Monday, April 30, 2012

April 2012 Update

Whirl-i-gig Visit
Peggy's Cove
We had some visitors from the USA at the beginning of the month, and spent two intensive days talking about databases and websites. Much cake and chocolate was eaten, and for a special treat we took our guests out to Peggy's Cove so they could get a sense of place. We figured that might help with the website design process. I am very pleased to say that we worked our way through an impressive amount of stuff and everyone is feeling right on track for our September launch.

13 people participated in the Museums 101 workshop in Liverpool. We had a great two days with lots of learning and conversation. I was especially pleased with the number of "newbies"; volunteers and staff members who had never received museological training, let alone ANSM training. This is encouraging because it means the professional bar is being raised across the province, regardless of the museums' size or structure. We had federal and provincial government sites represented, as well as community museums of all shapes. And while they may have started the workshop thinking their challenges and situations were totally unique, they definitely ended it realizing we're all in the same boat and have strength in numbers.

Next up is Collections Management at Whitney Pier Historical Museum in Sydney on May 10-11th. The workshop is full and has a waiting list, something to keep in mind for future workshops - they fill up fast!

Regional Meetings
Sherry Griffin
ANSM Board Member & Director of
Annapolis Valley Macdonald Museum
Anita and I split up so we could go to both the Cape Breton and Southwest regional meetings, which unfortunately fell on the same day. So I got to go to the lovely Ross Farm Museum. There was a great turnout, and lots of discussion about current issues. We also enjoyed a delicious lunch of beef & barley soup, with all of the ingredients coming from the farm. Yum!
If you have not connected with your regional group, I strongly encourage you to do so. These meetings become little think tanks; where people figure out how to work together, prioritize and act on advocacy issues, share successes and challenges, and generally support eachother.

Database Renewal - Website Development
As I mentioned last month, old records are being cleaned up which means the database numbers are going up and down. This means that our overall tally isn't climbing very quickly, but it is great to see people updating the information and preparing for our website launch. Work continues on the design of the site, and this afternoon Anita and I sat down to contemplate logo options (very exciting!). The merging of all the databases is still plugging away, and we now have over 100,000 objects and 30,000 images from 41 sites. Let me tell you, searching across 41 collections from across the province is very cool!
So, the grand totals for this month? 173,212 records and 48,648 images. That's another 87 records and 468 images.
Southwest: 85,734 artifacts, 20,795 images
Central: 35,387 artifacts, 11,266 images
Northeast: 29,717 artifacts, 12,991 images
Cape Breton: 22,374 artifacts, 3,596 images

Congrats to the Southwest region for adding the most records and images!

Song Lyrics
Moose River Gold Mines Museum
Your image of the month is from the Moose River Gold Mines Museum. I know I've mentioned scanning 2-dimensional items before, but I am still seeing a lot of jpeg photos with scales instead of scanned tiff files. Scanning is far easier and creates a better product for 2-dimensional stuff, so please please please keep this in mind. If you are looking for summer student tasks, this is a good one. Sit them down with a box of photos, documents, or other 2-d stuff, tell them the image has to be above 1200x1200 pixels (scanning at 600dpi is a good rule of thumb), and get them to set up a folder where they can save the images (renamed by accession number of course). I don't want to find any idle summer students during my visits this year (that was said in my mom voice).

CMA Conference
The other major event of the month was a trip to Gatineau for the national conference. I know that very few of our members get to attend the CMA conferences, so always take notes and try to share as much info as possible. So in case you missed them, here are the links to my 4-part series on the conference:
CMA Conference Part 1
CMA Conference Part 2
CMA Conference Part 3
CMA Conference Part 4

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Canadian Museums Association Conference 2012 - Part 4

