Thursday, November 25, 2010

Yelping Museums

I've been writing up all sorts of reviews on Yelp this year, and today I got to the point where I decided to finally write my 100th review - so I picked a museum! The Royal Ontario Museum, which is my favourite here in Toronto. I now need to kick myself into gear and finally write up reviews for the Ottawa museums I visited way back in MAY. I've got a blog post bare-bones drafted, just need to find the time to plump it and I can post here AND on Yelp. You can read my ROM Yelp review here..

* General *

- First of all, let me get this out of the way - I think the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal looks awesome, and they did a great job of making modern renovations integrate with an older building. (The internal staircases are crazy awesome, too.)
- More generally, the museum is a pretty big one - they've done a reasonable job at making it easy enough for people to find their way around, but I think the wayfinding and signage around the museum could be more obvious and helpful. The maps you get when you enter are a big help though!
- Accessibility-wise the museum is fairly good - wheelchair accessible, large print guides available and a reasonable amount of audio tours/descriptions are on offer. There are even frequent guided tours throughout the day that are free with admission if you're a fan of getting a little guidance and information from docents.
- In addition to this, the ROM runs a great events program and there are often special lectures, tours that tie in with special exhibitions, and the fantastic (and free!) ROM Walks program - through all of this the ROM prove they are not just a building, and foster visitor involvement which is fantastic to see.

* Exhibitions and Galleries *
I could get out of hand with this, so i'm going to try and keep it simple:

- An excellent variety of subject matter on display - natural history, social history, world cultures, ancient cultures, and even a little art and design.
- Great visual draws without dragging you down with too much text to read (yet not leaving you info-starved either!).
- First Peoples gallery is a great feature, deserving of the large gallery space it's been situated in.
- The quality of objects and specimens being exhibited is excellent, and accompanying information is engaging and interesting.
- Recent renovations have really made a difference to not just the quality of space in the galleries, but also the quality of how everything is displayed.
- Some fun hands-on stuff that's probably meant for kids, but that I love even as an adult visitor.
- Special exhibitions are of a reasonable standard, often drawing in international travelling exhibitions (the Terracotta Army one is a great example).

* Practicalities *

- Getting to the museum is pretty much a breeze on the TTC - a short walk from Museum station and not too far to walk from St George, either. It's a pity that there's no internal link from the TTC stations into the museum for bad weather, but it could be worse (like a certain Ontario Science Centre).
- If you're feeling like you might perish from all the exhibition wandering, there are food options within the museum. Downstairs is a cafeteria-like environment with a pretty decent range of food/drinks that aren't actually hideously expensive as far as museum cafe prices go. There is a fancier restaurant/lounge in the upper reaches of the ROM too, if you're feeling in a Yorkville kinda mood.
- The shop feels like a mini-gallery in itself, so much so I feel guilty sometimes when I pick up stuff to look at it. Good range and variety of stuff that covers most (if not all) of the museum's subject range. Clothing, books, trinkets, jewelry, etc.. I just wish they had a bigger range of postcards. Things can run pretty pricey here.
- Ticket prices can be a bit hard on the wallet, but there are some ways to save. Friday evenings from 4.30 - 9.30pm are half price, the CityPass deal means you can save on all sorts of attraction admissions including the ROM, and the Toronto Public Library MAP program (http://www.torontopubl...) offers a limited amount of free tickets to members every Saturday. Sadly the free hour on Wednesday afternoons seems to have passed by the wayside.

For dollar value, for variety of exhibits and for experience, the ROM is pretty much your best bet if you're only going to visit one major attraction like this in Toronto. (It's definitely a comparable quality to other Canadian/North American museums, too.) It's great for repeated visits too, and has a little something for everyone. The only thing stopping me giving the 5th star is the price factor and the inconsistencies in wayfinding around the museum. Definitely worth your time!


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Museum funding cuts in the UK

8 UK Museums lose government funding.

I don't want to be pessimistic here - but there are limits to how much a museum can function on public support. I have worked at small museums before that have struggled along because they have little to no paid staff & small operating costs due to the size of the museum. The museums listed in the above article? They are going to struggle and possibly fail.

