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.