Keynote Address - Olivia Chow, MP
Chow started off by saying that she loved the conference theme - the idea of being on the edge and shaking things up, to get outside the box and refresh our thinking. Now is the time to grow together and strengthen eachother through cooperative efforts. Chow has a degree in art history and is very familiar with museum work. She offered suggestions on building up the heritage community, such as the use of museum passes that allow visitors into multiple sites (like this). She talked about the need for one-stop shopping for online visitors, for websites that connect all the museums and allow the visitor to easily find what they are looking for.
Her message was one of looking ahead and staying relevant. So in 10 years time we will have 2.65 million 'new' Canadians. That's a huge audience to connect with and an interesting challenge for Canadian museums. Time to invite some new friends over for tea and a talk about what they would like out of their new country's museums.
Chow finished her talk early and then offered to stick around so people could ask her questions or give her messages to bring up during question period and/or share with her fellow politicians. The issues raised by conference attendees ranged from core operational funding to an updated national museum policy to cupcakes (I kid you not).

Closing Keynote Address - Chantel Hébert, Political Commentator & Columnist
The last time Chantel Hébert spoke at a CMA conference she reminded us how important it is to foster relationships with politicians of all stripes, regardless of who is in power. This time she gave us a no-nonsense evaluation of the new political realities on the fiscal front and government approach. So just to clarify, the following are my notes from her talk - her opinions.
This government is not in the business of seeking new missions or roles but are content to let the provinces run things however they want with the federal government operating as a silent partner. This approach to culture is very different from past governments. She talked a lot about the Harper government's tactics regarding Ontario and Québec, and suggested that the role of the Heritage Minister is to keep the peace with French Canadians. Since culture is so intrinsically linked with Québec politics and life in general, it is very difficult for the government to cut programs or services without getting severe backlash from the electorate.
Chantel Hébert talking about museums & politics

The Virtual Historian
Over the past few years we have moved from limited resources stored at local repositories to everything being online. While teachers are looking for information to enhance curriculum, the sheer volume of data is difficult to navigate. Teachers are looking for info that they can reuse, mix & match, and mould to fit their work. They want students to be doing inquiry-based work instead of research (as in, search again via google). The goal is to get kids thinking critically, to formulate questions and provide supporting information based on evidence. If we provide museum content as a finished product, this doesn't support inquiry-based learning. We should instead be using a backward model: identify the desired outcome - determine acceptable evidence of learning - design the virtual history lesson online. The new teaching model asks complex questions, such as "was Trudeau right to invoke the war measures act?
So in looking at online content, how do people react to websites? The University of Ottawa conducted eye tracking studies and found the following:
1. headlines draw attention first
2. people scan the headline for a few words and then move down the page in an F-shape pattern - the further you go down, the less you look to the right
3. visuals and faces draw attention
4. people are going in with preconceived notions and plans so we have to design with a purpose in mind
The Virtual Historian website lets teachers set up different accounts and levels for their classes, create lesson plans (they can share or keep these private). Through their work with teachers, they have heard the clear message that teachers really want content (and should be able to request specific themes or subjects) but need to be able to repurpose this content. So once again we are hearing the importance of crowd-sourcing and opening up the museum's doors to the public.

Christine & Bill with the Maritime
Museum of the Atlantic's CMA Award
 for Museum & Schools Partnership
I haven't mentioned the awards banquet or 65th anniversary dinner. Well, let's just say we ate some really good food, and a number of very deserving individuals won awards. Nova Scotia was well-represented, and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic took home a CMA award for their Real Museum Reel History - Titanic 100 project.
Bill Greenlaw, Executive Director of the Provincial Archives, NS Museum, and Provincial Library for the Department of Communities, Culture & Heritage and also President of the CMA, was also awarded a Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal.

Phew! That's it folks. I hope you learned a little something. I look forward to blogging about next year's conference in the Yukon!!

In case you missed them:
CMA Conference Part 1
CMA Conference Part 2
CMA Conference Part 3

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Canadian Museums Association Conference 2012 - Part 3

Carol Sprachman Memorial Lecture - Jean Labonté, paralympian
I quite enjoy when non-museum speakers are invited to museum conferences. It's nice to get an outside perspective. So here are some life lessons from Labonte that I think would serve the museum community well to remember:
1. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a team. We can either bring everyone down or build eachother up.
2. When good things happen we rarely take the time to live in that moment and celebrate our success. We need to change this and reach out to share our successes with others.
3. We have to look beyond the obstacles, to fight through them and learn from the process.
4. We can do a lot with very limited resources.

