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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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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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!

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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: