Wednesday, May 25, 2011

For The Love of History

This magic moment . . .

Being Canadian, I get exposed to a lot of hockey — it sure is a part of our collective experience. This is especially true during N
ational Hockey League playoff times, and so I took pause when I recently saw a promotional ad for the Stanley Cup with the tag line of "History Will Be Made". It stirred something in me and so I went to YouTube to check out some of the videos. I saw this one:

As a gal that grew up in Edmonton in the 1980s, I gotta say, it teared me up a little. I remember loving to watch Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers, being a fierce fan, ignoring that it seemed like our home team was the envy (and aggravation) for all the others out there. But did I know I was watching historic moments with this team? I know I loved watching them win the Stanley Cup! Did I appreciate that The Great One was right at my doorstep, and that I was witness to one of the most incredible sports professionals ever? Maybe I knew this in my heart, because it seems to be the way I am built to feel history.

Ever since I can remember, I have been obsessed with history. Or maybe a better way to say it is 
story - his story, her story, their story, your story, our story. I have always wanted to know all the details of how we live our lives, from where your family is from to if you love your community down to what you had for breakfast (and if you ate it with your kin, or if you just grabbed a cup of coffee — no sugar — as you ran out the door). I believe I get a true connection with others through these vignettes, and I understand people better, as I get to see life through someone else's eyes. My love for museums and collections care grew from this love of history because, for me, it is objects that bring a tangible reminder of what has gone before, and how people have related to events, as the stories associated with those objects brings meaning to their experiences.

I find it interesting that social history in particular has grabbed me more than what used to be called "Big Man" history. Although the fascination of world leaders is engaging, I have to say it is the common experience of everyday people that has captured my soul. This year, 2011, has already had so many intense events - how will they be remembered? Will we document the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand? What about Japan? Japan suffered so much through the 9.0 earthquake, ensuing tsunami, followed by a nuclear crisis. The country is now faced with rebuilding, but it is still there and persevering through hardships with great strength. And North America has dealt this year with wildfires, tornadoes, floods. How has this affected who we are? Some have had everything swept away in a moment. But I ask you, once a great event is off the headline news channel, who will remember what happened besides those who experienced it? 
How do we not forget these events? What will the people who survived these events do now? Will they be scarred forever? Will they build a museum to remember those who did not survive, and how they came back, against all odds? Is this moment when it becomes history?

But it's not just natural disasters that make our history. I also think about politics. 
Did you watch what happened in Egypt with the birth of democracy there? What about the changes in British Columbia's political leadership, including the appointment of a new premier? And how about that Canadian national election? How do these moments register, for surely they do. How does it affect us? Who will document — or notice — the changes in our lives brought on by our leaders?

I also admit there are 'pop' culture moments that say something about us. Some say these things aren't important to witness, but I beg to differ. In April I had to defend my intense need to stay up all night to watch the Royal Wedding between Prince William and Katie Middleton, just as I did thirty years ago to see the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer. We're talking about the potential king and queen of England here (but who's to say how this all turns out). I gotta bare witness, I just do, when I know these events are happening. 
And today happens to be the last day of the Oprah Winfrey show. One show might not mean much, but the last one? It's hard to resist the urge to watch the final airing of 25 years of television. (It's sort of like watching hockey playoffs, ain't it? History will be made today, too!)

What I have figured out is that we really live only in this moment; the rest, they say, is history.
 Through museum work, I am blessed to be a witness and one who preserves the story of what happens to us, and the stories of what came before. This act helps us share our lives with each other, and to share what has happened to us and our world with future generations. Doing work with museum collections lets my heart sing with history. Magic, for sure.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Blogs Galore Five : Seth Godin

Museums & libraries & the future . . .

I just came across this post by Seth Godin about the future of libraries. I believe that museums and libraries and archives have a lot in common as we struggle for community relevance and continued visitor-ship in this ever-changing world. I also think that libraries are a little more 'hip' to these changes and challenges, which can be seen in their spoofy videos, such as their viral Ga-Ga one, that describes what librarians do for their visitors. And I can tell that Godin is up on this as well — 
I particularly like how he describes the value of librarians through this quote:

The librarian isn't a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

Godin also speaks of the way information is provided and requested these days — i.e. it's a digital world, baby — is challenging the value of the library as a repository of paper books only. He makes a point that a library is much more than that: "
Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information." He adds:

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the 
Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

This post really hit home that relevance is about people who enable you to engage with a place — it is not about the institution alone and its so-called self-worth. Whether it's a library, museum, shop, or government office, it's the people who work there that create a connection to the information and value of the institution, one person at a time. 

Now, how is it museum workers are directly relating to our visitors? I think the future of museums depends on how we figure this out. 

Check out the conclusion of Seth Godin's post
here. Great read!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

An Inventory Project in a Small Museum

Taking Stock . . .

Wow, April went quickly — and thus the lack of posts. But I am back now!

I have been busy wrapping up a project, guiding a small all-volunteer community museum through an inventory of their collection. It was a very interesting project for me, one where it was my aim to teach the volunteers collection management basics ('how to fish') as I did not simply step in to complete the inventory (or just 'give them fish'). It was my goal to pass along some of the foundations of museum collection stewardship. 

As I have written about before, I think small museums are the soul of what I do as a museum professional. Next-to-nothing budgets and volunteers being the norm, they represent a need for our communities to record their own story, and to have a museum to share that story. I understand that basic need as much as I know I must breathe.

So, with no trepidation, I divided the project into three phases: a documentation review (which was brief as they are a young organization), the gathering of inventory material and system set-up (creating a tool kit, designing forms, establishing a numbering system) and the actual physical inventory of the collection (
delivered in five workshops). The first two phases went well, and quickly; it was the workshops that had the 'meat' of the project.

Working with about ten volunteers, the first workshop was a very wide and shallow review of all things collection management. I covered why it is important to inventory collections, went over some classic collection management resources, and spoke about museum ethics. We also reviewed a basic form that I designed on how to record the information of each object. Together we recorded the information on one object, going through the form step-by-step. I did my best not to overwhelm with information, which is quite easy given the breadth of material. I stressed that procedures were guidelines, and that each object would require a little bit of creative thought when inventorying. I said (and I hope this isn't blasphemous to some other museum professionals) that there is an art as well as a science to an inventory project, and that it is a process akin to eating an elephant just one bite at a time. We'll get there, but it will take time.

The other workshops built on the inventory guidelines from the first one, and I taught basic inventory photography, object numbering, and how to enter information into an Excel spreadsheet. (The volunteers wanted an electronic record of the inventory beyond pieces of paper. Due partially to limited funds, Excel was chosen as information can be easily migrated from this program, should they get sophisticated collection management software in the future.) There were many questions during the inventory process for, as we know, each object presents a new set of quandaries. But by the fifth workshop, we had a real feeling of teamwork, with each volunteer choosing a task to focus on; this inventory was now a project that the organization could handle. I have to say that I got a lot of satisfaction hearing that sentiment!

And so, at the end of my time working on the inventory project, I provided a report to the museum with the following:

- the documentation review 
- step-by-step inventory guidelines
- forms created for the inventory project which included
      - a donation form
      - a loan form
      - a donor documentation form
      - an inventory worksheet
- inventory project report and recommendations
- a list of resources and suppliers

I think there is still a lot of work to be done at this small museum for the inventory, but I think it is entirely doable. It is a little hard as a shepherd in this project to let go and hope for the best for their organization, but this is my role as museum consultant. And so I gather myself, knowing that they have the training and a plan in place to complete their inventory, to grow their collection, and that I empowered them to do so. Not bad, eh. : )