He also shared a great Voltaire quote, "appreciation is a wonderful thing: it makes what is great in others belong to us as well". Surely if we can look up and out, and work cooperatively, we can present a unified voice that heritage matters. Celebrating the successes of other museums and sharing ideas will serve to further enhance our strong reputation among the Canadian public.

Culture, Identity and Climate - How Artists contribute to all Three
David Buckland, International Director of Cape Farewell
Marshall McLuhan's teachings made an appearance again during this keynote address: "I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is happening to it". When people care about an issue they express it culturally. Cape Farewell partners artists with scientists to study and share information about climate change. While the scientists conduct in-depth research, the artists are challenged to create a work that corresponds with 'their' scientist's area of study. The resulting exhibits are shown around the world and shed light on the issue. Click here for a sampling. Blurring boundaries between disciplines strengthens society as a whole (there's that notion of the greater good reappearing).

I recently asked participants at a workshop if museums had any sort of social responsibility to address current issues instead of only sharing information about the past. Only one person said yes. If museums are supposed to be stewards of our shared experiences, how can we say that addressing the worldwide issue of climate change is outside the scope of our work? Or any other issue facing our community, province, country, or the world? This doesn't mean we have to get preachy and turn into activists, but as the Montreal Science Centre learned with their 'controversial' exhibits - these are the issues that resonate with society. Presenting the public with the space to discuss hot topics is a very worthwhile community service.

How Interdisciplinary or Cross-Sectoral Collaboration Can Help Drive Innovation
Instead of sharing the 3 case studies from this session, I'm going to focus on the challenges and strategies faced by the organizations.
1. organization shift - previously focused on goals & mandate and had to start balancing these with goals of partner organizations
2. staff burn out & managing change -  staff are often overworked and were used to thinking and working internally so an external mindset had to be fostered
3. resource allocation - we are already stretched very thin...enough said
4. expense vs. revenue -sometimes boards don't want to support risky ventures, especially when money is involved
5. competing needs of organizations - negotiations must take place and be completely finalized before a partnership is solidified
6. mission driven vs. market driven programming - this connects with the organizational shift of reaching out and being more community-minded and ensuring that there is a balance between the two

the inspiring view from my hotel room
Strategies (aka stuff you don't ever want to forget):
1. look outward and create ties with your community - artists, other organizations...don't limit yourself
2. create a platform for academic thought - people love to be challenged intellectually
3. think about the human experience - the museum should be a place where people come to experience life and relate to others
4. don't just dictate information to visitors, teach them and let them learn by doing
5. address potential barriers such as lack of awareness or access
6. maintain frequent communications with all your partners & community

In case you missed them:
CMA Conference Part 1
CMA Conference Part 2
CMA Conference Part 4

Canadian Museums Association Conference 2012 - Part 2

Michaëlle Jean
Arts for Action. Arts for Change
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean

Jean began her address by saying that we need to rally the creative forces of the country. The conference theme this year was "On the Edge", and she pondered the interpretation of this phrase - are we on the edge of a precipice upon which our raison d'être is being challenged? Or are we on the edge of a breakthrough of cultural identity being revitalized?
In the current climate arts organizations must be more effective in communicating our value to Canadians. We must be explicit in expressing our purpose and its connection to social and economic benefits. We are the custodians of the nation's soul. Cultural institutions used to be considered as essential as air or water, but now we are more like a rudderless ship floating perilously at sea. Culture is a way to bring people together and sustain Canada's legacy. We must look at the current landscape as an opportunity; a test of character, a chance to reinvent ourselves and to heighten creativity and convert fear to hope. Hope and promise lie in young creators (the emerging artists and professionals) defying the odds; they are using the arts for social change. Creative life is married to social responsibility where creative minds are always thinking about the greater good. Fighting has become a creative exercise - the arts is true engagement and a labour of love. We are not simply aesthetic but can save lives, mould active citizens, contribute to sustainable communities, build bridges, and break down prejudices.

