The village grounds also contain a  heritage arboretum.  This arboretum developed out of Dr. James Decker Munson's belief in beauty is therapy, which resulted in a variety of beautiful trees being planted around the Hospital. It's nice to see a space preserving aspects of the natural landscape which complement the built heritage features.  

Overall, the site is an amazing preservation project that has garnered tremendous local support and inspired contemplation of the history of the site.  Visitors to the Village can't help but notice the rich history of their surroundings.  During our visit I heard more than one person talking about the social history of the site and explaining aspects of the local history--the space is a great model for communities looking to reinvigorate unused heritage buildings. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Inuit Art at the Dennos Museum Center

The Enchanted Owl, Kenojuak Ashevak
One of the reasons I was so keen to visit the Dennos Museum Center was the Inuit Gallery and expansive collection of Inuit art that is housed at the Dennos.The Inuit art collection at the Dennos includes over 1,000 items including "prints, sculptures, drawings, tools, textiles, and animal specimens" primarily from the 1950s onwards.  I was intrigued by how Inuit art and culture would be displayed outside of Canada.

Despite my initial intrigue, the Inuit Gallery was probably my least  favourite gallery space at the Dennos.  During my visit the majority of the works shown were prints made from stone cuts and small stone carvings.  The works themselves were interesting and I did learn a bit about the stone cut print making from the exhibit.

However, I found this gallery space lacked vibrancy and context.  Many of the text panels looked at Inuit culture through a lens of anthropology and scholarship.  The entrance to the Inuit Gallery is flanked by two taxidermy animals, contributing to the space's overall reinforcement of stereotypes about Canada's North and Inuit people.

The space did not incorporate panels which were representative of the Inuit people themselves and highlighted their own views.  It also would have been nice to see some context about Inuit people in Canada more generally about Nunavut itself.  The gallery space did include one framed map that showed Canada's North, but there was no context accompanying the map. Overall, I felt as though Canada's North and Inuit culture was painted with a broad brush in this gallery without much attention to current political, social, and cultural movements.

To be fair, the Dennos is far from the only cultural institution that has displayed Indigenous history or material culture without context or from a Euro-centric perspective.  Jon Weier's recent Active History post, "Strangely ahistoric sensibilities at the American Museum of Natural History." did an excellent job of looking at the outdated exhibition practices of American Museum of Natural History.  Cultural institutions of all sizes need to look closely at their display practices of Indigenous culture and consider the implications of outdated, one sided presentations of history.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Temporary Exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center

I spent part of last weekend in Traverse City, Michigan.  The Saturday morning of my trip was spent wandering around The Dennos Museum Center located on Northwestern Michigan College campus. My visit was great, the space is well designed and featured a number of interesting visiting and permanent exhibits.

The Dennos was far from busy when I was there. My partner and I were the only visitors for the bulk of the morning, which allowed us to take our time but also contributed to a bit of an eerie feeling to the gallery spaces. The front desk staff were friendly and helpful at explaining the layout of the space and the content of each gallery. Overall, it was a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Tanioka Shigeo, 'Asuka,' 2002
The main visiting exhibit at the Dennos right now is "Modern Twist: Contemporary Japanese Bamboo Art" which explores the use of bamboo as an artistic medium in Japan.  The exhibit is curated by Dr. Andreas Marks, Director and Chief Curator of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, Hanford, California and is visiting a number of art galleries across the United States in the next few years. 

I particularly enjoyed the historical narrative told by Modern Twist. The exhibit included a number of descriptive panels which described the history behind bamboo being used for functional objects and developing into a nationally significant form of sculptural art.  The textual panels also helped illustrate the role that bamboo items have played in traditional Japanese culture and religious ceremonies. Lastly, the exhibit highlighted the national interested in preserving bamboo sculpture art.  Since 1967 six bamboo artists have been declared national treasures in Japan, highlighting the significance of their on a national scale.  In addition to the historically interesting components of this exhibit, the bamboo sculptures were amazing to look at.  The fine detail and variety of techniques was intriguing and awe inspiring. 

Groundcover II (detail), Larry Cressman
The second, smaller temporary exhibit currently on display at the Dennos is Line Work which features Larry Cressman.  This exhibit focuses on Cressman's installation drawings that use twigs, wire, and other materials to create unique sculpture pieces.  The temporarily of Cressman's works intrigued me, as many of his installations are temporary 'drawings' that are installed in site-specific ways and never replicated. How can temporary art such as Cressman`s be preserved for future generations? Many of Cressman's exhibits have been photo documented, but much of their presence is in the 3-D nature of their construct and the shadows created by the materials, which can't be accurately captured by a camera.

The final temporary exhibit on display right now at the Dennos is The Wings of Icarus featuring the work of Rufus Snoddy, a local artist from Traverse City.  The installation consists of suspended "construction paintings" and was inspired by the mythological story of Icarus. This entire exhibit is suspended from the ceiling of the entrance hall to the Dennos.  The effect is visually appealing and does a great job of utilizing a gallery space in a creative way while simultaneously showcasing artwork in an ideal manner.

All three of the current temporary exhibits at the Dennos Museum Center were interesting and thought inspiring in their own ways.  The layouts of the gallery spaces were conducive to display and education.  In addition to these temporary exhibits the permanent Discovery Gallery and Inuit Art Gallery made an impression on me a well and I plan on writing about them in a later post.