The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

Leave a comment

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!

1 Comment

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.

Leave a comment

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?

Leave a comment

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!

Leave a comment

“100 Years of Loss”: residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada

I was watching a documentary about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on CBC’s The National last month. The program covered a hearing of the Commission in Vancouver from September 18th to 21st, noting that education is one of the Commission’s key roles. In the background of some footage taken at the hearing, I noticed an exhibition. I have since discovered that the exhibition, called 100 Years of Loss – The Residential School System in Canada, was created by the Legacy of Hope Foundation.

100 Years of Loss -- The Residential School System in Canada.  Displayed at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, Ottawa, 15 to 25 October 2013.  Copyright Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2013.  Photo by Tania Budgell.

100 Years of Loss — The Residential School System in Canada. Displayed at the Ottawa Carleton District School Board, Ottawa, 15 to 25 October 2013. Copyright Legacy of Hope Foundation, 2013. Photo by Tania Budgell.

It interweaves personal stories of residential schools with archival images and has travelled across Canada to many venues, including other places where The Commission has held hearings. Seeing 100 Years of Loss led me to wonder if other exhibitions are helping to make the tragic story of residential schools better known? The answer to that question is “yes”.

This past summer the McCord Museum, working with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created Honouring Memory – Canada’s Residential Schools. It was shown outside the museum, on McGill College Avenue, from June 19 to October 20, 2013. The media release for the exhibit was clear about the impetus for the project:

This exhibit of archival photographs recalls the fate of thousands of Aboriginal children, who willingly or by force, grew up in residential schools intended to eradicate all traces of their culture. … By honouring these stories, the Museum is taking part in the process of healing and reconciliation initiated by the Commission.

Honouring Memory -- Canada's Residential Schools.  Photo credit: Marilyn Aitken, McCord Museum

Honouring Memory — Canada’s Residential Schools. Photo credit: Marilyn Aitken, McCord Museum

Although the exhibit is now closed, if you would like to know more about Honouring Memory – Canada’s Residential Schools, the McCord Museum has posted the text and photographs from each exhibit panel here.

Other exhibitions about residential schools and their impacts are currently on view in at the University of British Columbia. One is called Speaking to Memory: Images and Voices from St. Michael’s Residential School and can be seen at the University’s Museum of Anthropology until March 2nd 2014. This exhibit presents images recently donated to the Museum by one of the St. Michael’s Residential School’s students. As the Museum’s website notes “The photos provide a rare and moving glimpse of residential school life through the eyes of students as they made a life for themselves away from families and home communities.”

The University is also currently presenting an exhibition of contemporary art at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery. Witness: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools features artists from British Columbia and across Canada including artists who directly experienced Indian residential schools as well as those who are witnesses to their residual impact.

Lisa Jackson, Savage, 2009.  Production still from video.  From the exhibition "Witnesses: Art and Canada's Indian Residential Schools", Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia (September 6-December 1, 2012).

Lisa Jackson, Savage, 2009. Production still from video. From the exhibition “Witnesses: Art and Canada’s Indian Residential Schools”, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, University of British Columbia (September 6-December 1, 2012).

Witness is accompanied by a second installation, this one in the University’s Walter C. Koerner Library, a work by artist Cathy Busby called We are Sorry 2013.

The history of Canada’s residential schools for Aboriginal people is heartbreaking. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee is continuing and public exhibitions make a contribution to building awareness.


Four reasons why you should visit “David Bowie Is” at the Art Gallery of Ontario


Three earlier posts on “The Museum Column” have analysed exhibits. This post simply celebrates, because David Bowie Is is much too fun to analyse.

1.  David Bowie’s voice and music permeate the experience – The New York Times described this exhibition as “united in sound and vision in a way rarely seen in a museum”.

2. The exhibit mixes a wonderful variety of media creating an immersive, dazzling  environment. Works by many artists who inspired David Bowie accompany his stage costumes, music videos, and photographs along with ephemera from Bowie’s own personal archive.

3. The fantastic creativity of the installation design – true to the spirit of Bowie.

4. Everyone has a good time (from babies to millennials to nostalgic boomers) and it doesn’t matter if you are cool or not.

And if you miss the exhibit in Toronto, here are some other cities where David Bowie Is will be shown.

This video gives a great sense of the installation and how the curators introduced the show at the media preview.

Video by Kevin September AKA @Septembersphere

And some of the latest news about David Bowie:

The Bata Shoe Museum is a specialist museum, with a distinct focus.  Working within its particular scope, the Museum’s latest temporary exhibition has found a topic and approach to exhibiting it that extends into popular culture… and seems to be making an impact.

Out of the Box: the Rise of Sneaker Culture, is the first exhibition in North America to showcase the history of sneakers.  How could such ubiquitous part of our lives never have been presented in an exhibition before?  Perhaps it is just that: sneakers are everywhere, everyone wears them — they seem unremarkable, not worthy of a museum exhibition.  However, Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the exhibit, challenges our assumptions and by “making the familiar unfamiliar” inspires us to look at what is on our feet anew and to enjoy museum collections and history while we are doing it.  However, the show also has “star quality”, including the latest designs from fashion designers and sneakers made for celebrities and sports heroes.

On walking in to Out of the Box, I realized that this installation looked quite unlike any other I had seen at the Bata (and there have been many beautifully designed exhibits at the Museum).  For this exhibition, the Bata took on another first for them and hired famed industrial designer Karim Rashid.  Rashid  created a very modern style for the exhibition with blasts of colour against a predominantly white background.  Rashid describes his approach:

The design of the exhibition reinforces the leaps and bounds made by the sneaker and its place within the flux, speed, and charge of society.

Photograph of the exhibit installation designed by Karim Rashid.  Photo copyright Bata Shoe Museums

Photograph of the exhibit installation designed by Karim Rashid. Photo copyright 2013 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada.

The exhibit’s design has immediate impact, creating an environment that expresses the exhibit’s content boldly but not literally. Central circular cases, each with a single shoe or pair of shoes, achieve that often-sought quality of museum design – creating a compelling environment, but not competing with the collection.  That perennial 20th-century museological conundrum — how much text is too much — is neatly solved with searchable historical and technical information provided via flat-screen TVs that take the place of overview text.

When selecting topics for a temporary exhibit program, the question of who will provide grants or sponsorship always arises. For Out of the Box The Museum’s media release concludes with 19 logos (government granting agencies, opening reception sponsors, media partners, hotel and community partners, and a programming partner).   Clearly, this topic has attracted funding.  The funders are likely responding to the exhibition’s multi-facetted take within its singular topic.  Interpretation and artifacts in the exhibit would resonate with:

  • social historians
  • fashionistas
  • sports fans
  • designers
  • celebrity watchers

Not many museums have sneakers in their collections and so what can we see in this exhibition that applies to exhibit programs in other museums?  With Out of the Box, we can see a temporary exhibition taking a simple, everyday typological category, exploring it from many vantage points, finding contemporary expressions, placing the collections in a dynamic physical space — and making an impact.

The exhibition continues to March 30th 2014 and is accompanied by a wide range of programming described on the Museum’s website.  Here are some of my favourite sneakers in the show.  All images shown are copyright 2013 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada.