Wednesday, 18 October 2017

PUBLIC TO PRIVATE: THE GARDEN OF THE GREEK GODS

COLLECTIONS CORNER

BY: KATLYN WOODER

This past September, I was privileged enough to be informed of a public event featuring 20 pieces of E. B. Cox’s works (1914-2003). After braving the public transport system and the frankly off-putting visage of exhibition loop on an unusually hot fall day down by the Gardiner Expressway, I made it to the private Muzik Night Club. Now called Toronto Event Centre, the site plays host to twenty of Cox’s sculptures. This event was hosted by his daughter Kathy Sutton. She regaled us about the history and circumstances of her father’s artwork; more specifically the Garden of the Greek Gods. I arrived at the event expecting to see a beautiful green garden, with artwork strategically placed. I was not prepared to end up at a Toronto Night Club. The event turned out to be surprisingly political.

Photo courtesy of Katlyn Wooder
On the day a host of people gathered together to visit E. B. Cox's hidden work, migrating from one sculpture to another whilst wandering between deck chairs and low tables, trying to not fall into pools. The sculptures themselves are stunning in their bulging forms, and timeless, raw depictions. The collection's central theme is mythical Greek figures. These stone works capture Hercules, Narcissus, the Furies, the Minotaur, and other widely known characters of antiquity through Cox's particular style. Most of the sculptures are substantial, made out of solid pieces of limestone, and reaching anywhere from three to eleven feet high.

Photo courtesy of Katlyn Wooder
Kathy Sutton gave a history of the collection, from its original placement at Georgian Peak's Ski Club to it's eventual placement on the CNE grounds. In 1979, Arthur Carmen donated the sculptures to the City of Toronto to be on permanent display on the grounds of the Horticulture Building. The Horticulture Building is one of five heritage buildings located in Exhibition Place. In 2004, it was leased to Zlatko Starbovski by the City of Toronto for twenty years. The sculptures are placed on a patio as decorative feature of the club, encircled by hedges and a fence.
Photo courtesy of Katlyn Wooder
In the construction of the club and the extension of the patio during renovations, the sculptures were damaged. There are dents and gouges on multiple sculptures caused by construction machinery. Furthermore, in an attempt to clean the sculptures, pressure washing was used on the artwork without authorization. It ended up blasting the surface off the limestone (removing the patina that helps to slow down the aging). This action permanently damaged the artwork; changing the colour and texture of the stone.

A group interested in preserving the public aspect of this collection found an alternative venue for the collection. The Rose Garden at Exhibition Place is an alternative grassy, open venue to host the sculptures, found by the Working Group for the Relocation of The Greek Gods. But because of the lease, the only way that the City of Toronto could move the sculptures would be if they had the permission of the owner to come in and remove the sculptures, which they don't have. In addition it would cost the city somewhere around $500,000 to move these sculptures. The Garden of the Greek Gods hasn't been moved yet.

Photo courtesy of Katlyn Wooder
Now in 2017, as I walked to the venue, I ended up walking along the fence (some of which had spikes along the top in what I can only assume as a deterrent to keep people from climbing over,) through the black, iron bars, sit enclosed five sculptures. What has happened, fundamentally, is that public art has been turned private. What is worse, is that it has been made private in direct violation of the artist’s intent. According to his daughter Kathy Sutton, Cox loved it when children played with or on his artwork. Truly, the artwork seems to be designed for this interaction as the broad forms and easy slopes of the curves of his artwork are easy to climb over.

To be honest, it is understandable that the business owners want the sculptures to remain on its premises. Multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of artwork in a night club improves it atmosphere and exclusivity, and admittedly, the city failed to move the sculptures before signing the lease. However, the enclosed space prevents public access to public art.

