Friday, 15 June 2018




This summer I have been working with the Scarborough-based non-profit, Mural Routes, in documenting mural projects around the Greater Toronto Area into one comprehensive archive. Due to their rather temporal state - and the fact I haven’t lived in Toronto since its earliest commercial murals of the late 19th Century - creating a comprehensive archive of all the city’s murals has been a bit of tricky task. But it has also prompted some interesting reflections on how murals echo both private and public memories. This week’s Flashback Friday will unravel how local history is embedded in our city’s public artwork.

"Bomb Girls" by OMEN in collaboration with StreetARToronto and Mural Routes, near Warden x St. Clair East in Scarborough. 2014. Photo courtesy of Mural Routes. 

In many murals, especially those commissioned by the city or in partnerships with local BIA (Business Improvement Area), the themes and content of murals explicitly relay “heritage moments” or local legacies. A clear example of this can be found from the 1990s, when Mural Routes commenced their first series of murals along Kingston Road in Scarborough known as the Heritage Trail. Another example would be the several murals done by John Kuna for the Village of Islington BIA in Etobicoke from 2005 to 2014. These murals feature a range of characters and activities from Islington’s past, from families tobogganing to The Guelph Radial Line to local church communities. Such murals serve as tributes to the past, becoming a visual representation of collective community memories.

However, many of Toronto’s murals were not meant to be historical in nature, yet, their memory in the minds of local residents exist as landmarks of the city’s past. This is particularly evident amongst some of Toronto’s commercial murals. Until a few years ago, when the Church Street Mural Project added several new murals to the Church and Wellesley community, a large Molson Canadian advertisement was featured on Church Street as a mural known colloquially as The Gay Cowboys. Despite its obvious commercial purposes, the mural was recognized as a landmark in a generation of Toronto’s gay community. Recently, when Mural Routes’ held their archive exhibit at 389 Yonge St., several residents of the Church-Wellesley area shared their memories of the Gay Cowboys, revealing that in spite of its loss, the mural lingers in memory as part of the neighbourhood’s historical character.

Alternatively, many contemporary murals which aim to capture the diversity of Toronto’s communities (and perhaps, also tackle the lack of representation in Toronto’s public art) remind us of the multitude of intersecting communities that contribute to its vibrancy. For example, In July 2017, Parkdale held the event Women Paint, organized by Bareket Kezwer and StreetARToronto, where muralists came together to paint their unique and contrasting narratives of being womxn.

Concurrently, other muralists, such as Philip Cote have been injecting the mural scene with art representing Indigenous history and culture. Last summer, Cote finished a mural near Old Mill Subway Station which illustrates Indigenous knowledge, that has been preserved through oral histories. Such projects are laced with narratives of the Toronto region, both contemporary and historical, which indeed beautifully draw attention to a multifaceted, complex urban identity that is often lost in the haze of gray buildings and in our hustling commutes.

Then, within the production and life of a mural, lies another source of memory. Some murals have become iconic features to Toronto, recognizable to city dwellers across demographics. The Rainbow Tunnel in the Don Valley Parkway (DVP) is an excellent example of this. Visible from the highway, a pedestrian tunnel is vibrantly painted as a rainbow - ensuring pass-byers of its visibility regardless of the time of year. First painted in the 1970s by B.C. Johnson, community members came together to restore the mural in 2012-2013, thus, sharing in a collective effort to preserve its mural memory. This Saturday, June 16th, Mural Routes will be completing touch-ups on Rainbow Tunnel as maintenance.

Rainbow Tunnel undergoing its restoration in 2012-2013. Photos courtesy of Mural Routes' Archive.

While the intentions and longevity of murals differ greatly, they share a common connection to community memory. Murals engage audiences with their surroundings, provoke new ideas to recollect, and stir our consciousness of another time.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018




Grab your gear, because we're heading back to the dig site! This article discusses my favourite part of archaeological conservation: Cleaning artifacts!

The best way to protect a newly excavated object is to stabilize it on site, before shipping it off to the museum. This means we need to get out our toothbrushes, and make that hunk of dirty pottery squeaky clean!

Step 1: Don't Touch It (Yet).

