Saturday, November 19, 2011

What's Plan B for Museums in Canada?

by Cynthia Wallace-Casey
PhD Student, University of New Brunswick

Just over two-and-a-half years ago, during the keynote address to the 2009 Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History, Harvard historian Jill Lepore spoke about the absence of historical sophistication within the realm of public discourse. Quoting a recent article by Motoko Rich in The New York Times, in which the author coined the phrase: “an unprecedented pileup of historic news”, Jill Lepore suggested that it is during times of dramatic change that societies feel a need to look back on the past for answers. In our fast-paced world of instant information, she explained, the news cycle speeds the process ahead so quickly that we expect no less than instant gratification; and when our search for understanding cannot be easily fulfilled, we turn to the past. Thus, she reasoned, it is during times of dramatic change that historical sophistication is valued the most.

Because the past “is always ending and always beginning”, societies actually live on the edge of history. The “unprecedented pileup” of events, to which both Motoko Rich and Jill Lepore were referring to in 2009 was the election of President Barrack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States; a spiraling economic crisis (that we are still experiencing) equated only to The Great Depression of the 1930’s; and an unimaginable series of financial scandals that have shaken the entire global economy. In our naivety, back in 2009, those of us listening to Jill Lepore’s words knew that North America was in the midst something big; but none of us could have predicted just how dramatic the pile-up would become. On this point I am referring to the current world debt-crisis, combined with shifting demographics in the workforce, leading to a belt-tightening in public service resources. It is seems inevitable that museums and other public history sites in Canada are going to feel it (if they haven’t already). How this on-going pileup will relate to public history is undoubtedly on the minds of many. Perhaps now is a good time to ask ourselves: “What is our plan B?”

In 2009, Cary Carson was awarded the National Council on Public History’s G. Wesley Johnson Award for outstanding writing in The Public Historian for his article “The End of History Museums: What’s Plan B?”. Written nearly 2 years before the “unprecedented pile-up of historic news” to which Jill Lepore addressed in her keynote speech, Cary Carson presented a worrisome discussion on the threats facing history museums in the 21st century, and how these institutions might adapt to new realities. These new realities seem to be even more apparent in the United States, since many of the history museums there are funded by private foundations. The collapse of money markets will have long-term ramifications on their operations; meaning, in the words of James Vaughan (2009) of the National Trust for Historic Preservation:

If no one is coming to your site, then you are going to fail.

…With the current economic decline, many who were on life-support will now fail…

Now is the time to carefully re-think all the things we do, because actions will happen – not because of the economy, but – because it’s what should have happened in the first place.

In anticipation of such failures, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has developed guidelines on how to “transition” a house museum into private hands, with the mindset that such a transition is not necessarily failure but inevitable progress, because a private owner will be able to preserve the site more cost-effectively. As Cary Carson indicates in his article, however, such transition philosophy is not unique to the current economic condition. In 2007, Colonial Williamsburg sold-off nearby Carter’s Grove Plantation to a private owner for 15.3$ million, with the requirement that it be opened to public visitation one day each year. Last February, this historic site was once again on the auction block, when the owners defaulted on their mortgage payments. This 400 acre historic site had operated as a museum since 1969 and is still considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in the United States. Likewise, in 2000, the National Trust for Historic Preservation experimented with privatization when it helped the Lee-Jackson Foundation “save” Robert E. Lee’s boyhood home in Alexandria, Virginia, which the foundation had operated as a museum since 1967, by decommissioning it as a public museum and selling the site to a wealthy private owner. By 2008, the museum was again on the buyer’s market and it is now a private home.

Not all predictions for the future of public history sites need be doom and gloom, however. By contrast, as Cary Carson has indicated, some history museums were fairing very well before the recent economic collapse, and therefore are expected to weather any financial difficulties they may face in the near-future. The Sandwich Glass Museum near Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for example, which has adopted a “community-centric” approach to engaging the public, continues to report record-breaking attendance figures each year. The newly restored James Madison’s Montpelier Estate, remotely located near the small town of Orange, Virginia (population 4,580), is one of 28 sites across the United States that is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation but operated by an independent non-profit foundation. In 2008, the site reported an annual attendance figure approaching 60,000 visitors each year, outnumbering the nearest community population by 13 to 1. Likewise, the waiting lists for guided tours through the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City are reportedly becoming longer each year.

In Canada, with recent reports in the news about threatened museum closures, (see: “Museum fans have message for Ford: ‘Hands off’” ), the experiences of our public history colleagues to the south may be an indication of things to come here. For this reason, perhaps now is the time for museums and historic sites in Canada to start thinking about their “plan B”. Closure need not be an option.

As history educators, we need our museums and historic sites to remain open! And perhaps this opinion cannot be expressed more clearly than in the words of fellow bloggers The Two Palaverers:

We (our youth in particular) are losing the connection to our past. In order to have children visit museums, we need to have parents visit museums. We need to do a better job of engaging and teaching our children history, something that can be done both in school and outside of it – as a family or among friends. There is no better place to do that than here in New England. Once we fix our society’s connection to the past, our local museums will be the beneficiaries. What’s the contemporary challenge? Think about Old Sturbridge Village (a working museum) versus Grand Theft Auto (a video game). Fortunately, it only takes a brief afternoon to open up a whole new world. And that new world is in our own back yard.

