Sunday, January 5, 2014

Looking Backward, Looking Forward

Or, Hello Neglected Blog .  . .

Museum blogging just didn't happen that much in 2013, likely due to the fact I am currently in the world of archives. I am enjoying immersing myself in the work, but I do find that my elusive full-time schedule doesn't leave a lot of time for musings. Despite this I still feel compelled, as one does when the calendar changes to a new year, to review and plan ahead and thus I remembered to write here.

Final updates on 2013 will be two-fold: a conference commentary and this post, a conclusion of my adventures in museum visits through my travel adventures last year.

I was fortunate enough to travel a few times in 2013. I went to the San Francisco Bay Area and visited the Oakland Museum of California - one of my all time favourite institutions. I also went to London, which I wrote about here and here.  Additionally, I visited Ottawa at the beginning of September and there I went to The National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I have always wanted to see these flagship institutions, and test out my pre-conceived notions. I had two very different and distinct impressions, which surprised me because it wasn't at all what I expected.

The front of the National Gallery, with some street signage - oops.
Also, see the spider? It's Maman by Louise Bourgeois)
(yes - all photos in this post are my own)
The door at the top of this impressive staircase
is the entrance to the Curatorial Wing.
I went to the Gallery because the archives I work at was approached to lend some original architectural plans for an exhibition opening in November 2013, which we did end up releasing. And so, although I was in Ottawa for another reason, I took the exhibition organizers up on an offer to drop by for a behind-the-scenes tour. There I saw the exhibition mock-up, visited the conservation lab, and spoke with the curator, the exhibition coordinator, and the archivist. I was wowed with the place and the people. Such amazing art, and fabulous staff, wonderful resources. I felt very lucky to have visited, to have gotten behind the curatorial door. It also gives me hope that there are some museums in Canada that still receive funding, because that gives them an opportunity to be an outstanding institution. I don't always feel welcome in art museums but this experience was warm and invigorating because of the interactions I had with their staff. Fabulous!

As a Canadian history geek, I felt so lucky and excited to visit the Museum of Civilization the next day. I couldn't wait to see the often-mentioned Great Hall with its First Nations material, and walk through our history in the Canada Hall. I was nearly giddy with anticipation and the view.

The Great Hall is impressive, to be sure. But I did not know beforehand that this main gallery was almost exclusively art and artifacts which belonged to West Coast First Nations - in other words, what I consider to be a large part of what defines British Columbia. Beautiful objects, displayed in room after room. After room. I actually got to a feeling like, hey, maybe some of this should still be in BC? Maybe the cultures that own this would like this to be in their communities, or at least a little closer? I wondered if everyone was 'okay' with it being all the way in Gatineau, Quebec. And if the cultural owners knew that there was so much of it on display. The exhibition was all respectful and full of information, don't get me wrong, and I was surprised at my reaction. But I felt a little like 'our' best stuff was too far away from its true home. I couldn't help it.

When I went upstairs to the Canada Hall, I meandered through some interesting interpretation materials. This story of Canada was told from the earliest European contact, and from the east to the west of the country. I contemplated how else they could have done this, and ended up feeling that they had to make a choice and this one would work. I went through many min-galleries that had to tell a big story in such a small space, and thought at how that difficult that must be. Again, I really wanted to cut some slack. As I got near to the end when, again from my perspective as a British Columbian, wondered what they would choose as 'my' story. I walked through this room:
View on left-hand side of the room, looking back into the exhibition.
View on right-hand side of the room, looking back into the exhibition.
Then I looked at a replica of a northern cafe. And then the exhibition ended.

I stopped, walked around the hallway, went around the corner. Nope, it was done. That was it. 

I went back in. I walked backwards through the exhibition, all the way to the front where there was an interpreter and asked if there was any part of the gallery under renovation. Although I see now from the online exhibition that there may have actually been another room that was closed off (here), at the time I was told there was not, and that the Great Hall represented BC as well. I was taken aback that the story of how BC fit into Canada was that as an airport lounge that as the Gateway to the Far East and, oh, a totally different gallery. This representation, at least on the surface, felt like an afterthought, like they ran out of room in the exhibition. It was as if the designers had to remain so true to the timeline and the 'moving East to West' motif had to be respected, over and above telling the whole story of Canada. And what about that cafe? Is that the the whole story of how the North represented? Again, I didn't expect this strong reaction, but I felt short-changed as someone from the West, or maybe anywhere but not Ontario or Quebec. And that feeling left me more than a little surprised.

Okay, okay, I do know that the Museum of Civilization is going through a rebranding, and soon will be known as the Canadian Museum of History. I quite like that name, as I was always a little confused by the what it meant by 'civilization' - did this mean all people, everywhere, or just Canada's civilization? I know there are some political rumblings of who is in charge of these changes, but I remain all for it, especially as this means there will be gallery updates that will include Canada Hall. I also understand that there have been many town hall meetings and that there is a concerted effort for multiple points of view - check out the backgrounder on the proposed gallery. This makes me excited, but also a little wary - wondering if will I feel more a part of the museum when this gallery is redone. It naturally also makes me yearn that I were a part of its development before it's July 1, 2017 opening. I will continue to closely follow the museum's progress through social and traditional media; I want to see my Canadian experience reflected in what is presented.

So that's my impression of two of Canada's national museums I visited in September 2013. As I said above, it's not what I expected I'd feel, but I suppose that's what makes travelling so exhilarating - you just never know what you might find. I had a similar experience with the lone museum conference I attended in October, which has helped me figure out what my next steps will be looking forward to muse about my work in museums and archives.

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