Curiouser and Curiouser...

My Adventures in blogging, digital and Public History

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Some Thoughts on the Evolution of the Museum...

They lumber into the building. Some are speaking loudly, others touching things they ought not to be touching. They seem crass and boorish, some would call them Neanderthals. Behind the glass, a panel of experts observes these uncultured primates. Their goal: a civilising mission. Their venue: a museum.

A Museum? This may sound like a post-apocalyptic vision, but as Tony Bennett ( No! The OTHER Tony Bennett) describes in The Birth of the Museum, the social need that led to the creation of the modern museum was no less than a civilising mission. He cites Foucault’s theory that museums and prisons are comparable in their ultimate goal: social reform and order. It seems a strange comparison, yet when one looks at the history of museums and their present incarnation, there are some similarities. However, I would also say that the 21st century museum has a more practical vision, that being the enticement of a paying audience. And if this is the case, museums should, at least on some level, accommodate the interests of their audience.

The inception of the museum as a public space and one to be used as a ‘reforming’ measure for the masses began in the latter part of the 19th century. The idea was for the upper classes to model the behavior they wanted to see in the working classes. No more brawling in taverns and unruly demonstrations in the street. I would say to some extent the experiment worked. People in the 21st century go to a museum and they know how to behave. We browse the artefacts in an orderly manner, we speak in hushed tones. We know not to touch the ancient parchment or the priceless oil painting. And we certainly don’t brawl or create an unnecessary ruckus. But should we? I don’t really mean a brawl per se, but should we be questioning what museums are doing for us? After all, we follow their prison-like rules and we conform but if it weren’t for us, the public, museums would not even exist in the first place. They survive , at least in their present state, because we attend. We are the paying customer and I think it would be naive to suggest that exhibits are not designed to draw in the crowds. Government funding and private donations can only go so far.

In some ways , things haven’t really changed; some museums are designed to be the great equalizer in terms of social class. For instance, the glass and steel structure that is Centre Georges Pompidou is situated right in the middle of Paris. It is designed for one to see and be seen. I suppose, had it been around at the turn of the century , it would have been the optimal building for the “ clear inspection of artifacts and each other.”[1] Patrons of lower social classes would have felt on equal footing with those of the higher classes and would have felt the pressure to display the morals and manners of the upper classes. And today? I think it there are some definite similarities. As a foreigner, I think you feel some of the same pressures the working classes may have felt; you want to see the art and the culture of the city, yet you don’t want to stand out as an oddity yourself. You want to fit in because the idea of being a Parisienne, even if it is just for a little while, is romantic and empowering.

I think that on some level exhibits themselves still reflect a tradition of public spectacles, fairs, executions, and exhibitions; draw the crowds in with the oddities so you can keep them for the permanent collection which may, at first glance, not be quite as interesting or engaging for the general public. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. As I have said in previous posts, I think it is the job of the Public Historian to make history ‘sexy’ for the public. A museum setting offers the perfect opportunity because the historian has access to artefacts which automatically encourage interest; I think we would agree that a visual is always a better ‘hook’ than a written description.

I guess what I am saying then is that museums need to both keep their traditions and adapt to the changing times. We could probably do away with museum security hurrying people through exhibits like prison guards, but I like the idea that museums can create an accessible environment where any person can feel empowered by an exhibit . Bennett suggests that in the early days of the museum the idea was that culture would be used to transform the lives of the population.[2] I think in the 21st century this is still the case. However, rather than the social reform sought during the 1800's, our new museum culture should yield an intellectual and creative transformation for museum patrons.

1. Tony Bennett, “History and Theory,” The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1995)

2. Bennett, The Birth of the Museum.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


It’s November 11th. The haunting sound of the pipes playing Highland Cathedral and The Maple Leaf Forever resonates. I saw the veterans today at the Cenotaph full of pride and pain, poppies displayed prominently as a sign of remembrance. There were others too. People like myself who came to pay respect and to reflect. Of course, this day more than any other, I find myself reflecting on the sacrifice so many have made. And this year, more than any other in my lifetime, the reality of that sacrifice is evident. 43 Canadians have been killed in Afghanistan since the mission began. My generation now knows the costly reality of war and the ultimate sacrifice many are willing to make for freedom.

I don’t think of Remembrance Day as just a commemoration of long ago wars. It is also a time to reflect on the sacrifice so many have made and a time to wish for peace. There are those who feel that there should not be a Canadian presence in a war, in a country, half a world away. Pacifism is more the norm than the exception now, and we as Canadians seem to have strong aversion to being involved in foreign conflicts. But, even if we don’t believe in war, can we respect the ultimate sacrifice these human beings made?

I try to rationalize what Canadian troops are doing overseas. For me, they are essentially freedom fighters, defending and trying to secure the basic human rights that we, as Canadians, sometimes take for granted. It is a noble mission. When I see the faces of so many who have been deprived of these fundamental freedoms, I understand why the soldiers had to go. It is not about politics or alliances. It is about humanity.

