Thursday, May 23, 2013

Shifting Priorities and Heritage Relevancy

The May/June issue of Muse included a number of short pieces focusing on relevancy, visitor engagement, and doing more with less resources.  A short International Council of Museums (ICOM) writeup by Mannon Blanchette hit the issue squarely on the head by noting,"In the face of constant and rapid transformations, museums are trying to meet the important challenge of remaining relevant and effective..."

Heritage organizations across the spectrum are being asked to provide more with fewer financial and physical resources.  Arts and heritage organizations are at times seen as 'extras' by communities, individuals, and funding bodies.  Yet, the preservation of our past, the educational value of heritage, and importance of community spaces are all things which museums contribute to communities. 

So how are heritage organizations adapting to changing societal needs and expectations?
  • Building a digital presence.  Using social media and digital collection tools it is possible for heritage organizations to reach potential visitors in new ways.  However, the most effective digital presences are engaging and not merely static websites.  Creating a digital space which invites user participation and encourages online users to visit a physical space requires staff time and commitment.
  • Seeking new sources of funding.  With declining governmental funding many heritage organizations are looking to revamping their funding structures.  This often includes developing a great capacity for fundraising and an emphasis on seeking private donors.
  • Emphasizing community connections.  Providing services to the local community the extend beyond a heritage collection are often part of this.  Initiatives such as participating in Doors Open events, sponsoring a community garden, partnering with other organizations to host events, and bringing heritage outside of the institution through booths and off site outreach programming are all ways which heritage organizations have fostered strong community connections.
  • Social engagement.  Heritage organizations need to be stronger advocates for their needs and in promoting their services and values.  The days of simply waiting for people to visit an institution based on chance are gone.  Active communication with stakeholders, potential visitors, and the community at large are essential.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Hurdles of Moving a Heritage Institution

Anyone can who working in a heritage organization or archive can tell you that storage space is often at a premium.  No matter how much space you have you often need more. Sometimes this space crunch, space renovations, or other factors can cause a heritage organization to decide to relocate.  Moving a heritage institution isn't a task to be done on a whim, tremendous planning, manpower, and organization are needed when relocating archives and museums.

Think about the shipment of temporary exhibits: insurance and loan documents need to be completed by both parties, the exhibit is normally store in specially made packaging, the condition of everything needs to be documented when it arrives and when it leaves, and space needs to be made available to unpack and install the exhibit.  Even the relocation of small temporary exhibits take lots of planning and paperwork.  Multiple that effort tenfold when an entire facility is being relocated.

Some of the primary areas of consideration when moving or renovating a heritage facility include:
  • Packing: material that is not already boxed needs to be packed in a manner which ensures safety during movement.  Fragile material and oversize material such as artwork requires special consideration in developing material specific packaging.  Books and paper material is heavy and people backing material should be conscious of those who will have to lift the boxes.
  • Shipping: Even just moving material small distances requires a lot of planning.  Staff who are helping move the material should be trained in proper handling procedures, insurance should be acquired for the traveling material, and additional security issues may apply to valuable items.  
  • Documentation: Everything should be well documented including: who is doing the moving, box content lists, timelines, insurance, costs, etc.
  • Public: Many heritage organizations exist for the public and hold items in the public trust.  As such,  planning for the least interruption of public services is often important.  Granted, in some cases service interruption and facility closure is impossible to avoid.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Built Heritage in Montreal: Old Montreal Neighbourhood

One of the things I learned during my trip to Montreal is that a lot of businesses and heritage sites are closed on Mondays.  Since none of the museums I was interested in seeing were open on Monday, I spent part of the day exploring the built heritage of the Old Montreal neighbourhood.

The narrow streets, cobblestone, and intricate building facades in Old Montreal and Old Port were fascinating.  The neighbourhood has a bit of a touristy feel, but there are a number of green spaces, walking paths and plenty to of gorgeous old buildings to gawk at.

The oldest buildings in this neighbourhood date back to the 1600s and the neighbourhood grew out of the early Catholic settlers from France. The architecture, street style, and open communal spaces contribute to a European feel.  Place Jacques-Cartier is a square built in the early 19th century that has the feel of an open air market and public square.  The square was somewhat quiet during my visit. But the pedestrian friendly nature of the square and the Old Port boardwalk was great and made for an enjoyable morning of wondering. Photographs of built heritage in Old Montreal, photo credit goes to Andrew MacKay.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Built Heritage in Montreal: Churches

One of my favourite parts of the built heritage landscape that I explored in Montreal was the old churches that are located throughout the city.  These churches are often tucked in amongst office buildings, hotels, and other modern day amenities.  Additionally, a number of the churches have multiple buildings on their properties such as: a rectory, lodging for religious orders, and office space in addition to the sanctuary space.  The pure size of the church properties often surprised me.  I had thought that many of the churches would have given up land or been torn down to make space for development.  I was also happy to see one church that was in the process of being renovated (with keeping the great architecture in tact) for adaptive reuse as a condo and recreation facility.

I also loved the decorative copper sculpture and roof work that was prominent on a number of the Catholic and Anglican churches in the city. Here are photos of some of my favourites.  The first two photographs are of Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, which has been designated as a national historical site. Photo credit goes to Andrew MacKay. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

Red Memory: Residential Schools Exhibit

Tree of emotions
One of the prominent parts of The Learning Place at the TRC National Event in Quebec was the Red Memory exhibit created by the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Health and Social Services Commission.  The exhibit aims to tell the true history of the Indian Residential Schools that existed in Quebec and to provide an understanding of the damages done by Residential Schools.

The exhibit was setup in a conference room of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel where the TRC event was taking place.  The conference room was transformed with visual, audio, and textual material to create an  immersive experience which emphasized the lived experience of Residential Schools. 

The layout and mediums used in this exhibit were powerful.  Video and audio were used to complement physical displays and text panels.  The sound of a drum beating could be heard throughout sections of the exhibit and Survivor testimony was playing on a prominent screen. My only complaint about the enhanced features of this exhibit would be that some of the text was displayed in a scrolling red text on a narrow digital screens.  This text was really interesting and the red colour created a contrast against the other portions of the exhibit.  However I found that the scrolling nature of it made it challenging to read.

On of the most powerful sections of the exhibit is a 'tree of emotions" that was situated near the entrance to the exhibit.  The leaves on the tree were coloured tags which each had an emotion written on it, these emotions reflected feelings of Survivors of Residential Schools. Some positive words such as hope, love, and peace are written in blue.  These blue tags are contrasted with the red words which highlight the violence and cultural harm of residential schools.

Overall the exhibit does a good job of capturing many of the elements associated with the Residential School legacy.  The exhibit is divided into four sections: Separation, Isolation, Homecoming, and Memories. The text and display content for each of these sections is drawn from Survivors and reflects the ongoing impact of Residential Schools.  Red Memory does an excellent job of highlighting the fact that the impact of Residential Schools didn't end when the children returned home and that many people are still being impacted by the Residential School legacy.

I walked through the exhibit a couple of times throughout the TRC Event, each time there were a number of people taking in the exhibit in silent contemplation.  Everyone I spoke to about the exhibit thought it was well done. A few health support providers did mention that the exhibit had been triggering to some Survivors and that they had decided to establish a health support station inside the exhibit room to ensure that there was easy access to emotional and cultural support for anyone triggered. The inclusion of health support is crucial to this type of exhibit which deals with such an emotional topic.

The Red Memory exhibit was designed as a traveling exhibit for Quebec and upcoming tour plans have this exhibit being hosted at the Native Museum of Mashteuiatsh next. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Following my trip to Ottawa for the NCPH conference, I was in Montreal for the Quebec National Truth and Reconciliation Commission event.  While in Montreal I had an opportunity to check out some of the local built heritage and heritage organizations.  Part of a day was spent exploring the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  

Having just visited the National Gallery of Canada a few days prior, it was hard not to make comparisons between the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.  Overall, I think I actually liked the Montreal Museum better, the layout, exhibits, and overall feel just tended to sit better with me.

The Montreal facility isn't as large as the National Gallery, however the exhibit space is still sizable.  I found the layout and flow between exhibits in the Montreal space better (eg. I didn't end up all turned around in a gallery space with no idea of how to get out, like I did at the National Gallery).  The signage at the Montreal Museum is well placed and helped indicate a clear progression through the exhibits.

I found the mixture of eras at the Montreal Museum well done.  There was a number of galleries that contained modern and contemporary art, contrasted with gallery spaces featuring classical/early international art.  The balance of the the new and older art provided a sense that there was plenty to look at in the museum for everyone regardless of your art preference. I found the balance of gallery content much more evenly dispersed in the Montreal Museum than in the National Gallery.  The early international art collection in the upstairs of the National Gallery seems to go on forever, which though interesting can be overwhelming.

The Montreal Museum also has a substantial Archeology and World Cultures collection.  This collection includes artistic heritage items of numerous origins (Egyptian, Roman, African, Oceanic, Islamic, and Asian, etc).  This collection was displayed according to culture of origin and was well presented.  The variety of items in each exhibit was impressive and most of the items were surprisingly well documented considering their age and acquisition dates.

Overall I had a great visit to this space.  The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has free admission to all of their permanent exhibits. So, if you are in Montreal  have the time I would recommend taking a couple of hours to explore the facility, it's a great space architecturally and has a lot of visually and historically interesting artwork.