Before removing an object from the ground, make sure that you've cleaned around it as best as you can without dislodging it.
  • Level the trench. Use brushes and dust pans to clean the area around the artifact, so that the ground is smooth. When the surrounding are is flat, then it is easier to see how the object is resting inside the ground, which helps you decide how to remove it safely!
  • Careful where you step! Avoid getting really close to the artifact, or using water and heavier tools (like trowels) around the object. These will disrupt the integrity of the dirt layers under the artifact, which can cause your object to move unexpectedly, and puts it at risk for breaking!
Tip: When you remove an artifact from the dirt, all the elements that supported it and allowed it to survive all these years, will also be removed. This is why conservationists focus on preserving an object's original state for as long as possible.

Step 2: GENTLY Scrub Away Dirt

Do you need to buy fancy tools and clean the objects vigorously? Absolutely not!

  • Get tools that are easy to carry. Archaeologists rely on sponges, soft toothbrushes, paintbrushes, and toothpicks, because they're efficient and light-weight. I once cleaned an ancient Roman's teeth with thread instead of floss, and it worked really well!
  • No need to scrub very hard. Hold the object firmly in your hand, or place it on a clean, soft surface (like a table covered in cardboard). Then, use circular motions and water (when possible) to remove stubborn dirt as best as you can. Deeper cleaning will happen at the lab.
Tip: No matter what your tools are, they should have only ever been used to clean excavated objects (i.e. Please, don't get toothpaste from a personal toothbrush on a two-thousand-year-old shard of Greek pottery).

Step 3: Summon Your Inner Paparazzi.

Most archaeologists still do an artist's sketch of the artifacts when they uncover it. These days, a regular digital camera is sufficient to capture the artifact at every stage of its life, from trench to museum display.
  • Create more evidence. Photos help track the changes you've made during the conservation treatment, and the effects of your methods. Take photos of the object from all sides, and use a ruler to scale its size.
  • Work that camera! Don't hold back, and take lots of photos. Think of the conservator like a friend that couldn't go on vacation with you; conservators can't always be at the site during the moment of discovery, so archaeologists use photos as a reliable way to retell the story in detail.
Tip: If the object wasn't cleaned properly in the previous stage, then this will show up in the photograph. Proper cleaning allows the archaeologist to clearly see if the artifact has any weak points that may cause the object to break in storage or in transport.

That's it for this article, and thank you for reading! My final summer article will be posted this July.

Here are some additional resources:

Monday, 11 June 2018




Readers, you know the drill! Read the following interviews to learn about what Master of Museum Studies students are doing during their internships* 

This post features:

Alexis Benjamin: GLBT Historical Society, San Francisco, CA

Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif:
Estate of Arnaud Maggs, Toronto, ON

Beth Lymer: Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, ON

Tell us a bit about yourself and your museum-related interests.

Alexis: I am a queer trans woman originally from the small city of Boise, Idaho in the United States. I started working in museums during a really dark time in my life, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt after I realized I was trans. Working in museums was a large part of figuring out how to live again. My first supervisor and mentor was a lesbian who sued with her wife for the right to marry. My primary interest is telling the stories of people who were denied a voice by conventional history. These stories include the trans, gender non-conforming, and queer rioters at Compton’s Cafeteria, or the thirty four Chinese miners killed in the Hells Canyon Massacre. This also includes the story of my grandmother, who along with her family was interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center along with 120 000 other Americans simply for having Japanese heritage.

Laetitia: Following my Bachelor of Art History and Studio Arts at Concordia University (Montreal, QC), I decided to move to Toronto to pursue a Master of Museum Studies. My objective is to work as a curator in an art gallery or museum while remaining involved with local art communities. When I visit museums, I am interested in how exhibitions are created to foster conversations on various topics. More specifically, I am captivated by how artworks, when brought together, create new meanings and engage in dialogues with each other and the viewers. Thus, what I aim to do as a curator is develop exhibitions that talk about current societal issues through the gathering of artworks.

Beth: My name is Beth Lymer and I just finished my first year of the Master of Museum Studies program. I am just over a month into my summer internship in the Earth Sciences collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology, and a Master of Science degree in Earth and Space Science. After completing some of my research on meteorites during my last degree at the ROM, I became interested in natural science and the role museums play in science education, research and collection. 