Photo courtesy of Katlyn Wooder
As I was leaving the premises through the metal detector, I spotted a group of women from the event making their way to a series of other sculptures by Cox. Three limestone bears on full display, and interacting with the public, in their intended condition and space. They encapsulate what was lost to the public when the fence was erected around the Garden of the Greek Gods. A lesson I have learnt from this experience is to be aware of where public art is, who owns the land, and whether or not the art that serves the community is protected.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

WHERE DO THEY STAND?: FILIPINO MUSEUMS IN THE LAST CENTURY

MUSINGS ABROAD

BY: KRISTEN MCLAUGHLIN

Introduction

The Philippines has been a country of recent international interest. From Cold War-esque standoffs with China over land claims to President Rodrigo Duterte's contested war on drugs consisting of the murders of thousands, the Philippines is currently undergoing a major shift in policy, mentality, and government.

Whenever a country gets a new, questionable leader, something that I always wonder about first is the status of culture: museums, heritage sites, archaeology, art, and so on. What happens to it? Where does it sit on a list for someone like Duterte and his government? Today, I will be writing a brief overview of the situation.

The Philippines


A map of the Philippines and surround nations. Source.

The Philippines is a collection of 7,107 islands located in the junction of three seas: The South China Sea, the Philippine Sea, and the Celebes Sea. The Philippines was not always one nation, and in fact has a long and complex history of trade between islands as well as with China and Japan, as far back as the 3rd century, with Muslim Arabic settlements landing in the southern islands in the 1300s and retaining control until the 1600s.

In the 1500s Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who worked for the Spanish crown, landed in the southern region. Despite his death soon after, Spain continued to send explorers to the islands and retained control for roughly 356 years.

In the l898, the Spanish-American war changed the face of the Philippines, when the US attacked a Spanish base in Manila. Spain conceded defeat and gave control of the islands to the USA. One month later the Philippines declared independence under the leadership of Emilio Aguinaldo. The USA was strongly opposed, which led to guerrilla war until 1901. Under the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, the Philippines was granted independence in 1946 and became the Republic of the Philippines. We can tell from this basic summary that the Philippines has centuries of colonial history, which still affects it today.


Making Museums in the Philippines: 1901-1998


What has been the trend in Philippine museum development in the last century? The first government museum was created under American colonial policy as the National Museum of the Philippines. In the first quarter of the 20th century, places that were rapidly urbanizing, such as Manila, became gathering places for Filipino artists. It was a time of museum creation. During WWII, much heritage was lost with the invasion of opposing forces. Under 3 years of Japanese occupation, the museum division was dismantled and approximately 95% of the museum's collection holdings was destroyed. This demonstrates war's destructive toll on a nation's cultural heritage and patrimony.

The National Museum of the Philippines in Manila. Source.

The Marcos era of the 70s was seen as the time of "high art", with many art galleries and cultural centres - as well as military museums - being opened. With the 80s and 90s and a new democratic government, these systems were reorganized to be more educational, local, and scientific; for example, this is when the Archaeology Division of the government came into being to help promote pre-Spanish Philippines history. More recently, ecomuseums have become a popular trend to showcase traditional craftwork.

Around 2011 and 2012, the government came under fire from journalists for not supporting museums and heritage conservation or protection enough, with national museums operating on budgets so small air conditioning had to be shut down on weekends and important collections left to grow moldy and rot.

Cultural Policies Under Duterte

But what does all of this history mean for the present? What are the museums in the Philippines today? One place to start is by looking at how the current president, Duterte, sees culture and heritage and if it has a place on his list (above or below murder?).

Man of the People or Human Rights Violator? Rodrigo Duterte. Source.

As of yet, all that I can find are policies on economic growth, the decentralization of power, and of course, his war on drugs. Based on his typical dictator-style leadership, it is possible to assume that he may promote certain aspects of culture if only to support the continued promotion of Philippines history and self-identity, similar to the Marcos era of the 1970s.


Museums and Repatriation

So far, it is interesting to see how museums are functioning under Durterte's leadership. Earlier this year, he made the Presidential Museum virtually accessible to everyone in the Philippines for free. The Presidential Museum houses artifacts and documents pertaining to the leadership of the Republic of the Philippines.

He has also been a strong supporter of repatriation of Filipino artifacts, particularly those that tell a story of Filipino independence. For example, as recently as July 2017, he has been vocal about the USA returning the Balangiga Bells from a 1901 Filipino uprising and particularly brutal US backlash. The bells have not yet been returned.

The Balangiga Bells are currently displayed in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Source.

Memorializing Duterte Regime: Now and in the Future

Interestingly, two museums have been created in Duterte's honour: one in his childhood home and one in the high school he attended. Both museums focus on Duterte himself and his assent to power.

This may tell us more than we realize about the focus of museums and culture under Duterte, and how he wants to be remembered into the future. The idea of Duterte and his current regime is a hot button topic, both in the Philippines and around the world. Despite not a lot of information on cultural policies and museums being out there, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next several years in this regard.

Do you have any thoughts on the current leader of the Philippines and what it may mean for cultural patrimony on the islands?

Monday, 16 October 2017

THE SMITHSONIAN REALLY WANTS YOU TO THINK ABOUT FOOD

A MUSE BOUCHE

BY: JENNIFER LEE

How much time do you spend thinking about your food? The everyday business of shopping for, buying, cooking, and eating food consumes enough attention that we can miss opportunities to consider the cultural, economic, and historical processes that shape our diets. If you’ve ever wondered why nutrition labels look the way they do, or who decided that carbs were bad for you anyway - or if this is the first time you’ve pondered this - the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History might be able to help you out.


Take a moment to stop and think about food. Source. 

From Oct 26 to 28, the Smithsonian Institution will host the third annual Smithsonian Food History Weekend under the theme ‘Many Flavors, One Nation’. The weekend brings researchers, culinary practitioners, writers, and the general public to the National Museum of American History to discuss and understand the history and role of food in America. The meat of the weekend lies in the moderated roundtable discussions (free to attend and streamed online) and Saturday’s Food History Festival, a day stuffed full of food-related public programming.

Commendably, the SI keeps its yearly weekends topical; last year’s theme was ‘Politics on Your Plate’, in keeping with the end of the 2016 election campaign season. Each Food History Weekend wrestles with big and often difficult questions and themes, including identity and the politics of farm labour, nutrition, and health. In 2016, participants and attendees asked, “Whose voices are influencing food policy today? What are the critical issues, and what role does democracy play in the future of food in America?” This year, the weekend will centre on stories of migration, cultural exchange, tradition, and identity. The theme suggests that the weekend will embrace pluralism and emphasize the diversity of American food history: the ways in which all of our foodways and traditions influence each other. A public discussion on culinary diplomacy (“A new soft power, culinary diplomacy has the ability to bridge conflicts in situations where traditional forms of diplomacy have been ineffective”) seems almost comically well-timed for the current political climate.

The Food History Weekend is only one pea in a pod full of food-history initiatives at the Smithsonian. The NMAH boasts a full slate (or perhaps a full plate?) of exhibitions and programming that examine why and how Americans eat the way they do. Most famously, the museum houses Julia Child’s kitchen, which was featured in her later cooking shows and relocated from her home in Massachusetts, complete with her signature copper pans.

Julia Child's iconic kitchen, preserved at the NMAH. Try to resist doing the Voice. Source. 

Child’s kitchen serves as the gateway to the ongoing exhibition FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950-2000, which examines the changes wrought by innovation, industry, and cultural change on American diets. A demonstration kitchen hosts regular historically-inspired demos hosted by Smithsonian staff and guest chefs, and the museum runs programming outdoors in its gardens, including a recreated wartime Victory Garden. 

The Smithsonian’s commitment extends into the history of beverages. In January of this year, it hired Theresa McCulla as overseer of its American Brewing History Initiative (described by more than one media outlet as ‘the best job ever’). McCulla, a Harvard scholar whose background is in social history and food literacy, began by surveying the museum’s beer-related collections. She stated in January that she especially hopes to illuminate the overlooked role of women, immigrants, and enslaved people in the early history of American brewing.


Cheers to that. Source. 

Why this commitment to food history, and why does it matter?

