The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

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Cat videos: a museum topic?

I have been told on reliable authority that cute cat videos are some of the most popular content on YouTube. In a complete change of pace, this post is an experiment to see if cat videos have their place in a blog about museums. Here is a carefully curated selection of videos.

Category one: cats in museums

Cats in the Hermitage Museum.

Category two: museums about cats

A museum in Ohio about cats.

Category three: art gallery film festival about cat videos

A cat video program a the Walker Art Gallery.

Category four: serious museological analysis of cat videos

A blog posting by the Center for the Future of Museums about the Walker Art Gallery cat video awards ceremony. This post originates from the American Alliance of Museums, the pre-eminent professional association internationally. And so, I think it is quite OK for a museum blog to include cat videos as content!

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Exhibits about Residential Schools: Part Two

Since publishing a post on exhibitions about residential school at the end of October, I have become aware of two other exhibitions on the same topic, both from the Legacy of Hope Foundation.

The earlier exhibition is called Where are the Children? Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools. It was produced in 2001 and has been seen in many university and museum settings across Canada. This exhibition spans over 125 years and contains photographs and documents from the 1880s to present day. Since it was first produced, the exhibit has been augmented by an iphone app which provides information in greater depth from curator Jeff Thomas via video, images, and text.

In 2010 the Foundation produced “We were so far away”: The Inuit Experience of Residential Schools. The Legacy of Hope Foundation’s website reveals the impetus for the exhibit as “a need to portray the unique Inuit experience of residential schools”:

We were far away from home, very far away; emotionally, geographically and spiritually.

These exhibitions tell such important stories. I hope that you will have time to visit the Legacy of Hope Foundation website to learn more about them. If you work in a museum, art gallery, or anywhere with public space and would like to book an exhibit, you are encouraged to contact Kate Laing at or the general email address

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Four tips and techniques for writing engaging labels

Some museum exhibits can have hundreds and hundreds of objects, needing about the same number of labels. The prospect of writing them all can be a bit daunting. And so, here are a few handy techniques and examples that can be applied to labels on any subject matter to help keep things interesting.

1. Include your thinking process

7th millennium BC

Only four masks, all of limestone, have been recovered from the prehistoric periods of this region. The function of these masks in unknown. They have holes for fastening, but were they intended to adorn the living, to honour the dead, or for another purpose entirely?

2. Conjure up an image

Multiple-nozzle lamp
1st century AD

An exceptional piece of Early Roman pottery, this oil lamp would have been suspended using the three small holes in the dome, and filled with oil through the large hole in the top. Wicks inserted in the twenty-one nozzles, now blackened by the flames, would have radiated a brilliant light.

3. Invite comparison

Quebec, 1875 – 1899

These towels are all woven using very coarse “tow” linen. With use and washing they would gradually become softer and whiter. You can see that one has never been used, one has been used quite a bit, and one has had quite a lot of wear.

4. Use quotations from contemporary literature

Carved Ivories

“In Fuijan ivory is carved into human form, the workmanship of which is fine and artful; however, one cannot put them anywhere or give them as decent presents”.

Gao Lian, writer and scholar, 16th century AD


The Texas Historical Commission’s ten minute video with more tips for writing effective labels is an excellent go-to resource for the basics. This year’s award winning labels from the American Alliance of Museums are really inspiring. They are in the November/December 2013 edition of Museum magazine. What is your tip for writing interesting labels?

attributions: All labels mentioned here were written for exhibitions shown at the Royal Ontario Museum. Labels 1 and 2 are from the temporary exhibition Treasures of the Holy Land, Label 3 is from the temporary exhibition Canada’s Handwoven Heritage, and label 4 is for an object from the Chinese collection.

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Context for on-line visitor research — two tips

The digital age opens new vistas on who we can ask to participate in exhibit making. No longer are we restricted to asking the public for their participation in a familiar museum setting, a focus group facility, or a nearby shopping mall or community centre. On line, we can ask anyone, anywhere, for their ideas. But who are we talking to, how do we contextualize the information we are receiving? Here are two things I have been thinking about.

We have always relied so much on demographics to contextualize audience research. We so often select who we would like to ask questions of based on demographic characteristics. Then, results are also analysed by demographic segmentation. When we start researching on-line perhaps some demographic questions can be asked up front to define the field of respondents, but how reliable is this information when it is not supplied in person? How do we know who we are talking to?

And so, I was intrigued to see a questionnaire from the Australian National Maritime Museum. This museum was seeking opinions about what a new exhibition on whales should be like.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide.  Flickr.