Beth with the Earth Sciences Collection at the ROM. Photo courtesy of Beth Lymer. 
What is a typical day at your institution? What are your responsibilities?

Alexis: I don’t really have a typical day. I work in three different departments throughout the week, and once we get into the swing of prepping and installing new exhibits, I will be working for four. Initially, the collection was purely an archive without a museum attached. Our database is filemaker pro, which is an archival database and doesn't support artifacts well. When working with the registrar, I am inventorying our most critical collections, like the materials and artifacts donated by Harvey Milk and Scott Smith’s estate. I also work for our educational and programming department which was established a month before I started. We are creating our first lesson plans and primary and secondary school materials. I am doing work on an Angela Davis “OUTspoken” exhibit which has taken me to the Alameda County Courthouse where Huey P. Newton’s conviction was thrown out, to microform copies of the People vs. Angela Y. Davis trial transcript in the special collection at UC Berkeley. With the museum director, I do everything from volunteer wrangling to brainstorming new exhibits. I guess my typical day is coming in and asking what I am doing, and then doing something totally new.

Laetitia: My main task at the internship is to condition report and catalogue the works by Canadian photographer Arnaud Maggs and to optimize the Estate of Arnaud Maggs’ database. I work together with another intern to consolidate the collection. We gather all the necessary information about the photographs, look at their condition and input this information in the database. Our supervisor gives us liberty to organize our daily schedule, while providing us guidelines and suggesting priorities we should focus on. Sometimes, special projects come up, such as the sale of an artwork or the visit of an art collector, and we help our supervisor with this preparation.

Beth: There is no such thing as a typical day in the museum field – we are constantly juggling 100 different projects at once which is very exciting. However, my overarching project for the summer is to create a classification scheme for a couple thousand rocks that do not fit in our current schema, and rehouse them in our petrology collection. This project involves creating new hierarchies in the TMS database, the planning and moving of specimens, cataloguing, and lifting a lot of rocks! I have also been working on a display with the entomology department for the Scarborough Gem and Mineral show in September, where we are displaying minerals and butterflies together! I am responsible for creating this display from start to finish, from choosing mineral specimens, to mock-ups, to loan agreement paperwork.   

What is something you have learned so far at your internship?

Alexis: I have learned that I have to wear many hats. When I started, I quickly realized with the exception of Executive Director, Communications Director, Financial Director, and Administrative Manager, I would work for every other department. I work in programming, museum operations, archives and special collections, and museum collections. It is a great overview of all the different things needed to make a museum and archives work.

Laetitia: Through my internship, I realize the importance of a centralized database, in this case the Estate of Arnaud Maggs, and how this can be applied to a larger institution. The database enables one to record sales and loans of artworks and collects information on Maggs’ prints such as: description, condition and museum collections, etc. I am now able to distinguish between a study print versus a final print and recognize the nuances between the various types of works, such as details versus contact sheets. I have also learned the best practices of handling prints with care, precaution, and how to preserve them. Although I have experience with photography, I am learning a lot about the various photographic techniques, methods and mediums. This provides me with a more knowledgeable basis for a future profession in the art field. Finally, I am discovering the career, artistic vision and aesthetic of one artist, Arnaud Maggs, as I am immersed in his world and studio. I am exposed to Maggs’ process and the evolution of his work throughout his forty years career.

Beth: I have learned that classification is hard – and that a classification scheme will never work perfectly, nor please everyone. I have also learned that the most successful classification scheme is one that works best for the people who are housing and searching for objects everyday – the collections staff, not necessarily the user of the collection (i.e. researcher). This sounds like a pretty obvious statement, but when you are forced to make decisions that will affect the collection for decades, it becomes very daunting.

Laetitia at the Estate of Arnaud Maggs. Photo courtesy of Laetitia Dandavino-Tardif
What are you excited about accomplishing throughout your internship?

Alexis: I already inventoried the Harvey Milk and Scott Smith collection, which was both amazing and sobering. Artifacts have a magic to them, and sometimes that magic is a black thing. Especially when you open a box and find in it a returned property slip from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, and an empty suit bag (the suit in which Supervisor Milk was shot), and then another bag holding a pair of silk boxers covered in dark stains from blood spilled nearly forty years ago. I am most excited about the final project they have for me. Three cases to fill with any exhibit I choose from our permanent collection of materials. It will be one of the hardest things to do, to limit what I put in there. But I hope to tell the stories of some trans people who have been forgotten by history.

Laetitia: The combination of different tasks that involve unexpected, but welcome challenges keeps me excited throughout the internship. Every box of prints I open is different and filled with treasures. For example, we discovered small photographs of Leonard Cohen. Maggs, mostly working with portraiture, requires us to identify photographed subjects and research their names. It has been stimulating to discover and learn about the significant cultural figures, such as artists, curators or musicians, that posed for Maggs. I enjoy looking at these portraits, as they capture the essence of various time periods, starting in the 70s to the present, in Toronto and in Europe. Moreover, there is also creativity involved in the internship as we develop new types of categorization of the works and compiling sets of prints, keeping in mind Maggs’ methodology. Understanding how the work I am doing now is meaningful and has an impact on the future of the estate, motivates me.

Beth: I am very excited to see finished products in both of my main projects – the petrology collection and the mineral display. It will be satisfying to see hard work displayed in the collection room, where thousands of specimens will have new homes and are organized beautifully, and in a more visual display with the Scarborough Gem and Mineral show project. 

Dyke March Oral History Project Reception, Shirt is a replica of the May 21st 1979 Defense Fund, calling for the SF queer community to make no apologies for the White Night Riot. Silk screens held by the GLBT Historical Society Collection. Photo courtesy of Alexis Benjamin. 
If you could create any museum (no matter how ridiculous) what kind of museum would it be?

Alexis: The 2020 GLBT Historical Society roadmap comes pretty close, which wants to expand the museum from a single gallery in what used to be a Laundromat in the Castro, to North America’s first museum dedicated to LGBTQAI+ culture and history. But mine would be more radical. It would display the works of groups like the Degenderettes, of which Mask Magazine said, “The Degenderettes make rad embroidered patches and queer weapons, offering a supportive channel for aggressive visibility in a society where visible queerness is often seen as a threat.” It would be a museum that would get picketed daily by people who don’t like things that are different. It would be revolutionary, and visibility queer. But unlike the GLBT Historical Society it would put women trans people, people of color, and sex worker’s voice at the center of the museum. It would be a place where the margins were the center.

Laetitia: I would create a museum city. I visualize a city that is a museum. A museum without walls. This concept already exists and some features of it can already be seen in various cities, but I would like to push this idea even further! As someone enters the city gates, it enters the museum. As you walk through the city, there are history, science or art exhibitions in the streets, and these ones change throughout the year. Maybe one neighborhood is dedicated to science exhibitions, while the other to art? As passerby’s walk in the streets, they get to enjoy beautiful exhibitions and learn.

Beth: A lot of people have answered that they would open a museum about space, but I feel that has to be my answer as well - and I would be happy to work as a team with them to accomplish that. I think everyone is at least a little fascinated with space because it is still so unknown, and so vast! I would love to open a museum about space and deep time, and create an environment where people have an existential experience.

*These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Friday, 8 June 2018



In today's article of Collections Corner, I'm going to explore the responsibility of the people in charge of presenting collections to the public. Let's make a little room in the corner for their role to be explored in contemporary society.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the definition of "curator" because the weather has been great and I've been escaping the heat by touring galleries and museums. Blessed are the museums, which due to condition management practices, are air conditioned. I can’t get the first class of Curatorial Practice, taught by Matthew Brower, out of my head. Prof. Brower raised an interesting question of what it means to be a curator in a society where everyone is donning their curating hats, arranging their stuff in an artsy and intent filled way, and calling themselves curators.

Which is okay, they can do that. Most job titles are made up, and are just a way of communicating your purpose in life to strangers.

But in our program, and in the larger museum field, being a curator is a serious job. One that means you research, interpret, and develop an exhibit. A curator, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “a keeper or custodian of a museum or other collection.” It’s a lot of work, and work that tends to be reliant on people not only getting what you are doing, but finding it interesting enough to be worth it. It is a cross your fingers and pray to your deity be it a god or analytical data scenario.

Last Friday, as I was waiting in line, I couldn’t help but think about how coffee shops are curated. The products are selected to fit certain criteria, are researched (we all know or are someone who will pose questions to their local barista), and are presented to attract customers. If I was a braver person, I would take pictures of the coffee shops I go in the mornings. They are purists places that I adore, where coffee/tea/pastry specialists expose us, the uneducated masses, to the wonders of organic, sourced products. However, I usually end up in those places early in the morning, impersonating a zombie amongst a horde of other zombies. I decide to just get my hot beverage, and maybe a croissant.
The collection manager may be a more accurate representation of the coffee shop job than a curator. They are in charge of the collection, cataloging, keeping conditions optimum, dealing with bureaucracy, and much more. How many times in a coffee shop do you hear someone call themselves a collection manager? I haven't yet.

We now have this weird role in society where people are calling themselves curators, but are really a hybridization of the roles and responsibilities of curators and collection managers. I'm not upset about it because it all boils down to a bunch of people who have a passion about one thing, and want people to take them and their collections seriously. However, I don't think the existing terminology really applies to how people are using it because being a curator or a collection manager is steeped ( ;) ) in a rich/diverse history of the cultural heritage sector.

The difference between a coffee shop and a museum is standards. If a coffee shop turned out to be fraudulently misrepresenting their products I would be mad, and I wouldn’t go back. If a museum, gallery, or/and hall of fame failed their ethics test I would be outraged. Perhaps this is a result of over a hundred years of higher expectations, but I don’t think so. A museum's responsibility is to its collection or cultural product. I would hold curators to a higher standard if they worked in a museum, gallery or hall of fame. I worry about the responsibility of a curator or other museum professional diminishing when that responsibility isn’t understood by people outside of the museum world.

Maybe what we need is a new name… how about "supreme overlord of particular tastes" for curators and "supreme overlord of keeping their feet on the ground" for collection managers. Those would be fun business cards.

I'm not sure if I'm being elitist and devoutly bowing to the hierarchical structure of museums, where certain roles mean certain things done by certain people, most likely highly educated, specialists. Please let me know your opinions in the comments section.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018




If you’ve read the most recent installment of Internship Check-In, you’ll know that I’m spending my summer at the Aga Khan Museum. Those of you who have never been are not alone – many of the people I’ve spoken to say the same thing: they've been meaning to, but haven't gotten around to going.

Photo courtesy Philip Castelton.
If you fall into that category, what better reason to go (besides free admission with OMA membership) than the fact that the current temporary exhibition, The World of the Fatimids, is entering its final weeks and features objects never-before-seen in North America tracing back to the Fatimid dynasty (909-1171 CE)!

A unique and powerful empire, the Fatimid caliphs who ruled North Africa and parts of the Middle East fostered a culture of religious freedom and tolerance that lead to flourishing of the arts and sciences. Overthrown in 1171, buildings, artworks, and valuables of all kinds were looted or destroyed.

Bowl, 1050-1100. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Source.
The exhibition represents a collaborative effort by a number of institutions, with rare objects coming from collections around the world including: The Museum of Islamic Art, Cairo, The Louvre, The Victoria and Albert Museum and others. Through collaboration and partnership between museums, generations of artistic production lost to war and politics are brought to light, echoing the trade and cultural exchange that made Fatimid rule so prosperous.

For those unfamiliar with this history, the exhibition opens with a timeline of the Fatimid dynasty:

Photo courtesy of Aly Manji.
Photo courtesy of Aly Manji.
The interpretive elements throughout are definitely a highlight of the exhibition - maps give visitors insight into the territorial reach of the fallen empire, and additional reading material and resources (books and iPads) are available at several seating areas.

A video room toward the exit plays a documentary about Fatimid architecture in Cairo, with interviews from a number of specialists in Islamic art and history. However, the video you'll more likely take notice of is the huge wall projection by the exhibition's entrance. Drone footage of Cairo plays with loud music (akin to a Hollywood blockbuster soundtrack) that is heard throughout the space, distracting from the experience of viewing such thoughtfully crafted artifacts.

These include floor-to-ceiling marble reliefs, painted ceramics, and precious luxury items like jewelry boxes and a rock crystal chess set. This crescent-shaped rock crystal is a relic engraved with an Arabic inscription. Its gilded silver mount was added centuries later by a Venetian goldsmith.

Relic (Ostensorium), Germnischen Nationalmuseums. Source.
Many other objects featured similarly blend disparate artistic styles and regional techniques - a result of the diversity of the population of Cairo under Fatimid rule, and the influence of the Silk Road. Their selection speaks to the exhibition's broader themes of interfaith and intercultural dialogue, which in turn aligns itself well with the museum's mission to be a place of learning and intellectual exchange.

The World of the Fatimids runs during March 10, 2018 to July 02, 2018.

Upcoming related programming:
June 14 - Ibn Al Tahhan's "A Compendium of a Fatimid Court Musician" with George Sawa

Monday, 4 June 2018




This past month, Toronto received some exciting exhibit news: a major exhibition of Banksy’s work will open in Toronto in June. The exhibit will feature over 80 original works, which will make it “the largest Banksy exhibit ever assembled." The catch? The show is unauthorized, and the curator, Steve Lazarides, has openly discussed the fact that Banksy wouldn’t approve of the exhibit.

In this edition of Muse News, I’ll be exploring The Art of Banksy, an exhibit that provides access to a large body of artwork at the cost of overriding the will of the artist.

The Art of Banksy

The massive exhibit, The Art of Banksy, will open in Toronto on June 13th and run until July 11th. Instead of a gallery or traditional museum space, the exhibit will be held in an empty warehouse. The warehouse aesthetic seems like a perfect fit for the artwork of Banksy, as the artist is known for their graffiti artwork, often on the exteriors of derelict buildings in cities across the world.

The show’s impressive display of artwork may give the exhibit an air of authenticity, after all, how could such a large collection be displayed without the involvement of the artist? The impressive display, in actuality, comes down to the show’s curator, Steve Lazarides, who managed to involve over 40 private art collectors to mount this one-of-a-kind show. Lazarides’ storied connection to Banksy made this exhibit possible, but also problematic.

Balloon Girl (pictured above) is one of the works that will be featured in the upcoming exhibit. Source.

Lazarides and Banksy

Steve Lazarides is the owner of a gallery in London, but he is most famously known as Banksy’s former manager. Between 1997 and 2009, Lazarides worked for Banksy in multiple capacities including manager, dealer, spokesperson and gallerist.

The personal connection between Lazarides and Banksy may have ended in 2009, but today, Banksy still plays a central role in Lazarides’ career in the art world. In addition to exhibiting unauthorized shows of Banksy’s works (this exhibit is by no means the first), in December 2016, Lazarides opened the Banksy Print Gallery in London. While Lazarides emphasizes his “historical link to the artist,” Banksy himself has been silent about the upcoming exhibit. The only hint that Banksy denounces Lazarides’ continued efforts is a small-print message on the official Banksy website stating, “Banksy is NOT on Facebook, Twitter or represented by Steve Lazarides or any other commercial gallery.” This message may just be a typical disclaimer, but the fact Lazarides is mentioned by name seems like a direct jab at the gallery-owner who continues to profit off Banksy’s work.

Exhibiting Banksy

The problematic relationship between Lazarides and Banksy is further complicated by the politics of exhibiting a graffiti artist. If you’re like me, you might assume that it is counterintuitive to exhibit an artist primarily known for creating street art. I am most familiar with the Banksy works painted on the sides of buildings, not contained within gallery walls. Banksy’s works are extremely political, commenting on everything from global warming, to poverty. The work becomes even more political as a piece of graffiti, on display for anyone passing by.

Exhibiting Banksy behind closed doors may seem like a violation of his artistic intention, but the artist himself has created many exhibits over the years. Most of the works in this show were exhibited and sold at early Banksy shows. Some of Banksy’s shows were fairly conventional, but other shows were as radical as the art itself. One of Banksy’s first major shows, Turf War (2003), involved painting on live animals. Another show, Barely Legal (2006), was held at a vandalized warehouse and featured a live elephant. These radical exhibits created by Banksy are decidedly different from the upcoming show. Banksy’s shows became part of an artistic statement, whereas this upcoming show is completely divorced from Banksy the activist.

An image of the live elephant that was a part of Banksy's 2006 show Barely Legal. Source.

