January 2010

Map of Tenderness.  Dreaming Objects.  First Letter.  Whisper.

What images do these words and phrases evoke for you?  And why have I chosen them, seemingly out of the blue?

Museum of VancouverThey’re the titles of some of the pieces on display in the Museum of Vancouver’s Art of Craft exhibit, which launched last week, and I had the good fortune to attend its opening party last Wednesday night with a friend.

Even though I often bemoan the fact that I can’t quite grasp modern art – especially pieces that reflect elusive minimalism (read: geometric shapes on large, white canvases) – I’m always in awe of the creative spirit that seeps through artistic works of the imagination.

The MOV’s Art of Craft exhibit was no exception: it inspired wonder, reflection, amazement, and, yes, perplexity.  (Modern art seems, at times, to be a very unsettling question mark – a beautiful one, of course, but nevertheless a question mark.)

Elegantly laid out, the exhibition leads the viewer through three different galleries.  The first is entitled Unity & Diversity.  It showcases a wide range of Canadian handiworks recently on display at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale in Korea.  The second is called By Hand.  It features pieces from BC and the Yukon, and explores the artists’ creative processes.  The third represents Craft from the Republic of Korea, and provides the visitor with a glimpse into Korea’s tradition of craftmaking and the directions it is taking.

Although all of the galleries contained unique and thought-provoking pieces, I think I lingered the longest in the first one on Unity & Diversity, perhaps because I was most intrigued by the ideas presented in its opening panel.  Printed in large font to the left of the smaller, introductory text were the words of art critic and curator, Rachel Gotlieb.  It read as follows:

The absence of a national style for craft may be a good thing for current makers because there is no domineering aesthetic or style to overcome.

The introductory text to Unity & Diversity, into which the above quote is also incorporated, expresses the idea that it is the diverse imaginations and talents of our artists that define Canadian craftmaking, that there is “no such thing as a specifically ‘Canadian’ type of craft.”  This seems to be an upbeat, modern approach to a more general – and age-old – lament: that Canada has no national culture to speak of that is uniquely her own.

Rather than bemoan the lack of a dominant aesthetic, the curators of Unity & Diversity stress the strength – and, ironically, unity – that results from the “rich layers of difference” from which Canadian craftmaking is woven.  And Gotlieb’s words are a reminder of a positive side that I had not considered before: that the lack of a national style frees up the artist to explore what is on his or her heart – free from the constraint of having to conform to a dominant tradition and free from the impulse to purposely react against it because it is the status quo.

This introductory panel was beautifully written – and the rest of the text throughout the different galleries was too.  I’m certain the authors revised countless drafts to get it just right – a balance of scholarly research and audience-friendly language.

Dreaming ObjectsIt’s just a pity that very few people, at least the ones I observed, stopped long enough to read it.  Many simply threw a perfunctory glance in its direction before walking on eagerly to see the actual pieces. 

Granted, the design and layout might have had something to do with this.  Rendered in white on a beige background, the text tastefully – but also unfortunately – blended into the neutral backdrop.  Moreover, the panel was placed in a rather narrow part of the entrance to the first gallery, with most of the craft pieces visible only when you turned a corner past the panel.  Both the narrow space (not so conducive to reflective pausing & reading on a crowded evening) and the enticing corner (very conducive to suspense: what lies around it?) likely sealed the fate of the opening text panel, however well written…

All of this reminds me of what my Digital History professor had emphasized when we were designing our virtual exhibit on William Harvey last year: that text panels should be the last option when communicating a message because, well, people don’t really like to read in an exhibit setting…they’d much rather interact with the things on display; at the very least, they’d much rather observe them directly without text getting in the way.

I think I’m going to experience museums quite differently now since completing my degree…



Where to begin?

About a year and a half ago, I moved to London.  No, not that London.  The other one.  In Ontario, about a two hour drive south of Toronto.  I was just beginning the Public History MA Program at the University of Western Ontario, and anticipating that I would have to field a lot of inquiries there as I had in Vancouver, where acquaintances, relatives, co-workers, and generally well-meaning people interested in my career goals had inquired what exactly “public history” was.

My answers were usually prefaced by a nervous, apologetic chuckle; they were also often riddled with ellipses:

“Public history…well…hehe…you see…it’s, uh, history…for the public! Ha ha…ahem.”

Of course, I learned to articulate more sophisticated answers before I left — such as “I’m going to study how history has been communicated to the public as well as participate in the communication of history to the public” — but they never deterred the practical listener from asking the typical, and typically dreaded, question:

“Oh.  Well – what are you going to do with that?”

If I felt the listener was at all capable of secret, impractical dreams, I’d share about my interest in history and communication and design, about how I hoped to develop exhibit content one day because I enjoyed research and writing and uncovering the compelling -story part of history – or herstory! – to share with a wide audience.