These are some of the bigger & more well-attended museums in London and the UK. I don't think that the public support and attendance will translate into enough funds for them to carry on as they are. Most who are free will have to introduce an entry fee, which a lot of people will balk at. The Horniman Museum - one with a fantatically rich collection and history - will, according to the above article, "lose more than £4m a year, around 85% of its budget." I suspect that is going to bleed the Horniman dry of staff and resources to the point it will be in danger of shutting down.

I am so sad to see this happen. Every one of these museums has its place, but it doesn't seem to be important to the UK government when it boils down to the numbers. I truly hope this isn't the start of a cultural drought that will leave the UK a desert in years to come.

If you can, get out there and support these museums any way possible!


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Cultural Relativism, Ethnocentrism and Museum Collections: Te Papa Controversy

A couple of days ago, my RSS feeds tracking museum news came up with a lot of uproar regarding a statement that Te Papa museum in Wellington had made regarding pregnant/menstruating women accessing collections. Naturally it has been misunderstood and blown out of proportion - so i'd like to talk a little bit about what it all means. Apologies if it gets a bit cumbersome, but I just want to get this out and I don't really have time to fine tune it right now.

This AFP article is pretty representative of a lot of the other news around, so i'm going to quote from it (but you can read more here, here & here, for a variety of samples).

To begin with, the AFP's article lead is extremely misleading:

New Zealand's national museum on Tuesday warned pregnant or menstruating women to stay away from some of its exhibits or risk an encounter with angry Maori spirits.

I guess it's a bit sensational with the "angry Maori spirits" part, and definitely just wrong when it says people had been warned away from exhibits. It sets people up to be angry and misinformed from the get-go. If they do read on, they'd at least see the following:

Te Papa spokeswoman Jane Keig said the policy was not an outright ban, rather it was strong advice designed to protect pregnant and menstruating woman from exhibits which Maori, New Zealand's indigenous people, believed could hurt them.

"Pregnant women are sacred and the policy is in place to protect women from these objects," she said.

Regardless, most people see this as "pregnant or menstruating women are not wanted at this museum because of Maori cultural beliefs". One quote the AFP article uses shows how knee-jerk the reactions can be:

"I don't understand why a secular institution, funded by public money in a secular state, is imposing religious and cultural values on people," she told the New Zealand Herald newspaper.

Miscommunication leads to this sort of thing - it's not necessarily the museum's fault, nor those reacting, but it is the fault of those misrepresenting the issue (ie. much of the media). When you look at what Te Papa actually have to say on the nature of the issue it becomes clear this is not about imposing rules or banning any member of the public from visiting the museum.

Statement regarding guidelines of access to Māori collections at Te Papa clarifies a lot of what was misrepresented and caused so much trouble. Firstly, the areas that were to be visited were collection areas, never accessible to the general public, and definitely not 'exhibits'. It may come as a surprise to many people, but the material on display in public galleries is usually a small percentage of any museum's collection.

Next of all is the "cultural imposition" - which is actually just a consideration, sort of a formality. If you will read these quotes from the statement:

One of these cultural considerations is that hapu (pregnant) or menstruating women (mate wahine) should consider entering the taonga Māori collection stores at another time...

‘While we inform visitors to the collection stores of cultural considerations, no visitor would be stopped from continuing the tour if they wished to.’

Again, this is in regard to collection areas and no general display in the museum itself. Secondly, this is a cultural consideration and it's not a blanket rule that because the items are Māori then everyone must take on Māori cultural rules when visiting the museum. This is called cultural relativism (or sensitivity, I suppose) - taking a step back from your own cultural norms and perceptions to understand that everyone's life and the objects within them can have different meaning and prescribe different behaviour. Even if you don't identify with that culture, you can still take a step back and see what might be respectful even if you don't share the belief. There is no reason to see this as that culture "imposing their beliefs" on you at all.

‘Te Papa, as the kaitiaki (caretaker) of taonga Māori and a bicultural museum, embraces Māori tikanga and kawa when caring for those collections’, Ms Hippolite said.

I wanted to end with this quote as representative of Te Papa's policy and action - although the statement goes into it further and is worth reading, too. Te Papa, more than any museum I know of and have visited, has gone out of their way from the beginning to have a strong contribution from Māori communities when it comes to caring for collections, and displaying those collections, amongst everything else that Te Papa care for and exhibit. It's a mark of a responsible and forward curation and management team to see a museum do this. When you see so many museums throughout history and now have imposed their cultural beliefs and norms, it's nice to get the balance back a little.

I have worked in museums that have 'sensitive' areas of the collection which have been limited in who can access and care for them because of cultural respect and relativism - as my personal choice I didn't buck that trend, and let others who fit the bill interact with those particular items. There is no one truth, there is no one culture that deserves to be respected more than another, and there is always balance in what is appropriate for you and what is appropriate when accessing and viewing things that are important to other cultures. This is what Te Papa try to do, not to prescribe importance over Māori culture more than anyone else's.

People need to step back from their privilege and see that Te Papa's policies are reasonable and responsible, and appreciate them for all they do not just for Māori communities, but New Zealand's communities as a whole.


Friday, August 27, 2010

Drama and Desire: Art Gallery of Ontario special exhibit.

A couple of weeks ago I took advantage of a discount coupon and went to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see Drama and Desire: An art experience unlike any other. Featuring artwork inspired by the theatre, presented “on stage” with live performers, full-scale sets and period lighting.
It's rare for me to go to special exhibitions at art galleries (i'm more inclined to spend my money on museums instead), but this one seemed thematically interesting and had potential for me in its practical aspects.

Much of the style of art in the first 2/3rds of the exhibit was not necessarily to my taste, but they were great examples of theatre in art - grand and rich paintings of dramatic scenes. Much of the later artwork I found more interesting - and this is where my obvious lack of note-taking is apparent because I cannot recall any artist names. I did especially like one of the little niche rooms, hung with sparkly black velvet curtains full of Aubrey Beardsley illustrations from Salome.

What I enjoyed most about the exhibit - even despite my usual shallow interest in art history - is the physicality of the space and the use of props, etc. There are a number of props from Stratford's Shakespeare festivals hung throughout the exhibit, providing an interesting companion to narrative. I also liked the interactive spaces - being able to play with wind and rain noisemakers while "lightning" flashed over a dramatic painting was very inspired, and sitting in front of a tableau from King Lear with audio being read from the play while spotlights trained your eyes to the characters envelops you in the space. We also caught some real live performances by a small troupe, which is something i've never seen in a museum or gallery previously (staff dressed in costume yes, but not performing in exhibit space).

Like the areas where you could sit and watch or listen to performance, there were aspects of theatre in the very structure of the exhibit - from the ticketed entrance looking like an old style theatre complete with flickering candles to the very end of the exhibit where grand pillars are drowned in light, allowing you to cast dramatic shadows as you pass by. All these little things throughout, the tangible materials, almost set dressings, serve to pull you into the feel of what they're telling you about and I think it's fantastic to set that atmosphere - it's so hard to do with a lot of topics.

As i've said, despite my novice ways when it comes to art, I still appreciated the exhibit. It's thematically strong, looking on one hand at theatre in art, and on the other, art in theatre. It runs for another month, and is well worth grabbing the discount and checking out - then you can spend some time aimlessly wandering the gorgeous curves of the building afterward!


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Link: Top 10 Scary Museums

Top 10 Museums That Will Scare You Silly. Number 10 is a pretty mild one - i've been to the House on the Rock and it's more baffling and insane than scary, really. Unless you're afraid of giant octopuses, in which case you might poop you pants in one particular section.

I am probably being semantically pedantic here, but I find it interesting that places like Madam Tussaud's and the London Dungeon are included on this list - I see them more as attractions rather than museums. I suppose some objects used in these places are historic, or worth collecting - but the places themselves are purely designed to entertain or scintillate.

