15 July 2020


With all that is going on in the world right now, many of our summers have not turned out the way we originally planned. Usually, in the summer between 1st and 2nd year, MMSt students embark on an internship within a cultural heritage organization in order to gain hands on experience within their chosen environment. This year, with the restrictions in place, many opportunities were placed on hold or eliminated completely.  However, a few of my fellow classmates were fortunate enough to find internships to complete this summer in different aspects of the cultural sector. I recently sat down with two students from the 2021 cohort, Jessica and Alynese, to talk about their internships and how COVID-19 has impacted the internship experience for them.

Jessica Lanziner is currently doing her internship remotely as the Research Fellow at the Museum of Health Care. Knowing nothing about healthcare, she applied on a whim after LinkdIn creeping someone from her undergraduate degree, who she noticed had the position before.

No description available.
Workplace set-up. Photo courtesy of Jessica Lanzier

Jessica: I noticed it said you don’t need to know anything about healthcare – I know nothing, but the internship was still going forward and it’s a stipend pay so I applied and got a call back which was awesome. It's not what I was planning, but it’s a huge research role, and I am learning a lot that I never thought I would be learning about. I had to apply to the fellowship with a topic, propose a research idea, and I figured let’s be timely and connect it to the current COVID-19 pandemic. I selected the history of PPE and Infectious diseases in Canada, looking at PPE and how it has evolved. Since I knew that museums would not be opening I proposed to do things entirely remotely.

AM: Where did you gain inspiration for your research topic?

Jessica: Like lots of people, I had been reading a lot during lockdown. I read the Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris, a scholar with a PhD in the History of Science, Medicine & Technology from the University of Oxford. I read her book and went off of that, listening to different talks and podcasts she had been on. She was on the Joe Rogan podcast, blowing his mind explaining the history of surgery. From this appearance she gained a large following. For my research proposal, I thought I will make it timely and do PPE and Infections, and explore the history of the use of PPE within Canada in regards to infections diseases.

Jessica’s current manuscript, titled after some reworking, is called “Histories of Personal Protective Equipment and Strategies in the Fight to Control Infectious Disease,” which once completed will be available on the Museum of Healthcare Website (where you can also see past Research Fellow Manuscripts). As a research fellow, Jessica is required to write a large paper at the end of her fellowship and create 4 blog posts about aspects of her research.

AM: What is your paper about?

Jessica: The history of different PPE and how it has evolved. The last chapter is on infectious disease outbreaks and how we have managed them in Canada using the history of PPE from before. My manuscript will look at Canadian responses to the 1918 influence, HIV, Tuberculosis, Sars, COVID-19. It's weird that I am currently living my research. For COVID-19, no archival materials are available so it’s all my own pictures and such.

AM: What have you found challenging about this experience?

Jessica: It’s been hard because I eat sleep and breathe pandemic. It's good and I have learned a lot but it makes me frustrated in my daily life. Stuff we have known to be science since the 1880s is not new or difficult! Because in their galleries they currently have vaccines and infectious disease information so it will be interesting to see how they will incorporate the stuff from this year.

AM: What interesting facts have you learned?

Jessica: [about] Respirators and disposable respirators. In the past, they had a similar issue to today with people being like my child is afraid of wearing masks, kids very afraid of gas masks so [the government] decided to make child friendly gas masks modelled off of Mickey mouse, that has ears and polka dots, and it makes them even more scary. They didn’t end up using them, there are still some in military archives, so they are hard to find but even more scary than a regular gas mask.

AM: Have you encountered any difficulties in your research?

Jessica: I have been conscious in trying to talk about how epidemics affect different racial groups in Canada, but I am only finding limited resources online. Papers just aren’t available for research online, it's hard to find diverse viewpoints about how historically pandemics affected minority communities in Canada. It's been frustrating, but that’s how it is with doing online research right now. Since I can’t go into the archives I have to rely on just what I can find online.

AM: Any advice for future people in your role?

Jessica: Not advice, but we all need to give more credit to those students who have spent their time doing those boring hours on long digitization projects, the only thing online saving us right now! Manual labour from cataloging students is really paying off for me right now.

AM: What skills have you employed from classwork?

Jessica: In our indigenous material heritage course, we looked at questions of who created this heritage and what does it mean for people to be using it who are from a different culture? I have been trying to follow the things from there and use broader viewpoints within my research.

AM: Anything surprising in what you have learned?

Jessica: I am learning a lot about copyright! I have had to deal with copyright and infringement, and that made me realize I wasn’t always doing it right before. I have learned how to actually get rights for images and reproduction rights, I’ve had to email a ton of places for certain images and I have become attached to having certain images! Some places like the city of Toronto allow you to use them for free for research if they’re online. I have been very attached to getting the correct photo rights!

Alynese Nightingale is interning at Lambton House Museum as an Archives Technician.

No description available.
Lantern Slide/Glass negative from Lambton House Museum. Photo courtesy of Alynese Nightingale

AM: Tell me about your internship position.

Alynese: I applied in late April and didn’t hear back until June. I’m an Archive Technician – they merged two positions. I am by myself everyday, go in to do what I need to do, no one bothers me or anything. They usually hire two interns but only one this year —due to COVID-19 they have combined the positions. Since I am working alone I get to go into the office everyday. I am very lucky that the pandemic has not affected the daily roles of my job.

AM: What a day in the life looks like for you?

Alynese:  I am organizing collections so I like to start by going back and double checking my work from the pervious day for any mistakes. I don’t have concrete things I need to do everyday, I have creative control so I can choose what to work on. Today I finished cleaning out the archive room and started organizing collections which I will spend the next few weeks doing. I am helping the Lambton House Museum create a foundation for their archives, putting collection management policies in place, making finding aids so that museum workers can access things and researchers can come in. Doing that and getting it into an online database so it's all catalogued, they currently do not have accession numbers, so I'm creating a system for them that works and is easy for researchers and museum staff to navigate. I have been applying a lot of what I’ve learned in collections management from this past year.

I have always wanted to do collections so I was very excited for the opportunity when they were like “here are all of our collection things, do something with it!” In smaller museums sometimes collections are neglected for other more important things, and now I have time to focus on this and get it organized.

At the end of the week I do a report on what I did that week. I like the work because I can listen to music and podcasts! I listened to a lot of Dateline but it started to get too heavy so switched to Things You Missed in History Class.

AM: What is your favourite aspect of the job so far?

Alynese: Accessioning, going through and doing inventory reports, itemizing. I like seeing a new historical thing for the first time, it’s exciting to be the first person to see it.

AM: Is there anything that has surprised you about the job?

Alynese: I am surprised by how much control they have given me and how much they respect my opinion, not treating me like a student – they are treating me like an expert in the field and they are confident in the schooling and experience I have to do the job.

AM: What are you most excited to accomplish?

Alynese: I am most excited to accomplish organizing the collection. I am excited to create a concrete policy they can follow in the future, and have an impact on the organization and to be able to contribute a legacy to the future.

AM: What are some of the interesting objects you have found in the collection so far?

Alynese: Lots of photographs of the Humber River area and lots of cool photography glass negatives from the Kodak Archives showcasing the Humber River area, very cool. They have around 400 glass negatives or lantern slides showcasing very cool historic photos or paintings from the early 1900s. They are film negatives that layer onto a piece of glass and encased and can slide into a projector.  They cover scenes of the Humber River, paintings, children’s drawings on a project for pollution, houses in the area that students went and took pictures of, lots of different areas of local history that they have recorded.

No description available.
Lantern Slide/Glass negative from Lambton House Museum. Photo courtesy of Alynese Nightingale

AM: Any advice for future people in your position?

Alynese: Keep a lot of notes and be really organized because it is easy to get confused! I have had plenty of times where I work on something and get disorganized and have to start over, so I have learned the importance of detailed notes!

The interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

13 July 2020


Object of the Week | Caitlin McCurdy

The centralization of Western sensibilities regarding sex when it comes to the treatment of non-Western artifacts is nothing new. When artifacts from one culture are usurped by another, the sensibilities of that new culture may cause some willful misinterpretations on the part of the interpreter, and the history of the usurped object becomes altered. This process is highlighted in the history of a statue of the Buddhist deity Tara, and its home in the British Museum’s Secretum, or as it is known by its more colloquial name, The British Museum Porn Room.

The statue is made of solid bronze, gilded in gold, and stands 143 cm high. It was made in the 7th-8th century AD in Sri Lanka. Her lower body is covered in a tight-fitting cloth knotted around the hips, her upper body is bare, revealing prominent breasts. It is this last detail that caused so much disruption upon its arrival at the British Museum. Despite Britain’s scandalization of her, Tara does not serve a sexual or erotic role in her original contexts in Medieval-era Buddhism. Tara is a spirit of generous compassion in Buddhism. Her origins can be traced to a Hindu mother goddess, eventually adopted by Buddhists. As a Bodhisattva, she guides worshippers along the spiritual path to enlightenment.

The Statue of Tara in it's current gallery at the British Museum. Source.
Tara was looted during the British annexation of Kandy in the early 19th century in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. The British Governor of Ceylon, Robert Brownrigg donated it to the British Museum in 1830, where it would remain in storage for several decades due to the statue’s nudity, considered unacceptable by British standards. She was described as “dangerously erotic and voluptuous” and the British Museum determined this statue to be too obscene and sexual for public display, and only allowed approved men to view it and other artifacts housed in the same room. Tara is not a sexual entity in Buddhism, yet that understanding is now embedded in her history due to her presence in the Secretum.

Postcard Depicting 19th century Kandy. Source.
The 19th century in England saw a rise in Victorian sexual hysteria where it was believed that to protect an impressionable public from moral decay, the “moral perils of erotica” must be kept from them, which lead to the establishment of the Obscene Publications Act in 1857. This line of thought emerged while Britain was looting and pillaging countries across the world, in which they often found objects they determined to be of an “obscene” nature, but yet served no such purpose. This evidently led to complications when the artifacts were returned to Britain and distributed amongst their museums. With this act in mind, the British Museum established their Secretum where objects seen as too obscene or perverse were displayed for the viewing pleasure of “gentlemen of mature years and sound morals.” Men who wished to view this room had to prove that they met the arbitrary requirements to do so. Women and men of lower classes were denied access.

British Museum, 1857. Source.
What is sexual culture? And who decides who has access to the perceived obscene? The regulation of sexual culture is well documented in British history, even well before the establishment of the Obscene Publications Act or the Secretum. Considering this with the development of museums during the 19th century in Britain, clear distinctions were being drawn between art, material culture, and the obscene. The people in power decide what is obscene and what can and cannot be seen. This is directly tied to what artifacts can be held in museums and the narratives we choose to present them with as we put them in exhibitions. By collecting certain objects in one spot that gentlemen believed were for their eyes only, the British Museum decontextualized and redefined objects they stole.

While the statue of Tara is now housed in the British Museum’s China & South Asia gallery, it was not originally defined by its own culture, but rather what the colonial powers perceived it to be. That the nudity of a colonized and racialized deity was considered dangerous and erotic by the same museum that displayed and revered the nudity of Greco-Roman statues for their artistry exemplifies the long lasting and engrained Victorian sensibilities of Britain’s most identifiable museum.

10 July 2020


Musings Abroad | Chloé Houde

Have you ever been to a museum exhibition that featured oral histories? How were they presented?  Did you pause to listen to or read them? Did you find them compelling?

Oral history and storytelling have been present in museums for several decades, and are utilized around the world as a way to collect and share personal and life stories of individuals and communities. However, oral history is an interdisciplinary field in its own right, and I wanted to outline the basics of oral history and its uses in museums. Not only is oral history in itself a valuable methodology for museums, but the concepts and values at the core of oral history are applicable to other museum practices, especially now that museums are increasingly focusing on fostering and maintaining relationships with different communities. Indeed, oral history is a democratizing practice that aims to share authority between researchers and participants. It can be used to bridge gaps between communities and museums, give space to historically-silenced voices, and integrate people’s stories in exhibitions and collections. This kind of practice, when done correctly, opens up museums to various audiences in meaningful ways that can have lasting impacts.

The Museu da Pessoa in Brazil is a "virtual and collaborative museum of life stories" | Source

Histories and traditions have been transmitted orally for most of human history, but the field was formalized and institutionalized between the 1940s and 1970s. The Oral History Association in the United States was founded in 1967, the Oral History Society in the United Kingdom was formed in 1973, and the Canadian Oral History Association was started in 1974. Nowadays, organizations worldwide, such as universities, archives, museums, libraries, arts and heritage organizations, and associations, do significant oral history work.

Oral history, at its basis, is about recording the memories and lived experiences of individuals through verbal shared exchanges, most often through interviews. Oral history has been used for research, community-building, historical preservation, truth and reconciliation, storytelling, and many more purposes. This allows historical accounts from ordinary people to enter official historical narratives (a form of “history from the bottom up”) and challenge dominant narratives, which is why oral history is well-suited to uplifting the stories of peoples and communities who have been marginalized and oppressed. Oral history is not about learning facts from personal stories; it’s about valuing memory, personal narratives, emotions, and lived experiences, and about dispelling the myth that written accounts are more important than oral accounts.

The Museum of London holds a large oral history collection | Source

Oral history is not only about making history accessible to the public, but involving the public in its creation and diffusion. One of the main tenets of oral history is the concept of sharing authority. Involving interview partners and developing projects alongside them in a process of collaboration is a commitment to moving away from learning about certain groups, to “knowing with” them. It’s important to remember that people are the experts of their own stories, and different kinds of expertise come together in oral history projects.

Active listening is also part of the process of oral history interviewing; asking open-ended questions, being flexible, letting interviewees lead their narratives, and accepting silences and reticence. Being self-reflexive every step of the way and thinking of one's positionality in relation to participants is also crucial.

Ethics are another huge facet of oral history; informed consent, mitigation of harm, and right of withdrawal are vital when working with community members, especially when recounting stories of trauma, oppression, violence, displacement, genocide, etc., that can be difficult to relive.

Oral history projects must also be non-extractive. Fostering and maintaining relationships with project partners and participants is one facet of this, but communities and individuals also need to get something out of a project. Museums can have a powerful role in this aspect, where people get to see themselves in historical narratives, have their stories valued and preserved for future generations, and it can have the effect of “mak[ing] big history personal.”

The State Library of Western Australia holds a collection of oral histories from Aboriginal people | Source

However, there are challenges with oral history that can’t be forgotten, as these can arise in museums. As important as it is to collect oral histories, it is even more important to share them and bring them to the public in meaningful ways. Collecting and sharing oral histories brings about many questions to address, such as: who gets to interpret stories? How can they be shared in engaging, compelling, and dynamic ways? How can we rightfully represent accounts by not relying on "juicy" quotes? What is lost when transcribing interviews? Should oral history be used to complement the narrative of an exhibition or challenge it? What forms should video and audio preservation take for long-term collecting of interviews? Who owns the rights and permissions to an oral history interview, and what are the limits around its uses?

The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 records stories of immigration to Canada | Source

Even with these challenges, oral history is a powerful methodology with its own history, ethics, and theory, which has relevant potential in museums. Not only is oral history interviewing and collecting an enriching endeavour for museums and communities, the values and concepts at the core of this field can also be applied to all kinds of museum projects, exhibitions, and programming. Democratizing museum institutions by bringing in outside perspectives, fostering long-lasting and beneficial relationships with community members, and allowing people to not only see their stories preserved and shared, but also allowing visitors to connect with museums on a deeper level, are all part of the positive impact that oral history has on museums.

8 July 2020


A Muse Bouche | Dominica Tang and Lindsay Chisholm

Our previous article, “The Museum In My Kitchen: Trying WWI Recipes,” centered on the role of food in museums during a pandemic, specifically within the context of food shortages in Canada. We explained that the rise in food shortages in Canada were brought on in part by the travel ban that prevented many agricultural migrant workers from entering the country. Agricultural migrant workers have since begun work on farms again, but that does not mean our food industry should return to business as usual. Many Canadian farmers violated the basic rights of these workers, and continue to do so. This has only worsened during the pandemic. Although discussions of these human rights problems are only now becoming dinner table conversations in many Canadian homes, these issues are endemic to Canada’s colonial structures and have occurred for generations.

