22 January 2018

TALKING WALLS AND ACTIVATING HALLS: BEYOND TRADITION ON CAMPUS (PART ONE)

BEYOND TRADITION

BY: AMY INTRATOR

Welcome to a new year of Beyond Tradition! Last term, our column focused on new practices informing museums, and our columnists took us to the realms of VR, department stores, and even zoos! This term, I’m exploring new practices even closer to home, right here on campus. University of Toronto boasts a couple of nationally renowned museums, but the campus is also full of lesser known exhibition spaces. Join me for a term of exploring campus spaces, big and small, that are working to bring exhibitions and programs that push museum boundaries and incorporate innovative practices.

Hart House seems like the perfect place to start an examination of campus spaces. Hart House is home to the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, but the whole building feels like a museum. Hart House is only one year shy of its centennial and in that time, it has hosted soldiers training for wars, a soon-to-be queen, and JFK!

Exterior of Hart House. Source.
The building is absolutely brimming with history, but Hart House isn’t just a historic wonder. Hart House remains socially engaged through programming with a focus on contemporary issues. Talking Walls is one example of Hart House’s dedication to addressing current issues. The wall is an informal art exhibition space located in the main corridor of Hart House. Talking Walls features rotating exhibits that address a range of topics. Unlike many exhibition spaces, Talking Walls is not organized by a single individual or group. Any individual, community group, or campus group is encouraged to submit proposals for a Talking Walls exhibit, so long as their intended exhibit features “socially engaged works.” The wide-ranging, inclusive mandate transforms an unassuming wall into a starting point for cross-community engagement.

The last Talking Walls exhibit, For People of Colour Who Suffer From Mental Illness And Have Been Silenced, was organized by a UofT Scarborough Campus group, Future Black Physicians. The group is aimed to support racialized students working towards a career in medicine, and the exhibit featured a photo series aimed to “represent the way people with mental illnesses have been silenced in the Black community.” The first time I walked the hall of the exhibition, the bright colours of the photo panels jumped out at me and demanded my attention. I hadn’t come to Hart House in search of the exhibit, but the photos captured my attention and required me to look closer and engage with the subject. The photo panels in the exhibit were often unexpected, as they contrasted the serious topic of mental health in the Black community with bright colours and cartoon images, but the contrast is part of what made the exhibit so striking. 

Panel from the Talking Walls exhibit: For People of Colour Who Suffer From Mental Illness And Have Been Silenced. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

Talking Walls is proof that unconventional museum spaces can create unique, stimulating experiences. While a somewhat narrow hallway may not sound like an ideal exhibition space, the hallway actually bolstered the subject of the exhibit. The central hallway space meant anyone passing through the halls had the opportunity to engage in a conversation about mental health in the Black community, whether they’d intended to join the dialogue or not. 

Panel from the Talking Walls exhibit: For People of Colour Who Suffer From Mental Illness And Have Been Silenced. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

The exhibition space is also an example of the sort of inclusive programming museums strive for today. The exhibition is part of the programming for the annual Hart House Hancock lecture. This year’s lecture is titled Black and Educated? Unveiling The Contradictions and Redesigning The Future. The exhibition complements the theme of the lecture, while also expanding the conversation in new directions and allowing for multiple voices to participate in the dialogue. Talking Walls allows contributing groups to author their own narratives, and turns a typical hallway into an engaging experience. In an age where museum professionals are working to create more inclusive, engaging spaces, Talking Walls offers some important lessons in the power of inclusion and visibility. 

If you’re on campus, check out the latest Talking Walls exhibit, In Their Own Words. The exhibit is organized by the Hancock Lecture Advisory Committee in an effort to give marginalized students on campus a chance to voice their experiences, in their own words. 

Panel from the current Talking Walls exhibit: In Their Own Words. Photo courtesy of Amy Intrator.

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