The theme of this list is pretty fun, though - I mean, i'm not going to be scared silly but I do like a bit of morbid fascination. It doesn't mean it will be mutually exclusive with a learning experience, but it does make it memorable. One particular museum I remember most of all in Berlin is the Medical History Museum - fascinating mix of history of the institution, medical info, and horrifying specimens in jars.

If I ever get to any others on this list, i'm hoping it'll be Lombrosp’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology or the Mutter Museum. They look fantastic!


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

BP & The British Museum

Reposting my brief rant from here:

"Anti-BP group has sticky protest at British Museum"

Errrgggh. I knew BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum would spark some controversy, but this pisses me off no end. I am no supporter of BP and the mess they’ve made - there seriously has to be a better way to protest than by going in to possibly do damage to museum objects.

Step the fuck back from the objects, people. It’s a rule. Stick to it.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On blogging and keeping enthusiastic about museums

Other things that have gotten me suddenly excited and back here blogging (other than International Museum Day 2010) is that this coming weekend i'll be heading to Ottawa, Canada's capital!

Yes, you say.. very well.. And why is that exciting?

Because Ottawa has a whole bunch of museums! National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of Civilisation, Canadian War Museum, and the soon to be reopened (this weekend!) Canadian Museum of Nature! There's also historic buildings and all that jazz, too. I'm hoping that my renewed vigor for the blog, plus visiting some new museums, will help with content here. I'm also heading back to London to visit in a couple of weeks, so depending on what museums I get time to visit then, i'll have a UK report too. Exciting, no?

I do want to keep up with the more "thinky-thoughts" blogs like the deaccessioning one though so i'll be keeping my eyes peeled for ideas there. And if the handful of you out there reading have anything to input, it'd be great!

I'm finding it increasingly hard to keep positive and keep my mind "in the game" museums-wise seeing as it's been well over a year since I last worked in anything remotely resembling a museum job, too! I am hoping this will keep me focused and interested.


Deaccessioning in museums - a link that inspired a ramble

I update this blog so sporadically now that it's almost a farce. But today is International Museums Day, so i've been kickstarted. I also found this link i'd been meaning to write about for, ooh, months now: What should museums throw out?

The link itself goes to a small gallery highlighting some items that were on display in an exhibition at University College London called "Disposal" - one I would've really loved to have checked out. None of the images themselves are particularly striking, but the little slideshow gives a bit of fodder for thought and discussion.

The process of accessioning objects into a museum collection is not that difficult - it comes in, you document it, you store it, you give it a place where it should belong. It is part of the order-making that I love so much about collection management. Deaccessioning, on the other hand, is a much trickier process.

At the surface of it all is the question, how? How can someone (or even a group of someones) decide what stays and what goes from any collection, big or small? Someone had to make the decision to take the object on in the first place - in many museums this was a decision made long ago by a person who no longer works for the same museum (or who has passed away long ago, if your museum's collection goes back far enough - which many do!).

This is where museum collecting rides along the fine lines of fetishism and hoarding. Everything seemed like a good idea when it was brought into the collection - and indeed much of it is a great idea to have in there - but how does a curator or museum board weigh up one object's usefulness as part of a museum collection over another?

One object may have amazing research potential, the other may be not necessarily unique but an excellent piece to display. One object could be kept "just in case" it's needed for either, its potential being the key. Some objects may indeed still be part of museum collections simply due to the fact that some important person many years ago felt that it should be. Why have a box full of pottery sherds when one as a representative sample is enough? Who needs 30 different tapas cloths when one can illustrate the type of textile that it is?

Every object has a story. In and of themselves, and then a story as a museum object. While two boomerangs may look superficially alike, when you look at their histories you may find that both are equally relevant to have in your museum collection.

To say, "yes, that piece is something we need for our museum collections and/or displays" is easy. To say no is usually very hard. There's a reason why policy on this from museum to museum is tricky in its wording. There's a reason why deaccessioning happens so very rarely. Saying no is hard to do.