Thursday, 15 March 2018




It's exhibition opening season, gentle readers! My colleagues Cassandra Curtis and Sadie MacDonald graciously answered my questions about their project, an upcoming exhibition at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and a banquet of associated programming (both public and digital). Join us to talk about complementary interpretive vehicles, making exclusion visible, and a really, really cool cookbook. 

JL: Hello! Can you describe the project and your specific roles in it?

SM: Our exhibition is entitled Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada. We explore Canadian culinary texts, objects, and ephemera with a focus on the individuals and communities who participated in and influenced - or were excluded from - that wider culinary culture.

Image used with permission of Rogers Media Inc., All Rights Reserved.
Cassandra and I are responsible for curating an interactive exhibition in the MacLean Hunter room, the lower gallery/classroom space of the Thomas Fisher. We are also preparing a public program connected to the exhibition at Fort York for Doors Open Toronto 2018.
Officially, Cassandra is in charge of all digital content (such as our exhibition blog, which Cassandra built on Omeka and coordinated content for) and I am coordinating physical content (I researched the culinary print material in the Fisher), but we basically have been working on everything together and jumping in to support each other when needed. As curators we have been working under the direction of Irina Mihalache, Nathalie Cook, and Elizabeth Ridolfo, who are curating the upper gallery space.

Our external partners are the programming team at Fort York. We have been working closely with Bridget Wranich and Jocelyn Kent to develop programming for Doors Open Toronto. 

JL: This is a multifaceted project, using digital content and public programming alongside more traditional exhibition models. How have you found the process of working with so many different interpretive vehicles? How does each enhance the exhibition as a whole?

SM: It has been a bit of a learning curve working with these multiple project components (before this project, neither of us had extensive experience with programming, for example), but Cassandra and I have both been really enjoying the process so far.

Each component - digital, programming, and traditional - has unique qualities that add to the exhibition. For example, this an exhibition that is all about food and cooking, but obviously we can’t have any of that take place in a rare book library space! This is why the Doors Open public program is so valuable; it gives us an opportunity to actively participate in the culinary culture explored in this exhibition, and invite others to do so as well. We will be serving food based on recipes in the exhibition at this event.

A bottle of Crosse and Blackwell curry powder, estimated to be from the Edwardian period. On loan to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library from the Collection of Mary Williamson. Photo courtesy of Sadie MacDonald.

The digital content provides an additional way to share the themes and stories of this exhibition with our audiences. There will be an iPad in the gallery that visitors can use to explore culinary texts - not all of which will be explored in detail in the physical gallery displays. The exhibition blog also adds a personal, “behind the scenes” touch to our exhibition, as it is a way for those involved in curating the exhibition to share their experiences bringing the project together.

The digital, programming, and traditional aspects all play into each other and reference each other, but each adds something special to the exhibition using the unique qualities provided by that medium.

CC: It really has been very valuable how multifaceted this project has been for us. I never would have chosen solely a public programming project but I've found it surprisingly fun and engaging to put together!

JL: You mentioned that the exhibition discusses individuals and communities who were excluded from culinary culture, not just those who were visible. It can be difficult to tell these stories when marginalization and erasure affect the material available to us. Has this been an issue for you?

CC: Interesting question! Like a lot of collections, what's absent is what stands out sometimes when it comes to marginalized communities. We've been trying to find a constructive way to talk about the fact that so many of these recipes reference ingredients from these communities without giving them any credit. Then there are some opposite examples too, where a surprising amount of credit is given.

SM: Yes, there is more material out there than one might anticipate. Dr Mihalache and Liz Ridolfo will be discussing Indigenous community cookbooks in the upstairs gallery, for example. And there is one fascinating cookbook, a “crowd-sourced” recipe collection of “Canadian Favourites” organized by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (a forerunner party to the NDP) in the 1940s. This book includes a wide variety of recipes from many cultures present in Canada, including Indigenous and immigrant cultures, and more importantly, credits those cultures and the individual who provided each recipe.

However, this is something of an exception. A lot of the cookbooks we look at fail to credit the original cultures, or superficially or erroneously make reference to the recipe’s cultural context (for example, the trend of cookbooks referring to recipes with pineapple in them as “Hawaiian”).

So that in itself provides a way to open this conversation about marginalization - by talking about the gaps and oversights themselves and looking at what they tell us.

Canadian Favourites: CCF Cookbook. Ottawa: CCF National Council, 1947. Collection of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library.
JL: Is there an object or story that you've found particularly meaningful or delightful?

CC: For myself I've most enjoyed thinking about these cookbooks in the context of the real women who used them and how much they were asked to do. One of the angles we're looking at this from is the resourcefulness that was demanded of women in terms of domestic work, from angles such as rationing and technology. The feminist in me has been really enjoying doing research about women and domesticity! 

SM: I already mentioned the CCF cookbook, and I think that’s my favourite object because of how surprising it is in the context of this exhibition. While many cookbooks from our period of study (1860-1960) appropriate recipes and fail to credit their cultures of origin, that isn’t the case with this cookbook. There are a few Indigenous recipes provided by the Fisher River Reserve in Manitoba, for example - and they are given credit for it. Recipes from immigrant communities are also credited, and the names of the dish in their original languages are often given as well. It’s a very multicultural cookbook - you can find Chinese and Russian recipes on the same page! Reading this cookbook, which was produced in a political context, one gets the sense that it is attempting to speak to the multicultural make-up of 20th-century Canada.

JL: I'm so excited to see this woke proto-NDP cookbook, I can't even tell you.

Mixed Messages: Making and Shaping Culinary Culture in Canada will open on May 21st at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and run until August 31st. The Doors Open event will take place on May 26th and 27th at Fort York. You can find more information about the exhibition here and read blog posts from Sadie, Cassandra, and other project team members at the exhibition blog.




Iconic people are often marked by their iconic clothing. Once these people are no longer wear those fashions – have you ever wondered what happened to their fashion items? Most of these find their ways into museums – lets look at 5 of the world’s iconic fashion items and where they are now.

Jackie Kennedy's Watermelon Pink Suit

Jackie Kennedy arriving at John F. Kennedy's
Inauguration.  Source
Jackie Kennedy was an American style icon. The outfit she is most known for was her watermelon pink Coco Chanel suit and matching pillbox hat she wore the day her husband John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. The pink suit was covered in John F. Kennedy’s blood, and despite repeated suggestions to change her clothes, Jackie Kennedy refused and said, “No, let them see what they’ve done”. When Jackie finally stepped out of the suit, it was collected and preserved by the National Archives in Maryland. Stored there out of sight, the suit is under the purview of the Kennedy family, who have confirmed it will not be publicly displayed until 2103.

Frida Kahlo’s Booted Prosthetic Leg

Frida Kahlo's prosthetic leg on display at the
 V&A.  Source
Frida Kahlo, famous feminist artist and proliferate supporter of Mexican culture, is often coloured by her tragic story of a near-fatal bus accident that severely compromised her spine, which later led to extended bed rest and leg amputation. In classically radical and rebellious fashion, Frida wouldn’t let her physical issues prevent her from leading an extraordinary life. She would adorn herself with vibrant colours central to Mexican culture, fill her home with gardens and exotic pets, paint herself with bright makeup, and cover her hair with flowers. When she was given a prosthetic leg, she strapped a beautiful red boot to it, making it as beautiful as the clothing she wore.

When Frida died in 1954 at the age of 47, husband Diego Rivera locked away all her possessions with instructions to never touch them until after his death, over 50 years later. The collection was opened in 2004, revealing a treasure trove of items like makeup, clothing, jewelry, and intimate possessions which Frida had used to construct her identity. The collection is currently being exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, England. The exhibit explores how Frida empowered herself using art, clothing and style during the most difficult times in her life.

Ginger Spice’s Union Jack Platform Boots

Ginger Spice's shoes on display at the Bata
Shoe Museum. Source
Geri Halliwell, or better known as Ginger Spice, was known for her wild outfits and love for the British Union Jack. Along with her Union Jack “little Gucci dress,” Ginger and the other four Spice Girls loved to wear platform boots. This pair of Union Jack platform boots was worn by Ginger Spice during the Spice World movie, and now currently lives at the Bata Shoe Museum. The boots are presently in storage but will periodically be featured in the Bata’s shoes of famous people exhibit on the first floor of the museum.

Abraham Lincoln’s Stovepipe Top Hat

Abraham Lincoln's hat on display at the Smithsonian
 Institution. Source
Despite Lincoln’s 6’4” height, he wore a tall stovepipe top hat to accentuate his height even further, which became a critical piece of political identity during his time as the 16th President of the United States. The most famous of his hats was the one he wore the night he was assassinated at the Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865. That hat was sitting on the ground beside Lincoln before he was shot, and the hat and the chair Lincoln was in were quickly removed after the murder by the War Department to be used as evidence during the shooter’s trial. The hat was donated to the Smithsonian Institution as part of the Lincoln Memorial Association Collection and has been known to go on display – as seen here.

John Lennon's spectacles. Source

John Lennon’s Spectacles 

John Lennon’s iconic style was often associated with a seemingly practical fashion item – his metal-rimmed eye glasses. These glasses, along with more than 100 other priceless items belonging to Lennon, such as three diaries (including one recounting the last days before his murder), original records of Beatles songs, a cigarette case, and a hand-written music score, were stolen out the window of Yoko Ono’s New York City apartment in 2006. The thieves had apparently reached through the open window, stolen the items, and transported them to Germany where police found them in a bankrupt auction house’s care in 2017. The spectacles are now back in the care of Yoko Ono, however, the other 100 plus items are still being investigated.

Fashion not only is a tool to define who we are as individuals, but a way to create a public identity to be known for. These iconic fashion items were an integral part of each person's public identity - becoming a part of who they are. The object's life can sometimes become as interesting as the person who once owned them, like John Lennon's glasses, which is why they find their ways into museums. They act almost like a stand-in for the person themself, and as an example of how interesting the life of an object, who out lives the person who once owned them, can be.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018




Here is a list of museums from around the world that host fun collections. Places that all call themselves museums, but are vastly different from each other, and whose collection are the centre of their identity. I am tickled pink about Gopher's Fishing.

MUSA Underwater Museum of Art
Located at Blvd. Kukulcan, Zona Hotelera, 77500 Cancún, Q.R., Mexico

Founded in 2009, this a museum where you have to dive underwater (or go on a glass bottom boat) to visit monumental sculptures, and see how the sea life slowly consumes them back into the underwater landscape. It is a museum dedicated to conservation, the website is HERE.


Warrior Toy Museum
Located at St George’s Street (next to the Town Hall) | Simon’s Town | +27 (0)21 786 1395

In Cape Town you can go see a museum dedicated to showing off historic toys, it also functions as a shop where toy enthusiasts can purchase those missing pieces from their collections. A place where adults return to childhood. One of the reason why this museum drew my eye is because a caption from HERE, “Two impressive displays include a battalion of toy soldiers warding off Zulus attacking with spears in ox-formation and also a full Nazi parade with marching Hitler Youth and a small Adolf Hitler saluting his army…” I have to wonder how this museum is dealing with political correctness and racial tension in South Africa?

Romanian Kitsch Museum
Located at Strada Covaci 6, București 030094, Romania

A museum that remembers the 80s and celebrates it. Full of sarcasm, traditions, and local cultural knowledge that manifests through humor.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology
Located at 9341 Venice Blvd, Culver City, CA 90232, USA

A place that challenges what a museum should be, because all the objects reference real things but aren't always believable. It is a place full of curiosity and wonder, where exhibits are put on to intrigue and test boundaries of what you think you know and what is a curiosity. The website is located HERE.

Vulcan Tourism & Trek Station
Located at 115 Centre St E, Vulcan, AB T0L 2B0, Canada

Okay, so this one isn't so much about the collection, but really I couldn't resist it. I mean, who can turn down Spock? Not me. It is the Home of Spock. Seriously, it's in a place called Vulcan in Alberta. A town of 2000 have decided to present a Star Trek dreamland, where the information centre is designed to look like a space ship. The website is HERE.

Alberta also has the Gopher Hole Museum
Located at 208 1 Street South, Torrington, Alberta
This museum is dedicated to gophers, but not their life cycles. Instead the museum has multiple diagrams in boxes where gophers are fishing, curling, and preaching. A fun museum full of imagination and whimsy. The website is HERE.

Photo courtesy of Gopher Hole Museum. Source. 
If you're interested in other special museums (specifically food museums): Beijing Shi has the Daxing Watermelon Museum, Prince Edward Island has a Potato Museum, England has a Carrot Museum, and Italy has at the Museum of Tomato. People really do love food, and all the industries that rely on it.

Each of these attractions call themselves a museum; that is an identity, but one that is flexible enough that people can take an interest and best represent it to fit the community or the mission of the museum. From wacky to childhood to experimental, there is a place out there, and you can find it.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018




We call March 8th International Women's Day, a day set aside to appreciate, discuss, and learn more about women's lives, careers, and aspirations across the globe, as well as to focus on gender diversity and equality. I wanted to look at some examples of how museums across the globe celebrated/mentioned/focused on women on this very important international day. Interestingly, the more searching I did, only particular countries mentioned specifically museums doing something for International Women's Day--North America, Australia, the United Kingdom, and some Western European countries. This tells me that International Women's Day still has a long way to go until it becomes truly international.

1. The UK

According to the Museums Association, #PressforProgress became the hashtag for International Women's Day in the UK heritage world. Many venues linked activities to the year's 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act, which gave some UK women the right to vote for the first time. National Museums Liverpool had a range of events such as talks and exhibitions. London's Southbank Centre hosted WOW -- Women of the World festival from the 7-11 of March, which included artists, writers, politicians, comedians, and activities to discuss issues of gender equality, and the Scarborough Museums Trust staged Glass Ceilings: The Unseen Barriers to Women's Success, an event that featured a panel of women who have made an impact in the museum world. Speakers included: Jane Glaister, Jane Sellars, and Barabara Woroncow.

I looked up the #pressforprogress hashtag and was pleasantly surprised to see a collection of tweets that were open, honest, and focused on many important global political situations. 

2. Italy

Through Italy's Ministry of Culture, women entered museums and cultural sites for free on International Women's Day. There was also a large social media movement, particularly on Instagram, where visitors were encouraged to take photos and share their favourite women in paintings, sculptures, and the arts using the hashtag #8marzoalmuseo

There were also special events and exhibitions focused on the contributes of women in art and culture at national sites and museums. On another note, they also held a series of rallies for equal rights that same day.

Pompeii was one of the sites open for free to women all day. Source.

3. Australia

The Western Australian Museum got personal this year, with a blog post on their website that has the personal stories from four employees about their achievements, struggles, and goals in their work. This is a great way to recognize that there is still a need to educate and hear about women's experiences in the world, particularly in a career such as the museum field. These stories are empowering, truthful, and an intriguing way for a museum to open up its doors to the public about necessary issues.

The four women from the Western Australian Museum and the links to their stories. Source.

On a day that was filled with marches across the globe demanding women's rights in countries such as Australia, India, and Indonesia, some countries also focused on women's contributions to arts or to a national story. However, there were still countries where there the struggle for rights acknowledgement was evident, such as in China, where a prominent feminist social media account was shut down by the government the day of.

As International Women's Day becomes more recognized across the globe, even when we feel a sense of complacency seeing governments utilize museums and galleries to commemorate women's contributions, it is important to remember that we are still struggling in so many ways and places across this globe, and we need to keep fighting.

Monday, 12 March 2018




This week I check-in with two alumni working on opposite coasts of our vast country:

Christine Pennington graduated from the MMSt program in 2017 and previously with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia in 2015. She is currently employed as Collections Assistant at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV). Christine's collections management duties include cataloguing and digitizing objects, processing photography reproduction requests, and facilitating collections visits for researchers and community members. Currently her work is focused on assisting the management and installation of MOV's upcoming exhibition, Haida Now, which includes over 400 objects from their collection!    

Christine's previous work with MOV includes her time in a different position with the same title, taking over 20,000 photos for an online database and digitization project. She was also a collections intern at MOV, preparing objects for long-term storage. Christine has previously worked and volunteered in the Ethnology Department of the Royal Ontario Museum, and has worked as Curatorial Assistant at Barkerville Historic Town.      

Christine Pennington, MMSt '17, taking a casual museum selfie. Photo courtesy of Christine Pennington.

Lauren Williams graduated from the MMSt program in 2014 and previously with a Bachelors of Arts with Combined Honours from the University of King's College in 2011. She is currently employed as Assistant Curator & Outreach Coordinator at Arts Nova Scotia. Lauren is responsible for administering and installing the provincial Art Bank, a working collection of artworks by Nova Scotian artists. Each year, artists are invited to submit works which then undergo a peer assessment process for acquisition. The collection's artworks are displayed in government offices and agencies across Nova Scotia. Lauren is also responsible for Arts Nova Scotia communication and outreach initiatives, including social media, information sessions and the annual Creative Nova Scotia Awards Gala.

Lauren's past experiences in the museum sector include her time at the Ontario Science Centre during her MMSt degree when she completed her internship under alumnus Cara van der Laan, and curated the permanent radio exhibition as her exhibition project. She also worked as Collections and Exhibitions Coordinator at the former Museum of Inuit Art in Toronto where she initially started as a volunteer.

Lauren Williams, MMSt '14, standing in the Art Bank storage space. Photo courtesy of Lauren Williams.

Christine and Lauren kindly answered the following questions for us here at Musings:

1. Why did you decide to join the MMSt program?

Christine: I’ve always wanted to work in museums in some capacity. During my undergrad I was able to take multiple museum-related courses, including curatorial and conservation courses at UBC’s Museum of Anthropology. I started looking for programs that would help me pursue this career, and the MMSt program seemed like a great fit.

Lauren: At some point in my undergrad, I started fantasizing about how I could turn my love of museums into a career. I chose the U of T program as I was initially interested in pursuing the academic side of things – though the hands-on aspects of the program often ended up being my favourite parts.

2. What course or subject matter has been of most use to you in your current role?

Christine: I’m interested in collections work, so obviously the Collections Management course was important, but I think Sue Maltby’s Museum Environments course was the most useful for my current work. Most institutions will teach you general collections care, but Sue brings in so much practical information through a good combination of best practice and real life examples. I feel like nothing sticks with you more than a slideshow of conservation fails that are, unfortunately, all too common.

            Here, Christine photographs one of the beautiful Chilkat blankets at the MOV, in a slightly makeshift manner.                 Photo courtesy of Fiona Hernandez.

Lauren: I truly can find a relationship between each course I took in the MMSt program and the work I do today – which is especially interesting considering I don’t work in a “traditional” museum job. I use skills taught in Collections Management in order to maintain the Art Bank collection; I draw upon ethics taught in Ethics, Leadership & Management when working with artists and arts organizations; I had a background on collaboration vs. consultation from Museums & Indigenous Communities when Arts NS introduced the Indigenous Artist Recognition Award; and Curating Science taught me to strive to find ways to engage the public creatively. I could go on!

3. What do you enjoy most about your work?

Christine: The Museum of Vancouver is working hard to provide greater access to collections for Indigenous communities. This is so important, especially considering the controversial ways in which many Indigenous collections have ended up in museums around the world. It’s amazing and humbling to be able to help provide community members with access to their material culture.  

Christine basking in some of the rare Vancouver sunshine, outside the MOV. 
Photo courtesy of Christine Pennington.

Lauren: I’d have to say that the thing I most enjoy about my work is how every day is different. Through the Art Bank program, I have the unique opportunity to visit offices across different departments in government and interact with folks doing work completely different than my own. It is quite amazing to see the variety of responses to the artworks I bring with me to an installation. I’ve always known art was quite powerful, and that it can elicit strong emotion; however, seeing this in action every day has given me a new level of understanding, appreciation and sensitivity.  

4. Which object, exhibit or program, in your current institution, do you enjoy the most? Why? 

Christine: This is a tough question, because I feel like I change my mind and pick a new favourite weekly. I love anything miniature, and right now I’m working with a lot of argillite carvings from Haida Gwaii, so I would probably pick a mini argillite sculpture of a killer whale by Arthur Moody (AA 2312 in the collection: ). Argillite carvings are amazing, and this one has so much personality.

Lauren: Currently, I am reviewing applications for the Art Bank purchase program. Over 100 artists have submitted their work for consideration, and the unfortunate reality is, the public will only be able to see as many works as the budget allows for (under the recommendations of the peer assessors, not myself). It feels like such a great privilege to be able to see the amazing breadth of work being done by contemporary artists living in Nova Scotia. So today, that is my favourite program.

Cliff Eyland “Mouse Trap” (1988) 7.5 x 13 cm,
Mixed media, Nova Scotia Art Bank. 
Photo courtesy of Lauren Williams.