Reflecting on the impact of war and conflict is an individual thing and on November 11th especially, I do think about the thousands of Canadian troops who have died and continue to put their lives at risk . Whether I agree with the politics of war or not is irrelevant; this is a debate for another day. On this day, those individuals who gave the ultimate sacrifice should be remembered for their bravery and courage.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Why Historians Drink Beer

I was at a party with a number of history grad students and one young innocent commented to a rather jaded 5th year PhD student that historians like to drink beer. I wonder why that is, he questioned. The answer, given swiftly and in a matter-of-fact tone which can only come from a 5th year PhD student was simply, “because otherwise we would have to read.”

He was right of course. Reading and reading and reading. I need new glasses and I’m only 2 months in.

I started thinking about why historians, and history Grad students in particular, drink beer and this is what I came up with:

• In a word, Foucault!
• It gives you something to blog about. You may have an epiphany or pick up a unique insight or two from a colleague.
• They don’t really make martinis at the Grad Club. (actually, they don’t make martinis because they don’t have olives!) Stick with the beer.
• Dotplot Visualisation Technique - ????
• Lorcan Dempsey - again I say - ????
• It’s social. When we crawl, mole-like, from our windowless hovels at the end of the day, it’s nice to share a pint with someone who understands.
• It’s the less expensive option. Who can afford single-malt on a student budget?
• Research! You never know when you will get an Archives assignment that requires you to research the brewing industry and the evolution of beer and ale.
• Artificial Intelligence - It freaks Bryan out!
• Digitization of historical sources. What ever happened to good ol’ dusty, allergy-causing, hold- em’- in- your- hand books?
• Books and articles - Why can’t people get with it and digitize sources so that we can access them online?

So maybe we drink a little beer. Truth be told, however, it’s the collegial aspect of getting together and chatting over a pint that is the real draw. When you’ve spent hours by yourself , reading article after paper after monograph, it’s nice to blow off some steam with like-minded individuals. Procrastination? Maybe. But it’s no different than say, blogging about strangely random topics when you should be reading!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Just Watch Me": Digital Moving Images and Historical Research

Digital Moving Images are a great resource for historical research. They often allow a researcher to see, hear and almost feel the action which has been recorded. Of course, as with any historical evidence, the researcher must be critical in her approach to understanding and utilizing the sources. I looked at four sites which provide digital moving images and each provided me with a little more understanding of the positives in using this type of resource as well as underlining some of the drawbacks.

The CBC Archives had a great combination of T.V. and radio stuff. There are some great clips of Tommy Douglas giving speeches and many examples of the well known footage from The October Crisis. The clips were easy to find - you just typed in the Keyword or term in the Search Box and you ended up with a pretty nice selection of moving images.

The BBC Motion Gallery had many clips but it was somewhat difficult to find what I wanted because the internal search didn’t always come up the what I wanted. For instance when I typed in World Cup Soccer or Football I ended up getting clips of the F.A. Cup final and various other competitions. However, this ‘detour’ led me to a really sweet clip of an over-exuberant fan storming the field after a goal.

Hurray for the Prelinger Archive and their dedication to the Creative Commons. This site is dedicated to archiving moving images which include advertising, educational, industrial and amateur film. There is a lot of off-beat and unique pop-culture material here. I even found a video documenting a day at the beauty parlour circa 1941! Great for my research on the Permanent Wave Machine. The best part about the items found at Prelinger is that they are under a Creative Commons license so there are no pesky copywrite concerns to worry about.

The American Memory project at the Library of Congress has collections ranging from Presidential Inauguration Speeches to Coca-Cola advertising to Vaudeville Stage Shows. The great thing about his collection is that there are also written descriptions and some great stills which supplement the moving images. Access to these materials is for educational and research purposes and there are some copywrite restrictions.

Some of the problems I can foresee when working with digital images are not very different from those encountered when working with other images; you have to be conscious of copywrite. How can you, the researcher, use the footage? Is it in the public domain or would it cost a small fortune to get the rights to use it?

Even though the moving images are digitized, there are concerns over quality of the visual image. The older footage such as some of the Vaudeville acts and the soccer match had a grainy quality which made it difficult to see the content. I would expect that in some research this may pose some problems because the images may be misinterpreted or a researcher could miss key information for which she was looking. This could also happen as some of the older footage does not contain an audio component which contextualises the visual image.

On the other hand, you could also avoid the bias of personal opinion or slant of the creator by not having the audio component. It would be up to the researcher to provide narrative and context.

The loading time for some clips was very slow. This probably isn’t too much a of a concern when it comes to research, but it was slightly annoying. Once loaded, the clips moved along at real time speed which is great for overall impression but I had to stop and re-play many of them to get the detail I was looking for. This could be very time-consuming for a researcher who had to go through many different clips to find what she was looking for.

The upside - there are innumerable strange and wonderful little clips such as the square-dancing cigarettes from the Lucky Strike cigarette commercial( not very P.C. but hilarious!) and some fantastic footage many of the key events and individuals which have shaped history. Not to mention a few crazy soccer fans...