The Cost of Accessible Art

When discussing the upcoming Toronto show, Lazarides stated, “I want this to go to as many cities as possible, to get [Banksy’s] message out there," and Lazarides is making a great effort to make works in private collections accessible to a general audience. However, I am left wondering if making this art visible comes at the cost of violating Banksy’s artistic integrity.

Friday, 1 June 2018




For the inaugural edition of the #ProgramReviews column, I attended a talk called The Evolving Role Of Museums hosted by the Aga Khan Museum on May 9th, 2018. Michael Edson, co-founder of the still-forming United Nations museum, UN Live. Edson gave a lecture about the evolving role of museums for the upcoming International Museums Day, as part of the Aga Khan Museum’s Changing Perceptions Series.

Formerly director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, Edson gave a wide-ranging and energetic talk, where at one point he organized a rock paper scissors competition with the entire audience. I expected, at the end of this competition, for him to speak about the power of statistics, and that it is exceedingly improbable that any individual would win, but that it was inevitable that someone would. Instead, he spoke briefly about the power of play to activate learning, and then showed us this video:

He used this as a launching off point to talk about the three dimensions in which the world has shifted rapidly in scope, scale, and speed- the problems of globalization and rapid automation that are shaping the world in ways which no one, not museums, not nations, not individuals, yet understands. What then, is UN Live to become?

The goal of UN Live, as Edson explained it, is not to be an institution which would educate its visitors about the history of the UN. The museum is instead constructed around about the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, and to encourage anyone who comes into contact with the museum to go forth and make progress towards these goals in their own communities.

The UN's 17 sustainability goals for 2030. Source.
He said that when people see these goals for the first time, they often laugh at the sheer audacity of them. End poverty everywhere? Peace and justice everywhere? In a scant twelve years? And yet, there is a near global consensus that this is important work that someone, somewhere ought to be doing. So why not have a UN museum, one which uses the institutional strength of the United Nations not only to push for these goals but to encourage everyone, everywhere, to be the someone, somewhere that works towards fulfilling them.

The challenge, as Edson framed it, was not to educate. We do not, he reminded us all, act because we have a lack of information available to us. People continue to smoke well after they know the adverse effects of smoking. The challenge of UN Live is to encourage people to engage with the goals of the UN and to embody them in their own lives and their own communities. UN Live seeks to build within people the habits of community engagement and democracy. Their role is to be the United Nations “at eye level” with the citizens of the world, and to help people understand and act on these goals in the language of everyday life.

The ways one can encounter UN Live, which Edson promises are getting equal love and attention, are the physical location in Copenhagen, its network with other public institutions all over the world, and a digital museum. Edson’s former role, as director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian, will doubtless help him in this pursuit. Each of these, of course, will maintain as part of its mission and in every step of the design, a bridge between information and action. Part of the mission is not to ensure that every person who interacts with UN live leaves to solve a world problem, but to find, elevate, and assist the changemakers that already exist in every community. UN Live seeks to change the encounter rate of those brilliant, inspiring people we all know, from one in a million to two or three in a million, and to help those change makers, creatives, leaders to effect change more efficiently. Edson bounced back and forth from grand sweeping statements about the way the world should be, to specific steps UN Live was taking to help that change happen with such rapidity it at times gave me goosebumps.

Michael Edson, at the Aga Khan Museum. Source.
I will leave you with this, although this is not how Edson closed the talk. He said that neither the UN or the concept of the museum was a concept that always elicits cheers from your audience. But, no matter how they resent one or both concepts, when you call on behalf of the UN Museum, people always return your calls. It’s a weighty responsibility, and that we as future museum professionals ourselves should be conscious of. Very few of us will ever work for an institution with as much cultural gravity as the UN, but institutions have power. Institutions have reputations and weight and gravity, and whether or not they are liked, they are respected and listened to. We would all do well to remember that this is not an abstract concept. Why shouldn't a museum, for instance, partner with Elections Canada and help people register to vote? Why shouldn't a museum not only have and use green energy but also host events where visitors can learn to plant their own green roofs. It all felt possible, while Edson spoke. He speaks with the kind of passion that can move mountains, and perhaps more impressively, people.

The overwhelming feeling I had leaving The Evolving Role of Museums lecture was one of hope. Hope as a motivator, a driver, as a source of strength. I could practically feel it beating against my chest as I left. As a program host, could you imagine a better way for your attendees to leave?