Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Community Knowledge and Active Listening

This week I am spending a lot of time outside of the archive.  The archive is hosting a group of concurrent education students as part of a trial summer institute experience.  The basis for this summer institute is providing an education setting that focuses on experiential learning in relation to Aboriginal heritage and Northern Ontario.  The week includes a few formal lecture type discussions, but for the most part activities are focusing on the real world and engaging with local communities.

Learning outside of a traditional education setting can be extremely rewarding.  It can also be a bit overwhelming for students who have been trained to learn in a lecture or classroom setting.   One of the most important skills that aren't emphasized in formal education settings is the act of active listening and effective oral communication. 

Listening to someone explain their own past as a formal oral history or in a more casual conversation can be an amazing learning opportunity.  However,  listening passively and not having a feel for the situation and atmosphere of the conversation can limit how much is shared or learned.  Sometimes it is not appropriate to interrupt a speaker to ask questions, other times a conversation where you ask directed questions is completely fine.  Knowing the person who you are speaking to helps a lot, as does reading the setting. 

For example, interrupting a First Nations Elder with questions when they are providing a formal teaching probably isn't the most appropriate.  Chances are the Elder will ask you if there are questions at the end.  If a question period isn't part of the session it's often possible to say thank you to the speak and ask short questions individually at the end of the session.  A good facilitator will explain if questions are appropriate at the beginning, but this doesn't always happen. 

Yesterday, one of the community members the group visited spoke about the importance of thinking with both your heart and mind and responding to the situation appropriately.  I think the advice is definitely valid.  A lot of academically trained individuals have a hard time expanding beyond traditional school thoughts.  When learning in a less formal more community based setting it is important to step away from purely academic modes of learning and be open to different interpretations and understandings of knowledge. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Archaeology and Residential Schools

This week two archaeologists stopped by the archive I work at.  These particular archaeologists have in recent years been focusing on Residential Schools.  Prior to their visit I had not considered the tremendous value that archaeology can add to ongoing research relating to Residential Schools.   The majority of my work focus on textual records, photographs, artifacts, and oral history -- leaving me far away from archaeology field work.  Material culture and archeology speaks to areas of the history of Residential Schools that is not captured in historical documents.

Many of the Residential Schools that existed in Canada are no longer standing and in many cases the original land which the schools resided on has been re-purposed or left abandoned.  Unless a monument or other marker has been erected it is often impossible to tell Residential School sites apart from the landscape. Through archaeology and the use of historical records it is possible to identify where buildings were, uses of the land, and the location of burial grounds that were established as part of the schools. 

Overall, the visit reminded me of the importance of interdisciplinary work and the value of reaching out beyond one's immediate field.  The video below, "Encountering Modernity - The Piikani Historical Archaeology Project"does an excellent job of describing some of the efforts related to First Nations and Residential School archaeology projects. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Making History Child Friendly

The August/September issue of Canada's History recently landed in my mailbox.  A short article, "Genealogy Can be Child's Play" by Paul Jones inspired me to spend some time considering children and public history.  Jones' article talks about interesting children in family history through the use of age appropriate activities that are engaging, active, and ultimately easy to undertake for the whole family.

I agree with Jones that inspiring a sense of family history and understanding of ones roots can be a very valuable part of any upbringing.  I also think it is important for children of all ages to be exposed to local and national historical narratives. Looking back at my childhood makes me extremely grateful for my parents attempts to make history and learning fun, even during the summertime. 

One of my earliest memories of experiencing history as a child involves my parents taking me and my siblings to the Dufferin County Museum which was ten minutes from our home.  I don't remember many details about the trip, but I do remember being fascinated by an exhibit on old toys and how different those toys were from the ones I played with at home. 

Fast forward a few years and my Brownie troop made a trip to the same museum.  This time in addition to being able to look at the collection on display the group was given a 'behind the scenes' tour that included being able to see the archival and artifact storage areas.   Seeing something that was normally off limits definitely tickled my childhood interest.  These early positive experiences at the Dufferin County Museum are one of the many reasons why later volunteered at the Museum and eventually became involved in public history.

Not all public history spaces are immediately conducive to children.  Living museums and historic sites with interpreters tend to have more hands on activities that appeal to the tactile nature of many kids.  More traditional archives and museums need to work at making their spaces kid friendly.  Text panels and things secured in display cases can be interesting, but getting an eight year old to stand and look at them is almost impossible at times. 

Running children specific programming and workshops can be a huge step towards making history accessible to children.  However, not all museums and archives have the staff or resources to make this possible.  Even offering small dress-up or colouring stations amongst other exhibits can help make a trip to the museum enjoyable for children.  Similarly, including outdoor space or outdoor activities as part of the standard tour can help make a museum visit child friendly.

Developing a teaching collection of duplicate or replica artifacts can allow children to actually touch and hold things.  For example, setting up a bunch of old typewriters (duplicate or not historically significant ones) for children to type on can be a great way for children to see an old form of technology in use. Teaching collections can work in museums or as part of an archives program.

Archives do not immediately scream children play space.  But it is possible to run programming out of archives that is geared to children.  Many archives have school instruction programs, behind the scenes tours, or introduction to local history programs that expose children to history in a fun way.  Many of these
programs do require staff time, but the partnerships and future patrons that can develop out of these outreach activities are well worth the effort.