If I had to choose a favourite object, at the moment it would be “Mouse Trap” by Cliff Eyland. The piece is a mouse that met an unfortunate end in a mousetrap and was soon after preserved in a thick coat of clear lacquer (Jurassic Park amber-mosquito-style) and mounted on a small board.

Typically, my favourite objects in the Art Bank are the ones that are the hardest to hang in an office – the works that challenge people’s assumption of what “office art” is and forces people to step outside of their comfort zone (Nova Scotia has a very real comfort zone with paintings of boats).

Many thanks to Christine and Lauren for taking time to share their experiences with us! 
All the best in your future endeavours. 

Sunday, 11 March 2018




Hello Musings readers! This special post is the first in a series of installments featuring the work of the MMSt Class of 2018. This weekend, we're catching up with our brilliant thesis students to see what research they've been working on for their degree. Read on below to hear about their projects!

The​ ​Future​ ​of​ ​the​ ​Past:​ ​Third-Party​ ​Heritage​ ​Preservation​ ​Interventions​ ​and 3D​ ​Printing Technologies
Sydney Stewart Rose

Supervisor: Dr. Cara Krmpotich
Second reader: Dr. Seamus Ross, former Dean of the iSchool

Dry-dusting at work, where I specialize in intellectual property rights and copyright laws (a key aspect of my thesis research). Photo courtesy of Sydney Stewart Rose.
My project examines the use of 3D printing technologies in projects which seek to recreate cultural property destroyed in Syria by ISIS. I was really interested in thinking about the ways these types of projects may create new heritage narratives or potentially contribute to colonizing narratives. I’ve been looking at three high profile cases which use 3D printing technologies to restore cultural property destroyed by ISIS. I’m using them to create a framework to consider how these types of projects may actually contribute to colonizing narratives and offer insight into a decolonizing approach to third-party heritage intervention projects.

Close to Home: Alberta’s Local Museums on Canada’s Cultural Landscape
Kristen McLaughlin 

Supervisor: Dr. Cara Krmpotich
Second reader: Siobhan Stevenson 

I don't really have any photos of myself at work, but for my research I visited each museum, camping along the way to get a better feel for the local landscape. However, as you can see, that meant I didn't really look very glamorous for a few months. Here I am in my first campsite in the Crowsnest Pass in the Rockies of Southern Alberta, with a bit of a smoky background from all the surrounding forest fires of 2017. Photo courtesy of Kristen McLaughlin.
For the past year and a half, I’ve studied the community engagement practices of local museums, using three case studies in Alberta to better understand these distinct contexts. I’m interested in this aspect of museum studies because, as someone who did not grow up with the large urban institutions we are familiar with in this program, I noticed that local museums stories are not common in museum studies literature and work. I felt that it was important to acknowledge and try to understand the relationships between local museums and their communities—both the obstacles and the successes—and what this might mean on a larger scale.

Research possible thanks to the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation.

Affective Metadata for Object Experiences in the Art Museum
Erin Canning

Supervisor: Dr. Costis Dallas
Second reader: Dr. Cara Krmpotich

Affective metadata workshop at the 2018 iSchool Student Conference. Photo courtesy of Hannah Monkman.
For my thesis, I am exploring how to structure information about visitor experiences so that we can document it similar to how we catalogue objects – how that information can be made amenable to integration into a database, what that database would look like, and what that information would look like once it was in there. I am interested in the affective experiences that museum visitors have with artworks, and using data modeling as a way to really understand those experiences. My thesis draws together my experience as a CRO: I am applying the information systems design principles from my MI degree in the museum domain. 


I'm in awe of these three talented MMSt/CRO students and their dedication to such extensive and important research. Excellent job Sydney, Kristen, and Erin - thank you for sharing!

Stay tuned for next weekend's article, where we'll feature the first batch of exhibition projects in the MMSt Class of 2018! 

Friday, 9 March 2018




Anyone who knows me knows I spend a lot of time on Harry Potter. Recently, when talking about my favourite book series, fellow Musings writer Sadie MacDonald asked what it might be like if there were art galleries in the Wizarding World.

