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Some must-haves for future museum professionals

I’m a professor of Culture and Heritage Site Management (CHSM, a post-graduate certificate program) at Centennial College in Toronto, Canada. So I teach, as we used to say, about museums. There are two qualifications here, however. First, we now know that to effectively ‘profess’ my deep respect for museums and those who work in them, I am mostly a guide and a coach to my students discovering their own learning. And second that the umbrella term ‘museum’ now includes, in the words of the Canadian Museums Association, “not-for-profit museums, art galleries, science centres, aquaria, archives, sport halls-of-fame, artist-run centres, zoos and historic sites.” To these I would personally add a variety of for-profit, highly entrepreneurial museum-like organizations from whom we have much to learn. Our CHSM graduates cover most of the territory covered by the terms ‘museum studies’ and ‘museology.’

All of that is prelude to my reflections on a recent professional development day held for those of us involved in Centennial’s School of Hospitality, Tourism and Culture.

During our time together we heard from the College president about some of our school’s history and the College’s commitments, and from the new management in our school about a common vision of excellence for our graduates. A panel discussion among representatives from hospitality and tourism organizations focused on current trends in the industry. There was a demonstration of inter-human connectedness using music and another on some of the learner-oriented capacities of the Apple iPad. Finally, the vice-president academic shared some thoughts on the nine themes of the college’s academic plan.

Perhaps not surprisingly, all of the college commitments and all of the academic plan seem have some impact on relevance to my CHSM students. But several features of our PD day together were special stand-outs for me.

Chef Rob Rainford shows us how to prepare beef tenderloin

Chef Rob Rainford shows us how to prepare beef tenderloin

Centennial’s commitment to digital literacy is one of my own banner issues for all those who want to work in culture and heritage organizations. The entire mandate of those organizations might well be summed up as ‘communication.’ So every staff member, whether in management, public relations, curatorial, conservation, education or exhibit design, needs to have a basic command of the wealth of new, digital communication tools and channels now available. No matter whether they are crafting messages for the public or for their peers in sister organizations, they need to use the most effective contemporary applications. My commitment here is to assure that in my courses, students are given every opportunity and incentive to leverage digital literacy for excellence in all their classwork.

The digital literacy commitment is picked up again and reinforced in the third theme in Centennial’s academic plan. I was especially impressed by the significance of the presentation on the Apple iPad. While many of the speaker’s revelations were pretty basic, there were tips of value to even experienced iPad users. And his quick demonstration of putting together a news-worthy video in about 5 minutes was a spectacular example of the immense potential of the new digital literacy tools at our disposal.

The discussion of academic plan theme number 5, technology-enhanced learning environments was another of the day’s highlights for me. I have had some experience of the College’s e.centennialcollege.ca learning management system (LMS), and a lot of experience with MOOCs using similar platforms. But the day’s revelations have resulted in my resolution to increasingly conduct my classes as blended learning, a combination of online and in-class dialogue, project work and collaborative learning. This approach has been widely discussed elsewhere as the ‘flipped’ classroom.

I could reflect as well on additional significant issues we heard about and their importance to CHSM students – for instance, how increasingly culture and heritage organizations need to regard their work as tourism ‘product’ in order to expand their audiences and achieve their informal learning mandate – or how well museum-like organizations are situated to broadcast and exemplify the messages of equity, of global citizenship and of universal connectedness. On yet another note, my course on financial management in culture and heritage organizations can easily be extended with reference to how students can use the same principles to manage their personal finances.

If I explored each of these thoughts in detail here, however, this blog could go on for very much longer. And it’s already long enough.

PS: That picture of Chef Rob Rainford preparing beef tenderloin for our lunch – yes, the food was great. But after all, we are a hospitality school. Museum dining should be great too!

Using ThingLink for Artifact Information

ThingLink (http://thinglink.com) can also be used to post information on an artifact. This might be done for purely informational purposes, or it could be used to stimulate contemplation and learning by close-looking with learners in a gallery setting.

Thank goodness for public domain images (this one from Wikimedia Commons, public domain) with lots of commentary online (mostly from Wikipedia). Of course it’s Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, in oil on poplar panel.

More Inside the Clay & Glass from Outside

This post is a chance to demonstrate how ThingLink can allow visitors to learn a bit about what’s inside a museum before ever going through the door – The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery in Waterloo, Ontario.

Just run your cursor over the image and hover over the various embedded links to see more. You can learn how to do this kind of thing yourself at ThingLink.com

Virtual Museum Visits

I was recently invited to attend a lecture given by Janet Carding, the dynamic new Director at the Royal Ontario Museum. Director Carding spoke with feeling about the future of the ROM, and that started me thinking about the future of museums in general. Very stimulating talk.

After the lecture, members of the audience were invited to offer comments and ask questions. Ms. Carding had described the role of her new Vice President of Engagement, and this prompted one of her audience to ask about the possibility of producing virtual visits to the ROM for online access. He opined that this kind of feature might be useful to engage future visitors and motivate them to go to the ROM to experience its wonders for themselves. Janet Carding agreed and said the ROM was looking into this possibility.

Not long after that I learned about the new version of Microsoft’s photosynth, Photosynth 3D. It allows one to create virtual, 3D walk-throughs with an ordinary camera, with results more detailed and stable than a 4K video camera mounted on a stabilizer. With Janet’s words in mind, I determined to try out Photosynth 3D to create a couple of virtual ROM walk-throughs.

I think they’re pretty effective. Take a look and see for yourself (best viewed with the most recent edition of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser).

Finding World’s Largest Cerusite Gem by davebarr44 on Photosynth

The Far Eastern Atrium at the Royal Ontario Museum by davebarr44 on Photosynth

If you’d like to view them full-screen and running at a slightly more leisurely pace, you can see them on the Photosynth website…

here: http://photosynth.net/preview/view/51c9fb45-220a-4735-9151-573233771819?startat=2

and here: http://photosynth.net/preview/view/425e179e-390e-472f-ba11-793d3ada3549?startat=1

Teachers’ Guide for Inquiry-based Art Learning

I’ve been taking a MOOC called Art & Inquiry given by the teaching staff at MoMA. For our final assignment we were given these instructions: “Your Final Project for this course is to take the concepts we have explored each week and create a resource that you can incorporate into your teaching. The project outline below has been structured to allow you to tailor the content to the context in which you teach so that it can be most useful. The goal of this final project assignment is to give you an opportunity to practice and be creative with the concepts from the class in a forum where you can share ideas and get feedback from your peers. The peer assessment process will also give you the opportunity to see the ideas that others come up with. Be creative! This is your chance to apply the course concepts to real-world situations.”

I chose an in-gallery session at the Royal Ontario Museum. And here is the result:

It’s a slide-show. Click anywhere on the slide to advance to the next one.

And if anyone should want this guide in the PDF version that can be printed out, you can find it Tiberius Guide.

 

A New Definition for Museum

There are now a great many, arguably several hundred thousand, public museums world-wide. From those that occupy the better part of an entire city block with collections numbering in the millions, to those that appear only on a website or are restricted to a single store front containing only a few dozen objects, the diversity of museums is astounding.

During the 20th century, an era of vast explosion of professional and public interest in museums, many definitions of the museum have been proposed. Examples include: Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museum) and the Museums Association (http://www.museumsassociation.org/about/frequently-asked-questions).

Kunsthaus, Graz

Kunsthaus, Graz

The problem with most existing definitions is that they have been too specific, too focused on one sort of museum or another, often with the intention of excluding various practices as unworthy of the description of a ‘true’ museum. Some of them are indeed aspirational, seeking not to describe what museums are but what they should be But the world of museums is much more diverse, inventive, eccentric and glorious than admitted by narrow and restrictive definitions.

Conventional definitions, as might be expected, have proven especially weak with the advent of the internet and the world wide web. How does one deal with an organization that calls itself a museum but exhibits only online, or one with collections that consist entirely of digital files? A better and more recent definition is that of the International Council of Museums – ICOM (http://icom.museum/the-vision/museum-definition/).

Nevertheless, I think we still need to look for the most basic, the most quintessential definition that is both simple and inclusive. We seek a definition that tells us what the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the National Media Museum (Bradford, UK) and The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum, a one room fictional museum from the novel by Sheldon Currie and immortalized in the film, Margaret’s Museum, have in common. Only with such a definition can we begin to grasp the underlying power of the museum concept.

The most pared down, basic and essential definition of that I can devise is: “A museum is a display of a set of entitities that instantiate entities external to the set.”

Let’s unpack this a bit, using more familiar terminology. What the first definition says, in less formal terms, is that “A museum is an exhibition of a collection of entities that instantiate entities in the universe, outside the collection.”

Why do we have to use the relatively unfamiliar terms ‘instantiate’ and ‘entity’ in these definitions? Because of the bewildering diversity of museums themselves. The entities, the items in museum collections, may consist of anything from temples and steam locomotives to micro wasps, almost invisible to the naked eye and collections of digital impressions on computer storage media that can be displayed as images or sounds. In the extreme case, the collection may consist solely of ideas or concepts. Only the term entity is broad enough to encompass this extraordinary range.

The term instantiate means to represent an abstraction or abstract concept by a tangible example. Thus, viewing a single steam locomotive allows one to perceive many of the characteristics (mass, color, structural details) of all steam locomotives. A single beetle specimen clearly represents many of the characteristics of the Order Coleoptera, real beetles that abound outside the museum and are vital elements of the ecosystems that sustain all life, including ours, on the planet. Grainy film footage of a riot or mass conflagration may be the only concrete record of an historic event, even when the original film has been lost and its images exist only as digital files. And that historic record can clearly represent a whole wealth of social history particular to that time and place.

The concept of display or exhibition is also fundamental. A box full of paper bags, each one full of a handful of flint projectile points is not a museum. But take those points out of the bags and arrange them on a set of shelves so they can be seen, and you have a nascent museum. Some of the other museum characteristics often included in definitions, things like study and teaching are not nearly so fundamental. They are praiseworthy objectives of many outstanding museums, but they are not necessary to the bare-bones museum concept.

What is the intention, raison d’etre of the individual or individuals who create a museum? The inclusion of display and exhibit in the definition recognizes the intention of communicating. So the items in the collection are intended to communicate something about the real world outside the museum.

A museum, then, although at its heart is a collection, is not about the collection. It is actually about the outside world that is represented (or instantiated) by the collection.

Moving beyond the basics, the majority of today’s museums are about so much more than collecting and exhibiting. There are multiple museum activities and roles in some of the largest and most complex of organizations. All those roles, however, may be seen as functioning to support the central goal of using collections to communicate.

[Photo by Stephan Weinberger, CC Licence ]