Food history as demonstrated in museums (one of the most publicly accessible media through which people can learn about food) often takes the shape of demonstrating pre-industrial processes and recipes from the history of white settlement in North America: this is how pioneers made bread and brewed beer. Less frequently, museums and heritage sites may expose visitors to Indigenous foodways, usually also rooted in the distant past. These approaches are limited in time and scope: food history isn’t just about what white pioneers ate, but how all people have fed and continue to feed ourselves. What’s missing is a discussion of how we got from breadmaking in the eighteenth century to Yelp reviews of sushi in 2017, how culinary traditions have been adapted to meet the needs of the recent past and the present, and a critical look at how we think about food, including diet culture, food labour, and food literacy.

Food is both universal and highly specific. The ways in which we eat and think about eating are determined by and reflect our time, place, class, ethnicity, and gender. The universality of food as an experience makes it an ideal starting point for education: visitors already have a strong personal connection to the subject.

It’s loaded with meaning, and that means it’s well worth talking about everywhere in the public sphere, but especially in museums. At the same time, food can act as a gateway to topics we need to address more than ever: health, politics, labour, the environment, and racial and cultural difference. The Smithsonian’s food history programming recognizes that we are what we eat, and if what we eat isn’t ideal, that’s an interesting avenue to discuss, too. 

Can food history programming tell me why millennials are obsessed with pizza? Actually, yes, it probably can. Source. 

The Food History Weekend programming champions diversity, research, and critical thinking, which will be increasingly important as we face a changing intellectual landscape, in which there are facts, "facts", and Twitter. 

As stewards of material culture and historical record, heritage institutions are well-placed to help people think through historical processes and current events, and institutions like the NMAH have the resources to do this in a big way. The museum was the third most-visited Smithsonian institution last year, after the Air and Space and Natural History Museums, and welcomed 3.6 million visitors. Even without the impact of online content such as podcasts, blog posts, and the streamable Food History Weekend roundtables, that’s a pretty impressive reach, and it represents 3.6 million opportunities to get people thinking critically about their food.

If you’re interested in food history at the Smithsonian, I suggest checking out the NMAH blog's food history tag and the Food History Weekend page for videos of past roundtable events. If you're podcast-inclined, there's an interview with beer historian Teresa McCulla on the Smithsonian podcast, Sidedoor.

Friday, 13 October 2017

ALIAS TORONTO

HERITAGE MOMENTS

BY: ELEANOR HOWELL-CHRISTENSEN

If we haven’t already, soon we’ll all have heard the name Grace Marks. Netflix’s miniseries Alias Grace, based on the Margaret Atwood novel of the same name, debuted at TIFF just a few weeks ago and will be available to stream on November 3. Alias Grace is a fictionalized interpretation of a gruesome murder that happened in 1840’s Toronto, a time when the city was still largely built of wood and had only recently changed its name from York. Grace Marks was accused of murdering her employer and his housekeeper, and the question of her guilt befuddled society at the time — and still does to this day (as this anticipated Netflix adaptation implies). We seem to love a ‘good murder’, particularly a scandalous one, and particularly when it’s a woman who’s done the murdering. 


For my first post as the Heritage Moments columnist I thought I’d jump on the Alias Grace bandwagon that’s shedding light on some of our city’s early history, and offer up three stories of women, murders, and Not Guilty! verdicts. From Richmond Hill to Parkdale to the Annex, the courts of Toronto have a strange history of murderesses, sensationalized trials, and verdicts that ultimately let these murderesses walk free. Read through the stories of these three women who have played sensationalized roles in the darker side of Toronto's heritage. 



GRACE MARKS

c/o murderpedia.org



Let’s begin our murderess tour with Grace Marks, now a star of a Netflix drama but who, at the time of her trial, was a recently-immigrated Irish maidservant. At only 15 years old, Grace was arrested in 1843 alongside fellow servant James McDermott for the double murder of their employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Wealthy farmer Kinnear had been found dead from bullet wounds outside his Richmond Hill home, while Montgomery’s body had been strangled and hacked to death with an axe then dumped in the cellar; the post-mortem autopsy results showed she was pregnant at the time, most likely with Kinnear’s child.

McDermott was found guilty of murder and hanged, but rather than being given the death sentence Grace was sent first to an asylum and then to Kingston Penitentiary where she spent almost thirty years. She divided those who encountered her, both during her trial and after she was locked away: some thought she was naive and innocent, while others thought she was just as guilty as the deceased McDermott. 

A group of Reformers convinced of her innocence appealed repeatedly to various government officials for her release. Eventually granted a pardon, the now old Grace was released. No records of her exist after her release from Kingston. The issue of her guilt or innocence is still unresolved.

Read more here:


CLARA FORD

c/o Toronto Then and Now
Perhaps the most charismatic of the three women in this article, Clara Ford was arrested in relation to the Frank Westwood murder case in 1894. 18 year old Westwood had been shot on the doorstep of his family’s Jameson Ave mansion. He died several days later, maintaining that his shooter had been a stranger, a moustachioed man dressed in a dark suit. As the young son of a wealthy Toronto family, Westwood’s murder caused a city-wide uproar. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was called in to speculate: on a visit to Toronto, the creator of detective Sherlock Holmes was asked to weigh in on the murder case. Doyle declined to comment, and with the police force working on very little information, the mystery of the moustachioed man prevailed for weeks.

Things took an interesting turn when the police arrested Clara Ford, a biracial female tailor. She was known to regularly dress as a man, owned a gun with bullets to match Westwood’s wound, and frequented the Parkdale area in her social circles. She wasn’t surprised to be arrested and frankly confessed to the murder. According to Clara, Frank had tried to take advantage of her and she’d retaliated by biding her time then dressing as a man, going to his house and shooting him. Known for her charisma and bravado, Clara navigated the trial with self-confidence and won over the jury: despite the overwhelming evidence against her, Clara was acquitted. Toronto loved Clara and her eccentricities so much that when she left the courthouse she had to struggle through cheering crowds in order to take her jurors out to eat. 

Clara became a household name and even placed the dark suit she’d been wearing when she shot Westwood into a local museum. She left Toronto to join a performing group, where she toured the States as a 'murderess' spectacle.

Read more here:



CARRIE DAVIES

c/o Development of Toronto


Torontonians will recognize the name Massey (Massey College, Massey Hall) but in 1915 the name was tinged with scandal. Sharing similarities with the Westwood murder, young Charles Massey was shot in front of his home on Walmer Road. The wielder of the pistol was 18 year old Carrie Davis, Massey’s young English maidservant who accused her victim of ruining her life as she shot him. Police found Carrie preparing to turn herself in and confess. She claimed that Massey had attempted to rape her the day before: she’d felt powerless as a young female servant and had resolved to defend herself. 

Carrie had been brought to Canada as part of a government scheme to recruit domestic servants from Britain. She was known as being quiet and modest in her spending, sending most of her income home to her poor family. Massey, on the other hand, was notorious for his womanizing and his casual approach to finances. When the case went to trial, Toronto sympathized with the vulnerable Carrie and her desperate attempt to protect herself from abuse. Certain newspapers weighing in on the crime emphasized her good character and suggested that the murder was justified: she was a young, vulnerable female protecting her honour in a difficult situation.

The jury didn’t meet for very long before deciding Carrie was not guilty. Even though she’d confessed to the murder, the courtroom was relieved to see her walk free. The judge himself was reportedly teary-eyed at the verdict. Carrie decided not to seek more employment in Toronto and instead left the city for the life of an Ontario farmer’s wife. She never told her children of her crime. 

Read more here:



Thursday, 12 October 2017

DUST, RUST, AND ALL THE REST: PART ONE

CONSERVATION TIPS & TRICKS

BY JULIE DAECHSEL

I love dust. I love rust. I love grime.

Source.
Before you question my sanity and scroll past this post, I let me explain – I love cleaning these things off an object. In this two part series, I’ll outline a practical beginner’s guide to conservation. By using stories from my time in the Markham Museum’s curatorial department, I’ll show you how to defeat dust, rust, and all the gross grime that attacks artifacts.

Part one will look at planning your war on dirt and part two will show you how to execute your plan and annihilate your foes.