Young people are creative, socially conscious, and tech savvy. Through Jean's work with young people, she has heard that they fear established institutions are mere repositories that don't recognize the value of their content - artistically and/or socially. These institutions must be centres for creative expression of the present and future, not just a sanctuary of the past. Canadian museums need to become centres of their community to celebrate the creative soul of the nation. She suggested starting small, such as using one wall for community arts events, crowd-sourced curation etc. The goal is to become the nerve centre for cultural happiness with the public being active participants. We must ensure that art continues to matter. The message to our communities needs to be that we are together, we are conversing, and in this alliance anything is possible.

Designing Relevant Exhibits for People Who Hate Museums
I would summarize this session by saying "variety is the spice of life". All three panellists talked about the importance of research, planning, and thinking outside of the traditional museum box. The research component is crucial, and in developing each exhibit museums need to be asking who they are trying to reach (visitor target), what they are trying to say (storyline), and what visitors will do (interactive experience). Social media and mobile technologies can play an integral role in the experience, but we don't want to create an activity that people could just do at home.

The Montreal Science Centre identified 3 turning points in expanding their audiences:
1. development of a marketing plan that was backed by demographic research - who are the museum's clients, what do we want to accomplish, etc.

Ken, Exective Director of the
Museum Association of Newfoundland
& Labrador tries his hand at
Pacart's Plinko game in their
climate-controlled exhibit
transport truck during a break
2. refreshing the permanent exhibits with diverse displays and have controversial/bizarre temporary exhibits - grab people's attention and make them think twice about their idea of what a museum is and does (it is possible to have fun while learning)
3. pair internal offerings with online content - give visitors a way to connect with the museum before, during, and after their visit

At the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts they make sure to change exhibits regularly, integrate technology, cover a variety of subjects in their programming, and respond to visitor feedback. They have opened the doors to storage and invited artists to select something from the collection and then use it as the centrepiece to their own exhibit in the museum space, breaking down the old authoritarian boundaries. While this approach may seem simple enough (dare I say common sense?), it has resulted in a dramatic visitation shift - younger people are coming through the doors and regularly engaging with the museum.

The final panellist was from a west coast design firm and talked about how space, ideas and emotions must tie together to create great experiences. In designing exhibits, the outcome should be singular - a word or phrase that sums up the message and is supported throughout the exhibit narrative, allowing the visitor to easily take the idea with them. The space needs to be organized in such a way that the orientation reflects the tone and attitude of the exhibit, and subtle shifts in display techniques should allow the visitor to engage their body with the space. The key is to involve the public and not be afraid of trying new things. 

In case you missed them:
CMA Conference Part 1
CMA Conference Part 3

CMA Conference Part 4

Friday, April 27, 2012

Canadian Museums Association Conference 2012 - Part 1

Anita in the hotel lobby
It's that time of year again, and over 500 museum professionals from across the country (and a few from around the world) have gathered in Gatineau Québec for the CMA conference. Having missed the conference last year, it's great to see some old faces and connect with people I usually only converse with by email. I was surprised at seeing so many young professionals and new faces; I think the average age of the delegates has dropped by at least 15 years. There is definitely a shift going on in the field.
There are always a lot of concurrent sessions, so Anita and I spent our breakfast time reviewing the schedule and deciding which sessions were best for us. So here are my notes on the sessions I attended - some things that jumped out at me over the 2 days.

Museums and the Making of Meaning - Robert Sirman, Canada Council
The current state of public support for culture is on everyone's mind. Sirman's talk focused a lot on Marshall McLuhan's teachings and how they can be applied to the work of museums. Information becomes meaning with time and narrative, and so communication systems end up creating social and psychological shifts.
So where do museums fall in the McLuhan time chart of technology? We are conduits for information over and above traditional media. Our traditional gate keeping role is under assault by new technology [I think that's rather harsh - I prefer to look at it as an organic shift in communications] and curating has been democratized. Curation is now an arts practice in and of itself; artists are curators and vice versa. Curators now face management complexities and must carry out the museum's mandate while thinking about the bottom dollar. To define the mandate of a public institution without consulting with and examining the benefit to said public is organizational suicide.