But if I was tired – and dubious of my listener’s sympathies, I’d simply say “museums.”  Understanding would dawn in my interlocutor’s eyes, followed by a shadow of pity – for the narrow field I’d chosen.

“Vancouver doesn’t have a lot of, uh, museums,” they’d say, after a significant pause.

You can imagine my surprise then, when three of the first handful of people I met in London, outside of my peer group, did not look at me with confusion, pity, or disbelief when they heard about what I was studying and learned that I had flown all the way from Vancouver to study it.

Although these listeners all came from different backgrounds – one was a Master’s student in the Department of Mathematics at Western; the other a PhD candidate in Physics, also at Western; and the third a congenial middle-aged employee from Loblaws – their responses were unified in their recognition of the relevance of such a program – or, rather, the relevance of such a program’s approach.  Both UWO students in fact drew analogies between Public History and — wonder of wonders! — other scientific fields based on the common ground that they were all about communicating specialized knowledge to a general audience in a comprehensible way.

So, I heard for instance about how a friend of the Mathematics student, studying Geography, was enrolled in a course geared towards presenting information about natural disasters and how to prepare for them to an uninitiated audience.  I also learned that the PhD candidate was involved in explaining developments in biophysical engineering to a non-scientific crowd.

As for the friendly Loblaws employee, with whom I had begun a conversation while we were both waiting for the bus, she was eager to hear about the potential of the Web for making history engaging and accessible.  Moreover, she was excited about its educational prospects in a Digital Age and could understand why I had chosen to pursue this field.

“How exciting!” she had repeated, again and again, during the course of our conversation.  (“How odd,” I had thought, again and again, that she could understand my enthusiasm and imagine the work I’d be doing better than some intellectual professionals I had encountered.)

I’ve never forgotten these three Londoners; they gave me hope that perhaps the field I’d entered was not so curious – or impractical – after all.

And hope, I remember, was something I greatly needed as a new student to London at the time who, being a generally risk-adverse-“let’s-weigh-all-the-pros-and-cons-of-a-decision”-type person, had just thrown caution to the wind to move east.  I had left a comfortable position at a local university – you know, one with regular pay and benefits; what aspiring Public History students dare to dream about at night – where I had been working for a solid three years in order to move to (the other) London in pursuit of what seemed a vague dream at best.  To find out that that dream was not so nebulous, not so incomprehensible as feared, when I described it, haltingly, to three strangers, was a thrilling relief.

Since that time, and especially after a most rewarding internship at the fabulous City of Vancouver Archives this past fall (and if you’ve never associated the word “fabulous” with “archives” before, please be forewarned: I fully intend on convincing you of this association in future posts), I’ve learned that the reaction of those three Londoners was not a strange fluke of a sympathetic universe.

The idea that had resonated with them, what I had learned to articulate better by then – the idea of taking specialized knowledge and making it accessible to an uninitiated audience – is one that is not so very impractical at all.  Many, many professionals do it: from doctors and pharmacists who have to communicate important and complex information to those for whom medical language would be gibberish, to programmers and developers who have to work closely with non-technical clients whose vision of a particular application’s functions may not be, let us say, technically sound or practicable.

The ability to translate esoteric knowledge into palatable information – what Public Historians in training must learn to do and do well – is applicable to those fields that deal with the general public.  And, at last count, there are 2, 933 fields that do this.  Alright, I just made up that number, but you know what I mean.  Walk into any bookstore, for instance, and you cannot miss the countless number of books by subject experts written purposely for the layperson.

What perhaps sets a Public Historian’s training apart from, say, that of a doctor or a pharmacist (other than, you know, the fact that we don’t have to deal with cadavers or chemical substances) is that we also learn how to make the knowledge we’re sharing compelling and engaging, not just informative.

Yes, that might mean that we play the entertainer and not just the educator a lot of the time, but we try to be responsible, ethical entertainers.  And also, I think it’s safe to say, (almost) everyone likes to hear a good story – so why not tell one if you can?  History is certainly full of them, just waiting to be told.  How it is told to a general audience – using what words, what images, what methods, what technologies – lies in the province of Public History.

After completing the program at Western and having a chance to translate theory into practice at a local archival institution, I can only say this: I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to venture into the study of Public History as well as to have had the support of family and friends who, if they didn’t altogether understand why I had chosen this particular career path, still cheered me on from a distance – and continue to cheer me on now, as I begin an exciting position as part-time Archivist at the City of Vancouver Archives, responsible for outreach efforts.

And that nervous chuckle that once was a knee-jerk reaction whenever anyone asked me what I was studying?  Gone.  In its place is an enthusiastic determination to get the word out about the value of history to society.  And by the way, I’m fully intent on making history and archives sexy.  But that is for another post altogether.  🙂