Category Archives: Museums

Self-Guided Tours and Heritage

Is this the Answer?

Everyone employed in heritage knows that government grants have been shrinking for years. Private donations just don’t fill the gap. Everywhere museums and their friends are forced to compete with deeply rooted public concerns such as hospitals, children’s charities and animal welfare. Faced with choosing between such heart-breaking needs and heritage even staunch supporters hesitate. History and culture are inevitably the loosers.

The big day-to-day operating costs for small museums are staffing, utilities/security and insurance/book-keeping, usually in that order. Staffing is by far the biggest cost. Even if volunteers do much of the work at the museum, a paid person is usually required to organize and anchor the operation as well as research and design the tours. So the idea of the “self-guided tour”, which promises to considerably reduce the need for staff, seems worthy of consideration. After all, the White House uses them!

–But, can one really compare tourism operations at the White House to tourism operations elsewhere? First of all, the self-guided tours (those which go inside the White House) must be booked months in advance either through one’s member of congress or senator. If one is not an American, bookings are made through your embassy in Washington. One has to be approved for a tour. They let you know. So groups of unrecorded individuals are not showing up at the gate at any time of the day and marching inside the White House. Second, security officers make sure that visitors show identification which confirms that they are on the booking list. They also make sure that visitors take nothing inside except car keys, wallets and umbrellas. You can carry a cellphone, but if you use it inside, it will be confiscated. –And third, some ask are the White House self-guided tours really self-guided? Evidently there are secret service agents every step of the way to answer the hundreds of questions which tourists inevitably have, but also to keep a strict eye on the visitors.

There is plenty of feed-back on the internet, which is interesting. Many visitors said that the tours are not really “self-guided” as the secret service personnel often accompany parties through the House. These guides garnered lots of really positive comments. Although heritage staff must have agonized over the written materials to guide the tourists many visitors said that the exhibit labels were insufficient and that the really “good stuff” came out while questioning the guides. Some respondents said that all one sees are “a bunch of paintings, photographs and old furniture”. They missed the significance, despite all the efforts to enable visitors to take the tour unescorted.

The basic function and significance of the White House are widely known, so visitors should arrive with at least an elementary understanding of the site. Can this be compared to (say) Laurier House in Ottawa? If the china selected by Martha Washington or Jacqueline Kennedy is not instantly significant to the audience without the intermediary of an interpreter, then what does the desk of Mackenzie-King mean? How is the significance of the “lobby” at Motherwell Homestead (Saskatchewan) to be appreciated? Exhibit designers know that there is a limit to what visitors will read and that tourists have short attention spans when using tape recorders and computer screens. Decline in visitor excitement (and hence, visitor satisfaction) in our world is a dangerous thing.

Heritage professionals also worry about security. Most historic homes are chock full of interesting artifacts, many quite small. It is difficult to believe that one administrator and a batch of security cameras will deter even a determined amateur with sticky fingers. One might be more optimistic about the durability of gardens, vistas, ruins and monuments. However, in 2008 visitors damaged Stonehenge using hammers and chisels and in 2012 dossents at Machu Picchu have been unable to cope with the avalanche of garbage slung down the hillsides by tourists.

In Britain, there appears to have been an alarming increase in thefts and attempted thefts from British museums during 2012. Although some people have suggested that the actual number of thefts has not increased but that they are merely getting more press attention, the Art Loss Register (a very credible source) has stated that 2012 was a record-breaking year for art losses. Many in Britain are blaming the trend on austerity measures which have forced nearly all museums to significantly reduce staff. In February, the Norwich Castle Museum lost some important artifacts associated with Admiral Nelson.  

Mourning Ring worn by Member of Admiral Nelson’s family. Stolen from Norwich Castle Museum.

The Museum had formerly employed interpreters in each room. The interpreters had been replaced with self-guided visits. The Norwich Castle Museum believes that although the interpreters were not primarily employed for security, their presence was an important deterrent to theft.

Parks Canada, a major player in the move away from interpreters and guides, claims that Canadians have voted with their feet when it comes to heritage. Gregory Thomas of Parks Canada is quoted as saying that it is difficult to justify spending tax dollars on museums when Canadians aren’t interested. However, Parks Canada’s own statistics show that visits to some of their sites have increased steadily over the past few years. Besides, many would argue that investment in an understanding of Canada — of our culture, history and the origins of our modern society, is of huge importance. It should not be left to a popularity contest. It is a question of leadership.

Children experience dress-up and tea time at Macpherson House, Napanee, during a Programme implemented by interpreters. (Photo Robert Hammond.)

It should also be pointed out that, due to the loss of interpretation staff, avail-ability of Parks Canada sites for use by schools is about to undergo a huge change.

Heritage professionals view self-guided templates with caution. We know that virtual tours offer exciting possibilities to entertain and educate but they also permit thieves, vandals and crazy folk to “case the joint”. Introducing self-guided tours may indeed help struggling museums to reduce operating costs. Reducing operating costs may allow the museum to continue for another year. But if self-guided tours also result in bored visitors, declining attendance, less integration with educational programmes — in wear and tear and loss from the collection — is the change worth it? Is the bottom line to be our only criterion for success? While it is true that clever use of a mixture of old and new communication technlogies enhance museum visits and can be used with great success for outreach, they may still be most useful when used with living interpreters and guides.

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Filed under Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.

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Filed under Archives, Historical Societies, History, Ontario, Museums

No Federal Respect for National Heirlooms

By now, everybody knows about the sale of artifacts from Rideau Hall at bargain-basement prices.  In a nutshell, Sun Media learned that the Federal Government was offering items from the National Collections mixed in with redundant computers and old office desks.  Press attention prompted the Government to halt the sales, but not before about fifteen items had been snapped up at ridiculous prices.

Most of the buyers were from Quebec and bought multiple items.  (Who can blame them?)  Those Quebec antique dealers are pretty savvy.

Museums do not like to make a big deal out of de-accessioning, as they fear (quite rightly) that potential donors will get cold feet if they think that their treasures will not remain in collections forever.  However, logistics and common sense require that museums from time to time review their holdings and, yes, items are culled.   It  goes on at the best of institutions.    Usually it happens because artifacts have been replaced by better quality examples, but sometimes the artifacts are no longer right for the collection.  Also, curators are human and occasionally mistakes in collecting occur.

There are protocols about de-accessioning.  Although done discretely, it is not done in secret but rather carefully considered and debated by an appropriate management committee or board, which should be able to document the reasons for the decision.  Things in the public domain should be offered to other, more appropriate institutions where they will remain in the public domain.   IF no charitable tax receipt has yet been issued and IF there is still an incontestable clear line to the donor, the artifact might be offered back.   Should neither of these options work out, a museum might de-accession to the market.

The first step is to get a proper financial appraisal.  The second step is to select an appropriate dealer to handle the sale, usually a reputable auction house.  The appraisal is used to establish a “reserve”, the minimal amount for which the item may be sold, to prevent advantage being taken of the museum.  The up side to using an auction house is that the market sets the price, reducing the chance of accusations later.   The down-side is publicity.  Obviously, if the item is really significant, public discussion will be triggered, but this is a good thing.  After all, the items are in collections belonging to the people. 

The pressure to cull the Rideau Hall collections may have come from above, from a demand for more “revenue” on the books, which I suspect was  case as the Federal Government has just brought in a frightening deficit budget. 

If so, the idea was misguided.  Another protocol is that revenues from sales of artifacts from public museums are turned around and used for collections development at the same institution.  The revenues are not stripped off and used to fund the bail-out of General Motors.

The National Capital Commission and their employees, the staff at Rideau Hall must have been involved in this mess, at least in selection of stuff to be sold, if in no other way.   According to a retired staff member, the provenance of the items was entirely ignored.  If he is correct, and I would expect that he is, then the National Capital Commission and current staff at Rideau Hall do not have sufficient knowledge of their 7000 item collection.   The catalogue controls must be in horrible shape. 

It seems that in the case of Rideau Hall, the National Capital Commission chose to ignore all the protocols.  Statements from Kathryn Keyes of the NCC show no evidence of  a proper committee decision with clearly documented justifications for de-accession.    There is no evidence that Rideau Hall offered the items to other museums or back to Buckingham Palace from whence at least some things came.  The National Capital Commission also did not insist on expert appraisals.   No doubt, they were under pressure from Crown Assets Distribution, where the bean-counters resented paying someone to tell them what to charge for the artifacts.    However, the National Capital Commission is supposed to have the education, understanding and integrity to manage a national treasure like Rideau Hall, so one wonders why they rolled over for a bunch of clerks?