Why conserve?
Removing layers of dirt and neglect from an object is insanely satisfying, and not just for the conservator. To the object, conservation is life or death (seriously): surface dirt and grime promotes deterioration, interferes with the aesthetics and the interpretation of an object, and attracts pests.

I think most people are more frightened of conservation than they should be. I’ll take this moment to clarify what I mean by “conservation” – it is by no means restoring an object to perfection. Cleaning an object doesn’t mean taking the object back to its original state: it means preventing further deterioration.

Definitely not the kind of cleaning I mean. Source.
Before cleaning, ask yourself...

Is it required? Does the object need to be cleaned?
Look at the object itself and how the museum (or entity that owns the object) wants to use it. If the object’s purpose depends on it being hygienic, then a deeper clean makes sense. Case in point: the curator of the Markham Museum, Janet Reid, restored a brass and chrome Babcock tester by removing layers of oxidation. Her goal was to clean it to a level appropriate for "Dairy Testing Clean", as it was a dairy testing tool. In consultation with Miriam Harris, Professor of Cultural Heritage Conservation and Management at Fleming College, it was determined that certain mechanical cleaners would be safe for both object and conservator.


Babcock tester from the Markham Museum after being restored. Layers of green corrosion were removed. Photo courtesy of Anna Kawecka.
The tester is now fully functioning as the corrosion was removed from all surfaces. Photo courtesy of Anna Kawecka.
What is a reasonable level of clean?
Determine how dirty the object is and what resources are available to you. Conservation is a lengthy and expensive process. So how do you balance the needs of the object with limited resources?
Triage the object: identify areas that need immediate attention (those that put the object in danger of irreversible damage) and areas that are not hazardous but not ideal. Figure out how much time and how many resources you can devote to the object. From there, it’s a matter of making a plan: the entire object needs to be brought to a uniform level of clean.

At the museum, Janet Reid wanted to add a cast iron horseshoe to an exhibition. Two hours were devoted during a busy exhibition installation to improve the appearance of this horseshoe (which was to be added to the upcoming exhibition) and stop the active corrosion. From a compromise between curatorial goals and conservation ideals, the horseshoe was taken from this:

Pretty gross, right? Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel.


To this:

Two hours of conservation work. Photo courtesy of Julie Daechsel. 
Notice how it is uniformly clean? Equal amounts of time were spent cleaning every surface.

What is the dirt? How should it be removed?
Without intensive curatorial training, it’s next to impossible to look at an object and diagnose its dirt. Never blindly guess what dirt or corrosion is on your object: make an educated guess.

Look at where the object acquired its grime: was it outside, in a barn, in a basement? Could the grime be dirt, dust, or a combination? What is the object made of? When in doubt, ask other museum professionals: send a picture to the OMA listserv and wait for the responses to pour in. Museum professional love to share their wisdom and are only an email away. If you’ve identified the material, consult the CCI Notes before drafting your plan of attack.


Source.
But remember, never clean something without express permission from the object’s owner and never touch an object without complete confidence. Even the smallest inkling of uncertainty should give you pause.

Tune in to part two where I get down to the brass tacks (pun intended) of actually cleaning!

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

MISHAPS OF THE INQUISITIVE SOUL: RESEARCH PRE-EMBARKATION

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: LANA TRAN

There is something deeply comforting about knowing that no matter how niche your enthusiasm may be, there are others willing to grapple alongside you. This was my first impression of academia, and after six post-grad years flailing around the other side of the Pacific, it’s this impression that tipped me towards graduate school.

So after packing not one, but two sets of glasses and my favorite coffee beans and moving back to Canada, I think it’s safe to say that I was eager. Anxieties aside, I was eager to speak with like-minds, challenge assumptions and generally, understand the world even a tiny bit more.


And so, my fellow grappling first-years, I invite you to consider the following in embarking on your research:

Personal investment


Source.

The problem with heavy emotional investment: there’s no room for flexibility! My eagerness to challenge assumptions meant I wasn’t prepared to have mine torn apart (or at least deeply massaged). But while the need to be aware of one’s own biases in research is obvious, the line between passion and bias is not often so. In other words:

When should we stand by what we think to be true, and when do we willingly set it aside?