Sirman also talked about the reasons for social change:
1. Technology changes human neuro-patterning. We are a product of this.
2. Breakdowns/Crises create passion and incite action. We should question how serious this breakdown has to be though. There is nothing like imminent destruction to focus one's attention, but it can be rather exhausting to operate in crisis mode all the time.
Museums have enormous potential to generate meanings to society. We need to address a larger social mission, to fight for the survival of the sector and society as a whole. We know from studies that Canadians trust and respect us. We also know that whatever visitor statistics are being reported are no longer reflective of the level of engagement - online engagement is still not being tracked and studied as much as it should be. As we all move to share more information online, we must answer the questions about sensory limitations and how on-site programming can be enhanced. This is urgent. Instead of worrying about a breakdown, it's time to get creative and think about the opportunities to break through.

How to Play with a Full House: appropriate divestment of museum collections
Museums have amassed collections to preserve cultural heritage and now are faced with storage and relevancy issues. Over the past few decades disposal policies have quietly been developed (check out ANSM's online resources for deaccessioning procedures, proposals and worksheets) and according to the ICOM standards, every museum must have policies on both acquisitions and deaccessioning. So long as museums follow these policies and procedures there is little bad press. The controversy is over the notion that once an object enters a museum it will be there forever instead of undergoing study and review which may eventually result in its disposition.

Charlie Hill talked about the National Gallery of Canada's policy and approach, which outlines that the decision to deaccession is based on recommendations from the collections committee through discussions with the director, who then takes it to the board of directors for approval - joint effort with lots of discussion. Due to the amount of resources required to review the collection, instances of disposition are few and usually in response to an outside request.
Every museum needs to be conducting collections analyses to determine strengths and weaknesses. We have a responsibility to remove objects that don't fit our mandate and/or aren't likely to be used. So why do we hold onto these irrelevant items? Hill offered a number of reasons:
1. it is our duty to conserve and so culling the collection often makes museum workers nervous - to many it seems counter-intuitive
2. deaccessioning is a very lengthy process requiring significant resources
3. we don't want to insult our predecessors
4. fear of faulty judgement
5. risk of offending donors
6. collections in their entirety reflect life stages of the museum

However, when we collect we are taking risks and making judgements, so we must do the same with deaccessioning. The curator who doesn't know how to deaccession doesn't know how to collect. New acquisitions seek to counteract past weak decisions. So if items are wasting away in storage for 50 years because they just don't fit the museum's mandate, why not find them homes elsewhere?

Nancy Breugeman from MOA talked about their experience with conducting a large scale deaccessioning project. It took them 5 years to transfer 200 objects, which was a huge drain on resources and didn't solve their space issues. They chose not to sell anything due to the risk of bad publicity. As she spoke about transferring objects to other museums I couldn't help but think about the necessity to prove an object fits the receiving museum's mandate. It would be very irresponsible of an institution to just pass the same issues onto another site. All too often I see a list of objects up for deaccessioning and they are offered on a "first come first serve" basis. Shouldn't the receiving institution have to prove why they should get the object; the same way museums have to rationalize every new acquisition?
Bill Greenlaw delivering the opening address
Keep reading:
CMA Conference Part 2
CMA Conference Part 3
CMA Conference Part 4

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Professional Development

image from
Today I had lunch with a few colleagues, and after lunch we had another colleague visit the office which meant even more shop talk. Maybe it's because of the upcoming workshops, but the topic of professional development and staying current came up during both conversations. I am paranoid that I will fall out of touch with the field. How can I be an effective museum advisor if I don't have a grasp on the challenges faced by our members, and trends within the sector? Put simply, I can't. And at the risk of people getting very annoyed with me, I would argue that museums can't stay relevant in our ever-changing world unless they also keep up to date with these challenges & trends. Museums are educational institutions, ie we are focused on the pursuit of knowledge. That sounds like a call to action to me, and one that has to begin internally.

Now before you start getting defensive, I recognize that many of our members simply do not have a budget for professional development. We do our best to keep workshop costs low and to share resources and information for free via Facebook, the Beacon, regional meetings, etc. But there's just no comparison to actual people-people training. As I've been promoting our core curriculum workshops, I have heard a number of reasons for people not attending - and money is at the top of the list. Well, that's exactly why the CMA has a travel bursary

As I was thinking about how museums (of any size) could/should be participating in professional development opportunities, I came up with the following list:

1. Attend conferences - I'm going to skip the international specialized ones and start at the national level. The Canadian Museums Association's conference is coming up. This year's theme is "On the Edge". It consists of pre-conference workshops, post-conference study tours, and the program is chock full of concurrent sessions (not to mention the famous ice cream break). Anita and I end up picking sessions together, trying to figure out which ones are most important to ANSM and then parting ways to get as much learnin' as possible. We regroup over breaks and tell each other all about our respective sessions.
Provincially, ANSM has a conference every year. This year we'll be in Wolfville, September 13-14th. Again there will be a pre-conference workshop & study tour, and lots of sessions about engaging youth. And did I mention we're launching our collections website at the conference? I'm so excited for this that I'm already thinking about what to wear (anyone that knows me would tell you this is not normal).
And there are always a host of other conferences taking place - archives, built heritage, genealogy, marketing, tourism...the list goes on and on, and the information is either directly related or very transferable to museum work.

2. Attend workshops - I've already mentioned workshops a bit, so I'll just say that these are extremely important. Learning in a group setting through lecture, hands-on activities, and discussion will help you retain the information much better than just listening or reading something on your own.

3. Take advantage of site visits - I travel all summer, visiting museums from one end of the province to the other (literally - Wedgeport to Cape North). These visits are scheduled in advance as it takes a lot of coordination to cover an entire province in one summer. As I deliver training or converse with staff/volunteers I often hear things like "oh I wish so-and-so were here for this". If you know that someone from a professional organization will be visiting your site, call in the troops! Sure we may find it a little intimidating to be met with an entourage, but we would much rather endure this than repeat the same training or conversation for the same museum. Don't say yes to a site visit when there will only be summer students around. I love to meet students and see what they're working on, but they'll be gone at the end of the summer. You have to have a permanent staff person or volunteer on-site for these visits.

4. Regional Meetings & Listservs- Networking is important, and each of the four heritage regions have bi-annual meetings to compare notes, talk about opportunities for partnership or advocacy, etc etc. And sometimes they invite guest speakers to share information on a particular topic of interest. The meetings are announced via the regional listserv, an email list that facilitates discussion on all kinds of museum issues.

5. Read books - Most of the museum people I know are also avid readers. I have found some amazing resource books in used book stores and libraries, and every once in awhile a publisher will have a great sale on 'specialized' subjects (that includes museology). And did you know ANSM has a reference library? Well we do, and right now we're working on getting those books into CollectiveAccess so we can share the catalogue on our website.

6. Follow blogs - I follow 16 different museum-related blogs. A few belong to our member museums, but most take an overarching look at the field and focus on innovative ideas and techniques that anyone can mimic. The beauty of blogs is that you can check in with them whenever you have time, and the posts are short which means no worries about when the book is due back to the library or carving out 16 hours of reading time. Some of my favourite blogs are the Center for the Future of MuseumsExhibiTricksMuseum 2.0, Museum Audience Insight, Technology in the Arts, and the Uncatalogued Museum.

7. LinkedIn - I'm not really active on linkedin, but I am a member of several museum groups and once in awhile participate in a discussion. For anyone unfamiliar with this site, it's basically a professional forum. Some of the discussions can be really fascinating because these people are genuinely interested in what happens in museums worldwide. Talk about staying current.

It doesn't matter if you've been in the field for 30 years or are fresh out of school. If you aren't challenging yourself or investing in your staff/volunteers, it will become harder and harder to stay relevant to your community. Or as my predecessor would say, if you're not stirring the pot you're not cooking.