The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

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Create an interpretive plan in 9 easy steps

What is an interpretive plan?

An interpretive plan is a document that outlines how an exhibition intends to engage with the public. It is created early in the process of planning an exhibit.

Step One
Review and understand the context.

-read the museum’s annual report, strategic plan, or any other documents that state how the museum wants to relate to the public
-read or watch popular books and videos about the subject of the exhibit (National Geographic, YouTube, etc. — any source that presents information on the topic of the exhibit in a way that is easily understood by a general audience)

Step Two
Get to know the collections that can be used for the exhibit.

-iconic “must haves”

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Herpetology collection (that means snakes!). Photo credit: iStock

Step Three
Understand the audience and stakeholders

-look at existing audience research (if there is any)
-make a plan for engaging audiences in the planning process
-find out who the stakeholders are (staff, senior managers, Members, Boards, those whose history is represented, educators etc.) and talk to them.

Step Four
Elaborate goals and objectives
(So much has been written about goals and objectives, that I will not go into all that again here.)

Step Five
Generate ideas (about the content and how to express it).

Step six
Group ideas into a structure and make sure that you have singled out the “big ideas” that will lead the way. Possible structures could be:

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram.  It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

This type of diagram is known in the exhibit trade as a bubble diagram. It shows how visitors will navigate through ideas and is the precursor to the floor plan.

Step Seven
Discuss the quality of the experience you would like to create for visitors and think about the various media (in addition to collections) you would like to use to express the ideas.

Step Eight
Know your space. It will impact how you divide up the ideas, how many collections will fit, and how many choices visitors may have as they move around in it.

-analyse the size, ceiling height, entrances and exits, light sources, surfaces, changes in elevation, subdivisions

Photo credit: iStock

Photo credit: iStock

Step Nine
Create interpretive plan!

The document will look like this:


Here is an excellent new book about exhibit-making:

McKenna-Cress, Polly and Janet Kamien. Creating Exhibitions: Collaboration in the Planning, Development and Design of Innovative Experiences. New Jersey: Wiley & Sons 2013

Does this interpretive planning process for exhibits remind you of planning processes for other media?

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“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.


Two ways to measure in your museum: and one more thing

heart versus moneyMeasuring museums has always been a tricky subject. Are we measuring quantitatively, qualitatively, both? And who are we measuring for — the director, our board, the granting agency, for our own information? In this post, I will take a focussed look at a few fairly quantitative measurements that may help us to calculate whether we are there yet (there being wherever you hope you are going). In future posts I will discuss more qualitative impacts of museums and how to measure them.

1. Attendance
Yes, I know, we are always measuring the numbers although in an interesting recent blog post Nina Simon asked us to consider who gets counted and whether or not attendance can be a proxy for impact. In a similar vein, since we seem to have an impulse to collect them, attendance figures could be given more meaning by linking them to a larger context. In this line of thinking, we could:

• Look at attendance as a percentage of overall population within a given geographic area; how does our attendance compare with other places in the same area where people spend their leisure time? Have there been changes in your museum’s market share in the last five years? What does that tell you about how well your museum is in touch with shifting priorities in the community?

• Analyse demographic groups within total number of visitors for the year; have there been any significant changes that align with strategic initiatives in programming in the same time period? Was that demographic shift sustained beyond the term of a specific program? Did attracting new demographic groups mean that numbers in more traditional groups fell?

• How much is your museum spending per visitor? How does that compare to other museums in your region with similar budgets for programming and marketing? Has your programming and marketing spend per visitor changed as a portion of the overall budget in the last five years? What has driven those changes; is it time to re-calibrate?

2. Members
Members really matter to museums; they are people who make coming to the museum a regular part of their lives. Revenue from memberships is a predictable source of revenue (unlike, for example, forecasts of income from temporary exhibition attendance). In addition to counting up the number of members we have, we can also measure:

• How many members moved from a basic membership category to a higher (i.e. more expensive with more privileges) category when they renewed their membership?
• Have there been any shifts in demographic patterns among the membership?
• How many members donated to fundraising campaigns in addition to paying their membership fees?
• How many members do you have as a percentage of total attendance? How does that compare to other museums with similar total attendance?

These measurements, when taken together, may help to indicate an increase, or decrease, in a sense of relationship with the museum (but only among those who can afford to buy a membership in the first place).

3. Heart
Always remember when you are measuring museums quantitatively that the qualitative impact of museums is significant, values-driven, and what gives impetus to the need to measure carefully.

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Photo credits: iStock Photo


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.

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World Press Photo 2013 exhibit at Brookfield Place

Brookfield Place is a beautiful commercial building, designed by Santiago Calatrava in the business district of downtown Toronto.  The central atrium, the Allen Lambert Galleria, is used by the building’s owners, Brookfield Office Properties, as an exhibit space.  Until October 21st 2013, the featured display is World Press Photo 2013, a traveling exhibit of prize-winning photos from the annual World Press Photo contest.


World Press Photo 2013 the Allen Lambert Galleria,
Brookfield Place, Toronto. October 2013.

World Press Photo 2013 is part of an ongoing program of exhibitions in the Galleria,  Earlier this year the space featured installations for city-wide events such as  Nuit Blanche, Luminato, and the Contact Photography Festival among others.  Brookfield Office Properties funds Arts Brookfield, described on the company’s website:

Brookfield Office Properties enlivens its public spaces through an acclaimed visual and performing arts program. Arts Brookfield is committed to working with regional artists and commissioning original works of art in all disciplines including visual art, dance, theater and music. These events offer artists unique opportunities to work in new and unusual spaces while providing provocative cultural experiences for tenants and visitors alike.