What are some of your most memorable childhood history moments?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Traditional Music and the Past

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of attending this year's staff concert at Algoma Trad.  Algoma Trad is a music camp for all ages dedicated to preserving, passing on, and teaching traditional music, dance and art that are part of traditional Canadian culture.  The camp runs for one week in August and is held on a rustic farm setting on St. Joseph's Island.  Last night's concert was held in a converted barn space that serves as a concert hall and dance floor.

What is "traditional music"?  At a first listen it sounds like a mixture of Celtic and folk music.  The best definition I've come across is "music passed mostly unchanged between generations of informal players, usually without notation, and played mostly by ear."   The most common instruments used in traditional music include the fiddle, the piano, the cello, the whistle, the wooden flute, and the guitar.  The majority of the songs are instrumental in nature and are at times accompanied by step dancing. 

 In addition to enjoying the music for the sake of music, I find the history behind For example, during the staff concert  almost every song was introduced with a story about the past - either the history of the artist or the origins of the particular reel or gig and there was not a piece of sheet music in sight.

I find it interesting that despite traditional music being a contextually and musically rich genre it is rarely taught in formal education settings or looked at from an academic research perspective.  Traditional music is often passed aurally and not recorded as sheet music or dance steps.  Songs and dances have been lost over the years when they aren't passed down to the next generation and are not recorded anywhere.  The informal nature of traditional music gatherings makes it challenging to document songs and stories, but I believe there is value in the documentation and discussion of the rich history surrounding traditional music. 

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Food Memories and Public History

The latest issue of The Public Historian, "Time's Tables: Food in Public History" had a special focus on the interaction of food and public history.  Reading the issue made me hungry and intrigued by the complexity of intertwining food into conceptions of the past.

I particularly enjoyed Adam Steinberg's article "What We Talk About When We Talk About Food: Using Food to Teach History at the Tenement Museum." Steinberg focuses on how the Tenement Museum created a food walking tour and an accessible indoor version of the food walking tour.  What struck me most is that the Tenement acknowledged that it wasn't practical to let guests eat in the actual museum, but still saw the value in delivering content that relates to food.  Food can be community defining, cultural specific,  and a powerful emotive tool.

Throughout Steinberg's article and a number of the other contributors to this issue of TPH, the authors discussed the positive memories and connections that are often associated with food.  Food memories often deeply personal and can include connections to childhood, family gatherings, holidays, and other significant events.  Very few of the contributors mentioned the fact that food memories also have the potential to be negative or triggering.

Certain food memories may be associated with less than positive experiences -- economic depression and food shortages, wartime rations, residential schools, agricultural drought or hardship, or death of a loved one.  Additionally, food trends can speak a lot to broader historical trends.  Lack of food, socially acceptable food, and prices of food can all provide information about cultural and social conditions.  These potentially negative situations are well worth discussion but like all sensitive topics should be broached with respect for the impacted audience.

Overall, this issue of TPH reminded me of the need for food to be contextualized like any other topic.  Having a living history site that includes a 'summer kitchen' where staff cook using items from their heirloom garden provides a good taste of the past, but it is also an education moment.  Staff can contextualize food by including details about how food was grown historically, how produce has changed/adapted, gender roles associated with cooking, cooking methods, and economic impact on food.  The ideal use of food in a public history setting is both tasty and educational.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity

The Spring/Summer issue of The American Archivist contained a number of thought provoking articles on the representation of disabilities, minorities, and ethnic groups in archives and archival literature.  One of the articles which I found particularly compelling was "Community Archives and the Limitations of Identity : Considering Discursive Impact on Material Needs" by Christine N. Paschild. (Apparently, I wasn't the only one to be inspired by Paschild's article, Scott Ziegler wrote a review of the article on the Start an Archives! blog.) 

Paschild's article examines how "postmodern-influced discourse of identity shapes and influences critical analysis of community archives." The article outlines a number of interesting postmodern theoretical ideas and is rooted in Paschild's case study of the Japanese American National Museum (JANM).  Paschild argues that the language used to describe community archives often results in marginalization, distraction, or politicization of collections.

Throughout her article Paschild advocates for a clearer definition of community and identity.  She maintains that "the definition of community archives must be drafted in necessarily broad stokes to fully encompass all possible identity constructions." Identity can be constructed in a variety of ways and can mean very different things depending on the individual or community. 

Paschild's article also got me thinking a lot about self-identification within Canada's Aboriginal community and how archives develop collection policies relating to Aboriginal communities.  Defining who falls under the description Indigenous, Aboriginal, First Nation, and a myriad of other labels is something that has been long debated in Canada.

The Canadian government has repeatedly attempted to define Aboriginal identity through the use of legislation, the Indian Act, and treaties.  Government definitions of Aboriginal identity have created exclusions and divisions amongst Aboriginal peoples. Additionally, the government definition of Aboriginal identity often does  not a reflect or take into consideration Aboriginal culture, tradition, language, or practices. 

Self-identification allows people who are 'non-status', were adopted by a non-indigenous family at a young age, or simply don't fit the government's categories, to identify with the community that they see themselves as being a part of.   Granted, self-identification can be a difficult thing to quantify and many people may be reluctant to self-identify in some cases.  However, without taking into consideration self-identification and community based definitions of identity archives seriously limit the material they collect and potentially become increasingly removed from the communities they are aiming to serve.

A broad definition of identity can help archives and heritage organizations be institutions which serve the organizations they aim to represent and collect material for or about.  Community archives and archives which aim to collect information about specific communities need to consciously think about how they are selecting and accepting material based on their definition of identity.  Simply because a conception of community identity is popular or commonly accepted does not mean it is correct or complete.  Community identity can directly impact archival holdings and is something which more archivists should be addressing.