Mind blown!
My reaction matched Ron's when I considered Museum Studies + Harry Potter at a crossroads! Source.
As readers of the series will know, portraits in the Harry Potter universe can move and talk, albeit within the restrictions of their tangible representation on the wall. What interesting ethical, logistical, and interpretive questions this idea raises! With Sadie's permission (I'm no Gilderoy Lockhart), I'll explore this possibility within the landscape of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London, England.

First, some context, to get everyone on the same page:
Hogwarts portraits are able to talk and move around from picture to picture. They behave like their subjects. However, the degree to which they can interact with the people looking at them depends not on the skill of the painter, but on the power of the witch or wizard painted. - author J.K. Rowling, Pottermore
Some of the talking portraits in the grand staircase at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Source.
How closely would the paintings embody the personalities of their sitters? What would they be able to say to us?

With the above quotation in mind, it definitely intrigues me to imagine all the portraits moving about. At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, portrait subjects can move through the frames to visit one another or go to other portraits of themselves hung elsewhere (like Sirius Black's great-great-grandfather Phineas Nigellus Black).

What would Anne Boleyn have to say if we could
speak with her likeness in the National Portrait
Gallery? Source.
In regard to the visitor experience in the National Portrait Gallery, I can think of a few issues with this.

What happens when a subject visits one of their other portraits off-site? The NPG has free admission, but that isn't an antidote to the inconvenience of not being able to see a specific portrait that is supposed to be on view.

When sitters go and visit a different portrait, how does the coexistence of multiple subjects in one frame damage both artists' respective intent? The fact that these sitters would have a sense of active agency if they could move undermines the painter's vision in "capturing" each sitter in a moment. For instance, King Henry VII was painted to convey majesty and authority under the emerging Tudor regime, but if we see him squabbling with his predecessor Richard III, how does this inter-portrait conflict unseat the dignity of both sitters? What damage can therefore be done to the real-life figures' reputation through this form of exhibitionism?

If a portrait sitter has multiple paintings of them on display, how do those portrayals coexist? Do they all have the same personality? Perhaps we could chart the evolution of a younger Alan Rickman (our Severus Snape, may he rest in peace) into an older, somewhat different-looking Alan Rickman, which is biographically valuable but could also be overwhelming in an institution full of personalities.

Who would interact with who in the gallery? Who would be friends? Enemies? How would the sitters' expressed characteristics affect our viewing experience? 

A portrait subject moving from frame to frame.
Let's say I've come to the National Portrait Gallery specifically to see and talk to British author Mary Shelley (of Frankenstein fame). I get to her painting, only to notice that ... she's gone! Maybe she's wandered off for a chat with her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, or a lively argument with Lord Byron. What would these movements mean for our access? (On the plus side, it might be good to market the gallery as a guaranteed different visit every time, and a frequently rotating collection...)

Would museum staff be able to maintain any degree of control over the collection? And how would the curatorial staff rotate out the portraits? If someone's likeness was loud, irritating, or unpleasant, would it be taken off display? (Edvard Munch's The Scream isn't in the NPG, but if he could talk I'm sure he'd be very disruptive.)

Would we even need interpretive labels if the portraits could say it all?

What if the portrait sitter is still alive? 

In Harry Potter, most of the portraits Harry encounters are wizards we've either never met in person or ones who have died. If a famous celebrity had an oil-on-canvas doppelgänger spouting off in the gallery, how would that feel? Should the portrait's words even be given credence when it comes to shaping the living person's public identity? 

Gilderoy Lockhart has a painting of himself painting himself. Source.
J.K. Rowling says that Hogwarts headmasters and headmistresses kept their portraits locked away, over time teaching them how to act like themselves so they could live on with their memories after the subject's death (not unlike artificial intelligence learning mechanisms). Since Rowling asserts that the portraits only vaguely embody their sitters' personalities unless taught otherwise, issues of representation are numerous and varied.

The Fat Lady guards the entrance to Gryffindor Tower at Hogwarts. Source
I could keep talking about the pros and cons forever, but I'll stop there. I hear a lot of people voicing the wish that we had moving paintings like in Harry Potter (myself included). On second thought, though, projecting this desire onto art galleries seems like absolute chaos! With a stagnant portrait, the artist retains agency over the image; with an animated, semi-sentient subject, the same cannot be said. Perhaps in our world today, it's for the best that our portrait sitters hold still.