Fresh produce at a grocery store. Source

European settlers in Canada have been exploiting people of colour for cheap labour since the late 1800’s. According to the Royal BC’s Museum research project on “Ethnic Agricultural Labour,” the workers were Indigenous, Chinese, Japanese, Doukhobor, and Portuguese. Today the agricultural sector is heavily dependent on seasonal migrant workers, mostly from countries in the Caribbean and Mexico, through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. The agricultural industry is labour intensive and requires highly skilled workers. In the bee keeping sector, for example, one must have the ability to identify the queen among tens of thousand of worker bees and detect mite infestation. A day’s work can consist of long hours, working with dangerous machinery, and under difficult climatic conditions. Workers must adhere to these strenuous working situations with inadequate pay. Living conditions on these properties are no better. They are often cramped, dirty, and receive little ventilation. The authors of “Canada jeopardizes migrant workers amid pandemic,” likens these conditions to an “open-air prison.” The sordid living and working conditions have become a hotbed for the rapid spread of the virus. Given the cramped conditions, workers cannot quarantine or work while social-distancing. Consequently, there are three reported deaths and hundreds of new COVID-19 cases springing up within these farms. Recently, the Nature Fresh farm in Ontario has shut down due to an outbreak of COVID-19. This situation truly speaks to the inadequacy of Canada's food infrastructure. Graeme McKay put it best in their editorial cartoon: "Covid grows in Ontario."

Currently, there are no formal structures in place, either in the programs that bring workers to the farms or in the federal government, that effectively hold these employers accountable for the mistreatment of their workers. Additionally, migrant workers have very few rights to express concern as they are not permanent residents. Their unstable and uncertain status with lack of ability to unionize, makes them vulnerable to exploitation by their employers. The work permit visa stipulates that migrant workers may only be affiliated with one employer per temporary residency contract term. Since they are tied to one employer, speaking out against them would risk their deportation.

The mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers is inherently racist, and a violation of their human rights. Additionally, some Canadians felt emboldened by COVID-19 to express their racism more explicitly through racial profiling, barring these workers from entering shops, and surveilling them. To document the completion of the self-isolation period for individuals who have recently arrived in Canada, The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit created identification cards. However, the health unit only distributed the cards to migrant agricultural workers and have since discontinued the cards. The association of plague with racialized bodies is not a novel phenomenon in the discourses of white supremacy. Recall just earlier this year when many attacked Chinese people — both verbally and physically — and vilified their food, because some scientists speculated that COVID-19 originated from wet markets in Wuhan, China. Mainstream culture treats racialized bodies as if they are “a risk, rather than at risk.”

A banner for migrant workers rights at the May Day of Action rally. Source
Museums, such as the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and the Royal BC Museum, have researched and exhibited these issues to some extent, but museums are more connected to migrant workers than in the collection of migrant workers’ oral histories or in educating their publics on the injustices that these workers face. Many museums offer food programming or provide food services, making them part of the food supply chain where they likely benefit from the labour of migrant agricultural workers. As part of the food supply chain, and as cultural institutions, museums should practice ethical food consumption. Indeed, museums have discussed ethical food consumption practices in the past and there is already a responsible procurement policy published in A Sustainable Development Guide for Canada’s Museum Food.  However, museums, as cultural institutions who are beholden to their publics, ought to take a more active and outward stance. Jordan Fee opined, in “‘Where Does This Come From?’: Pondering Provenance In The Global Supply Chain,” that the food industry ought to take a page from museum’s collection policies on provenance, but perhaps there is mutual learning to be had. Food provenance can persuade consumers to stop purchasing from unethical businesses, such as the farmers who are guilty of exploiting and discriminating against migrant agricultural workers, and demand that guilty farmers be held accountable and regulations be put in place to ensure worker's rights are upheld. This approach is already taking place in the museum's collections as seen in the repatriation of stolen objects, but museums ought to dissolve that silo-mentality and investigate other parts of the museum as well. If only abandoning the practice of stealing artifacts is not good enough, then only halting business with farms that violate human rights is not sufficient either.

As individuals, what we collect and ingest must follow these same standards. This is a time of introspection. Are the foods you consume ethically sourced? How are you supporting migrant agricultural workers? Armando Perla's chapter "Representing Agricultural Migrant Workers in the Canadian Museum of Human Rights," in The Idea of a Human Rights Museum, underscores that while some farmers- typically those who own larger farms- are the ones violating the worker's basic rights, the Canadian "government's inactivity has allowed the perpetuation of a system that discriminates against and exploits foreign workers without any accountability." As such, we ought to hold our government accountable for their inaction and for upholding  these oppressive systems. You can sign the Migrant Rights Network’s petition to call on federal, provincial, and municipal leaders to provide migrant workers with health care, with worker’s protection, and to grant them permanent resident status.