Fear of interpretation


Gripping my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian, I'll say this: voicing one's ideas is a tactful skill. This skill is not always welcome, and in truth, is not always a given right. It's also not always successful; it is fraught with opportunity to be mis- and reinterpreted. It can be scary to reconcile this thought in academia, where everything one puts forth is open to critique. I can't help but picture researchers as existentialists, coping with potential alienation as part of the human condition.

Could we find remedy in priming ourselves for a communicative approach to research before the work begins?

Place-finding and representation

Source
In a world fraught with identity politics, and in a field with a poor record when it comes to representation, I feel the need to clarify my background with every statement I make. But like many others in an increasingly complex society, my identity does not fall into one, two, or even several neat boxes. At the same time, I cannot trivialize the importance of representation, nor the sometimes inconvenient fact that we are all individuals raised within certain cultures and beliefs that are bound to express themselves in our actions.

In entering the academic realm, how can we suitably acknowledge the complexities of our own identity in addressing cultural topics?

As you can see, open-ended questions are my thing. If you’re further along your research path and have wisdom to spare, share away!

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

PUSHING THE LIMITS

BEYOND TRADITION

BY: HANNAH MONKMAN

Hello and welcome to round two of Beyond Tradition! In our last episode, Emily grappled with defining what exactly constitutes a museum. She concluded with her definition focusing on the educational aspect of museums—an aspect I agree with. But from the visitor’s perspective, is the potential for informal learning a motivation (or even an outcome) in their experience at the museum?

With this question in mind, I want to push the boundaries even further and look at some museum practices that we can find outside of places we might usually consider to be centres of informal learning: specifically, department stores.

Now you might be thinking: “Hannah, department stores definitely aren’t museums. So why are you comparing them?”

To which I might respond, “Why aren’t they considered museums?”

No two museums are the same, so how can we define what a museum isn't? Source.  

If you look at stores like IKEA, the layout (and the customer experience) looks pretty similar to a typical visitor experience in a museum. The customer explores through carefully curated exhibits, can stop at an in-house restaurant if they get hungry, and pass through a store on the way out that features items related to the exhibits they just experienced.

In other ways, IKEA could also be compared to the Ontario Science Centre, notorious for  being difficult to navigate for first-time visitors. Source.

While it can be argued that this is not “educational,” we should then be asking, “educational for whom?” 

An interior decorator may find inspiration from an IKEA exhibit just as an artist may be illuminated by a trip to the AGO. A fashion designer may explore Nordstrom just as a historian travels through the ROM. Although the content in museums is typically subjected to interpretation, the question of audience is always a driving factor in interpretive decisions on both sides – from lighting choices to paint colours, from considering how people move in the space to how the overall aesthetic will impact the experience, the visitor is typically first and foremost (perhaps only second to the safety of the more delicate artifacts – or more expensive merchandise). 

Department stores can be further compared to commercial art galleries with regards to their "collections." After all, is fashion not a subset of contemporary art? Museums with textile collections will display garments spanning all of history, and art galleries may sell pieces displayed in their show – both the practices of selling the art and displaying it for aesthetic purposes are found in department stores. Does the act of selling the collection itself deny the institution the right to call itself a museum? But then, in some ways, a department store might be more similar to a gift shop in an art museum than a commercial art gallery in that it sells reproductions of the pieces rather than the originals.

In addition to all of this, there has been movement within museums to focus less on the inherent value of the objects and more on the visitor experience. Conducting visitor research has helped museum professionals to identify why people come to museums and how they behave once they’re there. Analogous to this has been a trend in some retail stores, notably Nordstrom, to focus their efforts on creating memorable customer experiences with exceptional service rather than purely advertising their products.

Every visitor will have a unique experience – what one person walks past might have a huge impact on someone else. Source.

While I don't truly think that department stores are museums (or should be defined as such), I believe that we can strengthen our understanding of what a museum can be by looking at what a museum is not. If we look beyond the limits of what we understand a museum to be, we can find cases that mirror our own practices and may benefit the field of museum studies as we consider a more multidisciplinary approach.