Whale watching in Hervey Bay Australia by eGuide. Flickr.

No demographic information is asked for. Instead, respondents were asked to fit themselves into a category based on their “Museum Personality”. Here are a couple of selections:

“Learning is Fun” — I love learning but it should be fun for me and my family

“Box Ticker” — I am always looking for something new to do and experience

This self-selected visitor-centred method of knowing a bit about who is participating in the research study likely provided useful context to the design team responsible for creating the whales exhibition.

Continuing with the idea of context, when you are asking someone for their opinion, it is respectful to them, and ultimately helpful in stimulating conversation, to provide some context for your questions. Ontario’s public television channel, TVO, does this effectively for an on-line forum called Pull. To set the stage for their regular on-line debates, they provide 90 second videos that they call “primers”.

I think a primer video or two, along with an on-line questionnaire, such as the one used by the National Maritime Museum of Australia, would make an excellent pairing for context-rich on-line visitor research. What do you think? It would be good to hear about your tips for on-line visitor research. Thanks!

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Watch for the Light on Remembrance Day

If you wish to take a few quiet moments to remember past and present wars and to honour veterans, you may wish to watch for the light to arrive at the Canadian War Museum. On Remembrance Day, at exactly 11 a.m EST, sunlight shines through a single window in Memorial Hall to frame the headstone representing Canada’s Unknown Soldier. Visit the Museum’s website for a live webcast.

Simon Alexandre-Clement Denis Flemish, 1786 - 1801  Oil on paper  Getty Center, Los Angeles

Simon Alexandre-Clement Denis
Flemish, 1786 – 1801
Oil on paper
Getty Center, Los Angeles

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Is your museum Open?

How many ways can a museum be open? There are many ways, too many to discuss them all in this post, but here are a few that have been on my mind recently.

Portrait of Jeanne Kefer by Fernand Khnopff, 1885, Belgian, Brussels, oil of canvas. Getty Center of Los Angeles.

Portrait of Jeanne Kefer by Fernand Khnopff, 1885, Belgian, Brussels, oil of canvas.
Getty Center of Los Angeles.

Be open during hours when people can visit

This seems so simple, and yet for how many decades did museums close their doors every day at the end of the afternoon? Opening one evening a week, usually for a great party, has become almost the norm now. One of the latest late-night opening parties is Nature Nocturne at the Canadian Museum of Nature which invites guests to “Rock the Castle”. These evening events often attract younger adults, who tend to be at work during the day!

Opening up on-line images of collections to free downloads

I downloaded the image above for free from the website of the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam also provides open access to downloading images. Here is one of my favourite paintings of theirs:

Woman reading a letter.  Johannes Vermeer, 1663.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Woman reading a letter. Johannes Vermeer, 1663. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Although many museums have digital photos on-line, relatively few allow downloading for free. A recent guest blog post by Adrienne Berney for Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0 makes a cogent argument for opening up access to fee-free image downloads and other methods of increasing access to museum collections.

Crowdsourcing topics for exhibits

Museums have tested public interest in potential exhibit topics identified by museum staff for many years. This market research technique can be useful in helping to identify attendance targets and managing the financial risk involved in creating expensive exhibitions. With a slightly different twist, the Chicago History Museum recently announced that they would be opening up even the initial choices for exhibit topics to the public, via crowdsourcing. Their process invites suggestions for exhibits on any topic related to Chicago history for a “family friendly museum”. Museum staff will narrow down the suggestions to a short list, then ask the public to vote for their favourite. This technique is a new one for the museum world and it will be very interesting to see how it works.

And so, with everyone else in the digital age, museums are moving towards being more open. How is it going? It varies from museum to museum depending on a whole variety of the complex ways that museums relate to the public realm. What is your opinion? Are museums open enough yet?

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Four tips for creating an excellent exhibition brief

What is an exhibition brief?

!. It is not a plan to “build it and they will come”.

2. It is a feasibility study that makes sure that the budget, schedule, and scope of the project are aligned and assesses the institutional risks, rewards, and point of view for the exhibition.

3. If you haven’t identified at least one (maybe more) significant disagreement around the museum about what the exhibit should be about, or who it should be for, or how many people will be interested in it (this is often a sticky one), then you likely have not identified all the stakeholders or are making too many assumptions.

4. The institutional viewpoint and vision for the exhibit have been clearly stated and set the stage (not the rules) for the creative team to be successful.

If you have any tips on creating a brief for any type of communications project, please add them to the comments on this post. Thank you!