For its part, the website of World Press Photo explains:

The exhibition is a showcase for creativity in photojournalism and a platform for developments in the profession, part of World Press Photo’s aim of encouraging and stimulating the work of press photographers around the world. The show also attracts a broader public and, because of the wide-ranging focus of the contest, forms an eyewitness record of world events from the previous year.

And so, it is clear that the strategic priorities of the exhibit producer and the host venue are perfectly aligned.

During a recent visit late on a weekday morning, the exhibit was attracting attention from visitors who seemed to be either building tenants or business people taking a few minutes to look at the photos on their way to lunch.  Other visitors looked more like tourists, some with cameras taking close-ups of their favourite images. Information about the photographs was provided for visitors by short labels identifying the photographer and the title of the photo.  For more information, an Exhibition Guide app was provided (although only for Android and iPhone, not Blackberry).  For each photo it was possible to find out:

  • Audio captions for all photos on display
  • Equipment details
  • Photo’s location

In addition, World Press Photo provides a free downloadable Teachers’ Guide about journalism and press photography.  It is not possible to be certain, but perhaps some of those enjoying the exhibit here at Brookfield Place may not have taken the time to make a special trip to a gallery or museum to see it.



World Press Photo is run as an independent, non-profit organization with its office in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where World Press Photo was founded in 1955. World Press Photo receives support from the Dutch Postcode Lottery and is sponsored worldwide by Canon.  The Toronto Sponsors were Brookfield and The Globe and Mail.  One panel gave information about Canon’s role in supporting World Press Photo, although it was not prominent and its scale similar to sponsorship panels I have seen in exhibits in public museums and galleries.

Exhibit panel with information on Canon's role in the World Press Photo exhibition.

Exhibit panel with information on Canon’s role in the World Press Photo exhibition.

And so, here is a commercial building with a cultural program, hosting an exhibit in a publicly accessible space from a not for profit foundation featuring the work of press photographers selected via a competitive (i.e.. curated) process.  The lines between private enterprise and public cultural presentation are intersecting, although not, in this case, I think, blurring. But what didn’t I mention?  Admission is free.  How will this exhibit compare to another exhibit based on a photography contest — Wildlife Photographer of the Year — opening at the Royal Ontario Museum on November 23rd? It will be interesting to see…..

World Press Photo 13 is travelling internationally.

[PS: all the images in this post were taken with my cell phone (obviously, I am not a contender for any photography prize!)]

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Ai Weiwei at the Art Gallery of Ontario

Ai Weiwei: According to What? is an exhibition on until October 27th at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).  The AGO’s website goes directly to the point when describing the importance of this show :

 Ai Weiwei: According to What? examines how the artist spotlights the complexities of a  changing world and probes such issues as freedom of expression, individual and human rights, the power of digital communication and the range of creative practice that characterizes contemporary art today both in China and globally.

When I visited the exhibition one weekday afternoon recently, the, the space was busy, and visitors seemed to be absorbed — looking carefully at the art, pausing  to watch videos, listen to audio, and leave a comment at the feedback booth.  Media coverage has been extensive and almost all of it positive. How can a contemporary artist from China catch the attention of a wide audience in Canada?

Part of the draw of the Ai Weiwei exhibition stems from some simple principles.  Canadians may have heard of Ai Weiwei before the AGO show opened.  Ai Weiwei’s exhibition of thousands of ceramic sunflower seeds at Tate Modern was a sensation, talked about worldwide.  The artist helped to create the Birds Nest Stadium at the Olympics. And, most notoriously, Ai Weiwei was arrested and his passport revoked by the authorities in China after he started to document and speak out against poor construction standards following the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.  And so, even before the show opened, the artist’s name was known, his activism admired, and some of his artwork familiar.

The artist’s reputation as an activist may have drawn some visitors to the AGO through the doors, but, of course, it is the compelling quality of his work that makes an impact.  Ai Weiwei’s art fascinates in many ways.  There is the superb craftsmanship; many techniques and materials are literally ancient.  The openness of Ai Weiwei’s methods of working are so intriguing — he often conceives of an idea, but leaves it to many others to implement.  His materials are simple: backpacks, bicycles, chairs, blocks of tea. And yet , Ai Weiwei’s work captives and demands attention.  He wants us to think about human rights.  He wants us to look at the snake-like ceiling-mounted installation of children’s backpacks and think about each child who died in the Sichuan earthquake. He shows us how a tangled mass of stee rebar found in the rubble of collapsed schools was straightened out then laid out in neat rows on the gallery floor. He speaks from a position of authenticity — his life experience forms the basis of his authority.

Is the art in Ai Weiwei: According to What accessible to a visitor who is not an expert in contemporary art?  Yes.  Is that art relevant to our lives today?  Yes.  Does it transcend those categories and make you want to look carefully and think about what the artist is saying about our lives today? Yes.  That is why the AGO has chosen wisely and is presenting an exhibition that there is every reason to visit.

Ai Weiwei: According to What? continues at the AGO until October 27th and then moves on to the Perez Art Museum in Miami (November 18, 2013 to March 16, 2014) and the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn (April 18 to August 10, 2014).

former fn: Ai-Weiwei-installation-14

Snake Ceiling, Ai Weiwei, 2009. Installation view of

Ai Weiwei: According to What? at the Hirshhorn Museum

and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 2012.

Photo: Cathy Carver


former fn: Ai-Weiwei-installation-4


Ai Weiwei,

Straight, 2008 – 12

Collection of the artist

Installation view at the Hirshhorn Museum

and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC


Photo: Cathy Carver