Fundamentally, though, the National Capital Commission and Crown Assets Distribution equate to The Federal Government.   Tossing artifacts from Rideau Hall into the weekly Government Garage Sale  was ultimately the work of the current Canadian Government.  The level of ignorance about the world of art and artifacts that this reveals is frightening.   These are the people who have custody of our National Gallery, the Museum of Civilization, the National Library and Archives and more besides.   What else are they up to, one wonders.  Is there no respect for our cultural property?

Instead of raising the bar, the current Federal Government would seem to have levelled the cultural playing field to the lowest denominator.

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Filed under Material culture, Museums

Heritage is a High Stress Vocation

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If we do not support our heritage institutions, will anyone remember the path we came by?

Most Canadians believe that those employed in the heritage field enjoy one of the most pleasant work environments in Canada. This is not the case for most of us — I mean the majority of us — the staffs of medium museums, local historic sites and archives, as well as those who labour in archaeological teams or heritage planning departments.  I think, but don’t know for sure, that the climate may be different for employees of our National Institutions. I hope to hear their experiences.

It is true that we heritage professionals have the privilege of access to a trove of historical treasures.  If it is really one’s thing, then the delight provoked by delicate, translucent Meissen is never stale, and the breath-stopping moment when a fresh find connects a site with Hopewell culture is never diminished.  This is fact.  But in order to have responsibility for custody of our treasures and to interpret and explain a tiny piece of mica a very great deal of education is required and years of patient work once the structured halls of academe are far behind.

In reality, those sweet moments of discovery are a minority. Working with the collection is mostly a never-ending struggle to make sure that everything is inventoried, retrievable and protected.  The work experience generally feels nothing like Antiques Roadshow, but rather like spending one’s days cleaning and reorganizing the basement.   We strain to make ridiculously insufficient space adequate.   We are starved for appropriate containers, shelving, climate controls and conservation help.   We are pressured to abandon half-completed microfilming projects and jump into digitization while our documents crumble on the shelves.   We endure long hours and weekend work, mostly for time in lieu which we know we will never be able to take.

Many heritage workers spend their days struggling to keep the doors open. In Canada, there is always money for celebrations; that is, for short-term projects which are primarily entertainment.   There is sometimes money for infrastructure, which usually means new-build, or handicap upgrades.   In my experience this funding seldom includes specialty furnishings such as high-density shelving.    In Canada, there is never any new operating money.  The Ontario Museum Operating Grants were a rare and wonderful exception which have been neglected and allowed to shrink to almost comic size in proportion to the paperwork involved.   Don’t misunderstand, I am not against asking museums to fund-raise.    I am against curators being forced to spend far too much time doing it.   They are needed to do other things.  Sometimes, the quest for lucre is inspired: more often it drags the staff into a crazy world of teddy bear tea parties, fashion shows and seances. Occasionally we are forced by powers that be to do things against our professional standards — things that actually threaten the things we are sworn to protect.

If we are not chasing money, we are chasing statistics.   While local government assumes that the voters want another hockey arena they cannot believe that the voters want a museum unless one proves it over and over.     But, hey!   Avoid like hot coals any public outcry.   It is not likely to bring help and more likely to make fickle sponsors abandon commitment.  This balancing act is another source of stress for staff.

For, in Canada, culture and heritage are considered “nice” but not a priority.  Canadians remain unconvinced that heritage is worth any investment.  The dark secret is that most politicians privately believe that heritage employees are not worth paying.  For forty long years I have endured elected officials who think that a museum may be saved by having high school students do the work, or that archaeological permits are some kind of plot hatched by the intelligentsia.   Otherwise reasonable people (who would not think of taking grandmother’s pearls to the retired-librarian-next-door for an estate appraisal) somehow think that a team of senior citizens can decide whether a Krieghoff is genuine or assign a value to a daguerreotype for a tax receipt.  Some even believe that when there is no researcher, an archivist has nothing to do!

If an heritage worker is one of the lucky few to escape the world of endless contracts and no benefits, and actually win a full-time job, the relief is short-lived.  In my experience, he or she will spend the rest of their working days in accute terror of being terminated.   Because of the recession, many unfortunate Canadians have been recently put in this situtation.   Welcome to our world.   Small museums have been living on the edge for the last forty years.

All of this is remarkably short-sighted.   Heritage employees are some of the cheapest employees in the country, many working for only a little above minimum wage despite all that post-secondary education.   Heritage generates economic pay-back in a hefty way, including education, tourism, publishing, film / television and sustainable communities.   Our history is the source for expression of our Canadian shared values.   It is how we learn who we are.   It is how we plan where we are going.   Information from our collections exceeds nostalgia. Information supports sound policy development and independent research.

In the twenty-first century world we are told that workers must expect career changes.  If we are unhappy as heritage employees, “Well then re-train and move on.”   I don’t think that this template should or can be applied to the heritage community, where a significant investment in education and experience are required even for entry.   Would we tell our nurses to leave their field, re-train and move on?   Which brings me back to the beginning.  We in heritage are neither respected nor valued, for credentials, experience or loyalty.   Until we change this, Canada will remain a unenlightened society, a one-diminsional country driven by resource extraction economics unable to articulate itself and make a presence on the world stage.

For the Olympics, we are told that Canada needs to attract and sustain the best.   It should be no different for those whom we trust with our heritage.

In the meantime, “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be curators or cowboys.”

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Filed under Archaeology, Archives, Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

Marine Museum of the Great Lakes Hires Archaeologist

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingston) is to be congratulated for adding a full-time, marine archaeologist Ben Holthof  to its staff. The core of the funding for the position is a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for three years. This is one of those rare examples of Trillium helping with full-time staff for sustained period. In my opinion, there is far too much messing about with a few months of untrained staff here and there in Ontario. My guess is that the Marine Museum does not know what they will do at the end of the three years, but kudu’s to Ann Blake for holding out for a qualified, registrar-curator to attack the backlog and rebuild the catalogues. I sense an intelligent, long-range plan behind the scenes. Ben Holthof  has hands-on experience with two Canadian museum collections and a Masters in Maritime Archaeology from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. (His speciality is near-shore infrastructure.)    Attention Hon. Aileen Carroll:   We need more like this please!

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Filed under Archaeology, History, Ontario, Museums

Why Does the Archive Not Want My .jpgs ?

A local researcher was perplexed.  She “digitized” some letters and photographs and shared them with an historian.  He was grateful and delighted.  -But when she offered the same electronic records to an archive, the response was a polite, “Thanks but no thanks.”

“I want to keep the original letters and photographs to give to my granddaughter,” she said,  “but the historian thought they should be shared with other Canadians.  So it seemed that offering the scans to the archive was a good solution.”

I can’t  be certain that every professional archive in Canada would have declined these electronic images; however, I am sure that many would have done so.  Why?

Archives are expected to take good custodial care of every accession “forever”, which means as long as it is reasonably possible to care for and maintain the document.  Caring for an electronic record will require “migrating” the data every time there is a leap forward in hardware and software, which in turn requires rigorous watchfulness, staff time and up-to-date understanding of technogy.   This investment is not without financial cost to the institution.

If a zealous donor presents the same electronic copies to (say) three archives, then multiply this cost by three within an heritage community with is hardly rich in resources.

Public funds will pay for this custodial care.  Many archivists feel that public funds are best deployed in caring for original materials where there is the justification of intrinsic value (“cool” and “antique”), and perhaps also monetary value.

Moreover, no matter what the industry hopes, it is likely that electronic records will deteriorate (“become corrupted”) over time, and with no original, the archive cannot replace them.

Add to this the legal concept of evidence.  It is possible to tamper with an electronic record, and this is likely to get easier with time, not more difficult.  Without an original, there is no way of knowing for certain that the electronic file in fifty years is not different from the original.

Most archivists are now challenged with the care of records which have always been electronic and have never been fully available on paper, such as large databanks.  There is much debate in the profession as to how best to do this.  At the moment, many archivists see this as challenge enough, without adding the care of a digital copy of something which does have a physical entity.

Scans and digital photographs are super ways to share collections, but at present expect the archive to want the original.

My answer was, “How do you know that your granddaughter will always have a lifestyle sympathetic to care of old, original records?”  I  recommended that the client make good copies for her granddaughter and present the originals to an archive.  In years to come, the original letters and photographs can be accessed there by the family and fresh copies made, if needed.

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Filed under Archives, Material culture, Museums