What Museums Mean To Me with Deanna WaySeptember 27, 2023
Written by: Deanna Way
Everyone views, experiences, and relates to museums in different ways. For better or worse, heritage institutions can have a significant impact on people’s lives. As museum professionals, we must grapple with how to bring these historic organizations into the modern age through exhibits, programming, collections, and outreach. We all enter the field for different reasons and find unique meaning and purpose in the diverse range of work we do. In today’s blog post, QMNH Executive Director, Deanna, gives us a glimpse into what museums mean to her.
What is your earliest memory of museums?
As someone who was born and raised in Ottawa, ON, my earliest memory was taking a walk through the Crazy Kitchen at the Canada Science & Technology Museum. Hands-down it has been my most enjoyable interactive experience in a museum. I imagine a lot of Ottawa natives would have similar feelings towards it. The Crazy Kitchen happens to be the museum’s first interactive and it dates back to their opening in 1967. The Kitchen boggles the visitor’s perception through the use of illusion. I always found it hilarious, I have fond memories of giggles and laughter as you’re trying to walk through it. It is a fun way to understand how the brain can trick itself when interpreting the environment through vision.
How did you know you wanted to become a museum professional?
It was my 4th year of my undergrad where I studied history and philosophy at Carleton University. One of my courses required us to break off into teams to create a short documentary on a history topic of choice. My team chose to uncover the story of the Gouzenko Affair. For those unfamiliar with the Gouzenko Affair, it follows the events around the defection of Russian cipher clerk, Igor Gouzenko. He was stationed at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa and on one September evening in 1945, he stole a number of top-secret documents that exposed the existence of Soviet spy rings in Canada, the USA, and Britain.
Throughout my university career, I did most of my research and paper writing through libraries. Creating this documentary on Gouzenko was a unique opportunity to find other forms of knowledge that exist beyond what was written in the history books. I found myself engaging with museums to access their archives and collections in order to conduct my research; I was searching for photographs, books, videos, anything and everything that would help me convey a story.
It was an afternoon sitting and conducting research in the Diefenbunker where it hit me. I want to be back here, working behind the scenes in a museum. After that, I searched online to find an applicable program that would suit this newfound passion. I came across the Applied Museum Studies program at Algonquin College and the rest is history.
What is your favourite museum you have ever visited?
The Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle, Washington (formerly known as the Experience Music Project). Popular culture is such a fascinating subject and I’d go as far to say it is the strongest sphere of influence on society. I could probably write an entire article on that museum, but I will save it for another time. What I will say is that their mission, exhibits, and curatorial content is highly relatable and enjoyable to experience.
If you’re ever in Seattle, I highly encourage putting MoPOP on your list of must-sees.
What type of museum visitor are you?
I’d say I’m a cross between an Explorer and a Recharger. Despite being a museum professional myself, I tend to embark on museum journeys without any set plans or expectations. I’m there for the experience and to find the little things that intrigue me. On the recharger end of things, I often find myself staring at displays, looking at the ways in which objects are mounted and presented to the public. Knowing that there is a lot that goes into the physical design of an exhibition space, I enjoy giving myself time to carefully observe the design and feeling of the space. It makes me happy to appreciate the work of fellow industry professionals. I’m also a big fan of trying out all museum cafés and perusing gift shops.
Where do you find inspiration for future planning at QMNH?
I find inspiration from all elements in my life; my education, working in fossil preparation and heritage conservation, through friends & colleagues, by visiting other museums, by scrolling social media, and through art. I actively try to keep my mind and spirit open to all forms of inspiration because it is all learning and it is all growth.
That being said, there is an underpinning of profound personal experience that is leading the way in how I go about the development and future planning of QMNH.
A few years ago, I spent nearly two years living in nature; off-the-grid along the Salmon River, quite far away from society. The set-up was reasonably comfortable. I lived in an insulated tiny house which I built with a friend and it had modern amenities; solar power, a mini-fridge, a wood stove, satellite internet, a composting toilet, pressurized taps using collected rainwater, and grey water recycling. I showered using buckets outside on the deck, heating the water I collected from the river using either wood or propane. I witnessed the change of seasons in a way I’ve never experienced before. The still silence of winter; the absolute chaos and beauty of spring (it gets so LOUD as everything is waking up and reproducing), the growth spurt and soothing sounds of summer, and the crunchy coolness of fall. In winter, the flood plane would rise among the red maples that line the waterfront of the river. During spring, the ice would melt and I would be able to watch the baby beavers swimming amongst the trees. Springtime soon became a favourite because of how much the landscape and sounds changed in such a short amount of time; it was magical.
Being immersed in nature like that was a grounding, humbling, and life changing experience. When you are alone in the woods, all you have is yourself to depend on. Being able to interpret your environment is essential to survival. It also happens to be the most beautiful and natural way to live. We are all animals; we all belong in nature. Life is a cycle and every season has a purpose. Ultimately, this experience provided a newfound appreciation for the natural world around me and I believe that we, as a society, need to do better to protect our planet.
In thinking about the future of QMNH, it is essential that we, as an organization, lean deep into our mission of inspiring discovery, conservation, and stewardship of our natural heritage. From our physical building to our programs, from our exhibits and to our collections, it is our responsibility to ensure we are doing our very best to build and think green. What do I mean when I use green in this context? That we uphold a commitment to serving and respecting our planet. Every living thing on this earth, past and present, has a story to share and every story is an opportunity for knowledge and understanding.
If you could change anything about the museum world as a whole, what would it be?
Increased public engagement and relationship-building as a way of capturing and preserving knowledge. Personally, I’m a firm believer in knowledge sharing and ensuring barrier-free access to knowledge. Knowledge comes in all shapes, sizes, and forms. It is both tangible and intangible; explicit and tacit.
Back in August, I took a week-long Summer Institute in Museum Studies at Carleton University. Each day was a focused topic of discussion followed by a trip to a museum or gallery. One of the speakers was Rachelle Dickenson, Senior Curator of the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG). She spoke about her experience on co-curating “83 ’til Infinity: 40 years of hip-hop in the Ottawa-Gatineau Region.” What I found particularly inspirational was the innovative approach to a community-curated exhibit. Rachelle expressed that her main takeaway from the development of the exhibit was the importance of relationships and how social networks are centres of knowledge-sharing. She also pointed out that the exhibit isn’t meant to define hip-hop culture in Ottawa but that this exhibit is a community conversation. It was a refreshing take on how we approach and share history; the OAG is doing it well. Our history is an ever-evolving conversation, it isn’t static.
In thinking about QMNH, our very first permanent exhibit, Fossilized Quinte, was created through our volunteers and local community members. The exhibit features information about our local fossil record, complete with an interactive touch table where visitors can look at and identify fossils. Involving the community not only allows the museum to tap into additional knowledge, it fosters relationships and creates a place where people can feel valued.
How do you think the role of museums is changing? What do you think the future holds for museums?
Fundamentally, the role of museums is to help us learn from the past. One of my favourite sayings is that “if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.”
The historical narrative, particularly in Western society, is dominated by a white, cisgendered male point of view; monarchical rule of kings, patriarchy, male-dominated Christianity, war, and colonialism. It’s primarily focused to celebrate the achievements of “man” and completely marginalizes the majority of people on this planet.
The reality is that history is non-linear and that many interpretations of time and events exist at once and they include the experiences of each and every single person.
Growing up in the Canadian school system in the 90s, the narrative of Canada and what being Canadian meant was always shrouded with being the Peacemaker, the nice friendly neighbours to the North, the multicultural “mosaic” of nations. While I believe that there was some benefit to this upbringing in the sense that it taught me to celebrate multiculturalism, this cultural identity I was conditioned to believe was built upon propagandic lies. Take the atrocities of the Residential School System, for example. Led primarily by colonial religious groups, it was a systematic cultural genocide of Indigenous, First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples across the country. It is a history that has continuously been swept under the rug and has only begun to come to public light in recent years. It is difficult history, it is traumatic history, and it is history that must be acknowledged.
At their core, museums should strive to be connectors of community, education, and positive change. As such, they have the capacity and responsibility to change the colonial narratives of the histories we know; to give voice, place, and space to all those who have lived it and experienced it. It’s a slow process but I am seeing the narratives changing in museums. I see the passion of my colleagues working diligently to bring forth truth, no matter how complex or muddy. Museums need to adjust so that they can embrace change more actively; especially as new information presents itself. It is a daunting task and we may never get it perfect, but we must try.
Does new technology have a place in museums? Why or why not?
Absolutely! Technology is changing the way we interact with people, the way we build relationships, and the way we interpret the world. Embracing technological innovation is a way to stay current, relative, and relatable.
What types of professional backgrounds would you like to see more of in the museum field?
I think the museum is a place for people of all professional backgrounds, so long as they have a passion to share knowledge in their communities.
However, in thinking about the previous question about new technology, I think museums would benefit from hiring more content creators. Social media has a profound impact on the way we interact with each other. Applications such as TikTok and Instagram are incredibly active platforms and museums can use them to engage with new and returning audiences. The content trends that occur in these platforms are constantly evolving. I find there is a certain calibre of realism and humour that tends to dominate in this realm. As such, it’s a place for museums to share in relatable human experience and to not take themselves too seriously. Having platforms like these where a museum can express relatability contributes to the larger umbrella of being an inclusive space for all people. The way I see it, having content creators employed to navigate this rapidly moving space gives museums a greater opportunity to be seen by the public and to engage with their communities.
83 ‘til Infinity. Retrieved from https://oaggao.ca/whats-on/exhibitions/83-til-infinity/#:~:text=Welcome%20to%2083%20’til%20infinity,ing%2C%20graffiti%2C%20and%20knowledge.
Crazy Kitchen. Retrieved from https://ingeniumcanada.org/scitech/exhibitions/crazy-kitchen-plus
Igor Gouzenko. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/igor-sergeievich-gouzenko
Kent Monkman: Being Legendary. Retrieved from https://www.rom.on.ca/en/exhibitions-galleries/exhibitions/kent-monkman-being-legendary
Museum of Pop Culture. Retrieved from https://www.mopop.org/
The Witness Blanket. Retrieved from https://witnessblanket.ca/?gclid=Cj0KCQjw9rSoBhCiARIsAFOiplnEUFiqemBiIIFHzKRgZmtHoeg1RyyYGfQ82QKNvA9_dT7gv-D3lwUaAiFXEALw_wcB