The “Plan B” for history museums that Cary Carson has proposed, draws upon the necessity of engaging a new generation that is multi-media savvy. This necessity translates into, not-necessarily more expensive ‘bells and whistles’ but, how the visitor interacts with the past:

  • History museum visitors today expect to be transported back to another time and place in their imaginations. It is not enough merely to be told about times past. They are fully satisfied only if they live it – feel it – experience it.

  • They want to meet ordinary people to whom they can relate… they are not content to be mere spectators even in these virtual worlds. Instead they expect to become personally acquainted with the historical figures they meet there, share their joys and sorrows, and in effect join in the action of the story being told.
Carson’s “Plan B” for history museums embraces a more humanistic style of engagement with the past: one in which visitors become active participants in their learning experience - not just observers.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Harvard Guide to Reading Texts Critically

Critical reading--active engagement and interaction with texts--is essential to your academic success at Harvard, and to your intellectual growth. Research has shown that students who read deliberately retain more information and retain it longer. Your college reading assignments will probably be more substantial and more sophisticated than those you are used to from high school. The amount of reading will almost certainly be greater. College students rarely have the luxury of successive re-readings of material, either, given the pace of life in and out of the classroom.

While the strategies described below are (for the sake of clarity) listed sequentially, you typically do most of them simultaneously. They may feel awkward at first, and you may have to deploy them very consciously the first few times, especially if you are not used to doing anything more than moving your eyes across the page. But they will quickly become habits, and you will notice the difference—in what you “see” in a reading, and in the confidence with which you approach your texts...

Monday, November 14, 2011

Arts-based Research... Meets Collective Memory... and Making Thinking Visible...

Alberta’s eugenics history

(Edmonton) Agata Derda grew up in Poland, but, intrigued with studying cultural differences, lived in Ireland as a young undergraduate arts student.

Along the way, she discovered something that inspires her work: “People are similar to each other, no matter where they were raised or where they live.”

Now, as a master’s student in the University of Alberta Faculty of Arts, Derda’s explorations in printmaking contemplate the great human chain, and are included in The Collective Memory Project, an art show that opens Oct. 23 at the U of A’s Faculty of Extension Gallery at Enterprise Square. An opening reception has been planned for 2 to 4 p.m. that day, with everyone welcome to attend.

Featuring a range of contemporary art such as paintings, digital printmaking, sculptural mixed media and archival photographs, The Collective Memory Project caps off Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week, Oct. 15–23, and contemplates both the legacy and contemporary attitudes about eugenic ideas in Alberta.

“There’s a danger of forgetting Alberta’s history with eugenics and that sort of forgetting is not an idle happenstance; I would argue that eugenics—while being a dark, traumatic event in history that begs remembrance for ethical reasons—hasn’t ended,” said Anne Pasek, curator for the exhibit, and a recent U of A Faculty of Arts graduate.

Between 1929 and 1972, more than 2,800 people who were deemed unfit by the government to raise families of their own underwent reproductive sterilization in Alberta. Other dark examples of Canadian eugenics policies include a head tax levied on Chinese immigrants and a residential school system that saw Aboriginal children seized from their families and their cultures.

But while those past actions have since been acknowledged by governments as unjust, some contemporary policies are also troubling, Pasek said.

“There are many aspects of public policy and collective ethics that are still profoundly influenced by eugenic ideas,” including selective immigration policies that screen out people with disabilities, and future ethical quandaries such as the question of “designer” babies, Pasek said.

The Collective Memory Project investigates how the concept of “personhood” “is unequally distributed in society,” she added.

The show features 20 works submitted by artists from across Canada, including an incarcerated woman, a man with a learning disability and, from an East Coast artist, an ambitious piece of performance art from a walk through an Edmonton park named for Louise McKinney. McKinney, who became Alberta’s first female MLA in 1917 and was a pioneer of women’s rights, was also a supporter of eugenics policies.

Students from the University of Alberta also contributed to the Collective Memory Project, Derda among them. Her three black and white digital photo compositions in the show pay tribute human individuality, and at the same time, explore a common human bond.

“We are all elements, puzzles, pieces of a much bigger construction, which we all create and influence. By excluding some of the puzzles we make that image incomplete,” said Derda. “Believing naively that our own experience is the most important and unique, we tend to overlook the fact that there is a world around us and we are all part of it.”

The show aims to widen the public’s understanding of eugenics and make it a “contemporary concern, so hopefully when people view the art, they’ll get a sense of how they can act on some of these problems,” Pasek said.

The show will also feature a community board where people are encouraged to write their reflections on sticky notes that will be posted for a collective remembrance in keeping with the exhibit theme.

The Collective Memory Project runs at the Faculty of Extension Gallery in Enterprise Square, 10230-Jasper Avenue, until Nov. 23 and can be viewed from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday to Friday and 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekends.