Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Social Media and Museums

We've just passed the six month mark with the Royal BC Museum blog! Dipping our toes in the sea of social media, we've tried to make the blog into a window on the life of our museum. As part of the blogging team, I know I've had fun reading and writing about everything from Captain Cook to the history of our Mammoth.

On the Facebook side of things, we're closing in on 1000 friends, and have had a lively stream of comments on our wall. And we're building up our collection of YouTube videos - the one about the Teddy Bear is still my favourite.

While we're not the biggest bloggers in town, we're happy with how things have gone. The point of social media, for us, is to engage you in our work and play. We want you to comment on what we've said, tell a friend about what you've learned, or think about how you can be a part of what we do. Social media makes reaching out like this easier than ever before.

What about other museums? Want to learn more about social media and museums?

A good starting point is the fabulous blog by Nina Simon. Her posts on social media and museums are always fascinating. If you want to hear Nina in person, she'll be the keynote speaker at the upcoming British Columbia Museums Association conference. Another interesting conference is the annual Museums and the Web - they also publish all of their papers and presentations online. It can be a little academic, but provides a great snapshot of the "state of the art" in the museum world.

Finally, check out a recent online event that was probably the biggest example of social media engagement by museums around the world. Ask a Curator Day was held on September 1st, 2010. On that day, 340 museums made their curators available to answer any questions asked by the public via Twitter. It was, by all accounts, a huge success. If it happens next year, perhaps we can join in that conversation, too!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You May Need Us More Than You Realize

From the desk of Ann ten Cate, Reference Archivist at the Royal BC Museum

Future generations will, I am confident, appreciate the work we are doing with the archival collections here at the RBCM. As Winston Churchill famously said “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.” Most people can see the value of the records for historians (family or otherwise). But I think it’s also important to recognize that archival records are used for very immediate purposes. As a reference archivist I help researchers who are working on a broad range of topics – everything from preparing environmental assessments to creating historical fiction.

And, even more frequently, B.C. Archives staff are helping people who need archival records for very personal reasons. Lately, I’ve had a run of requests for help in finding records which were absolutely critical to those individuals because they needed them to claim government benefits – or to confirm their own identity.

Winston Churchill in Beacon Hill Park, 1929, F-05216, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Here’s a sampling of their stories – with names withheld to protect the innocent (or not so innocent) as the case may be!

Back in 1990, Mr. X. was convicted of possession of marijuana. Just one plant – but it was enough to leave him with a criminal record. Mr. X was not a Canadian citizen, but a landed immigrant. Shortly after his conviction his home, and with it his proof of immigration status, were destroyed in a fire. Fast forward to 2010 – Mr. X is now eligible for Old Age Security, and needs to provide his immigration documentation. To get that replaced, he has to fill out “form IMM5541”, which requires that he attach a copy of the “pertinent court documents” relating to his past conviction. You can imagine his frustration...he has no court documents because they were all destroyed in the same fire that destroyed his immigration documents! His initial inquiries to the court system were not fruitful and he came to the B.C. Archives sounding pretty desperate.

In the end, it turned out we didn’t have the record – but we were able to determine that Mr. X’s court file still existed in the court system and were able to give him precise instructions on how to obtain it at a court registry. He’ll be able to get his Old Age Security benefits – and we’ve advised him to put his “pertinent court documents” in a safety deposit box for the next time Big Brother comes calling.

Last month, another male client came to us looking for a copy of his divorce order. This happens often – usually because the person needs it to remarry, claim pension benefits, immigrate or emigrate. As many of us know from personal experience, governments all over the world are tightening up and expanding their requirements for proof of identity. The Archives holds most divorce orders granted in B.C. from 1877 to 1990, and we do a steady trade in providing copies of divorce orders. What made this gentleman’s request unique was that he needed the order to prove that he had custody of his children – and would thus qualify for extra benefits under the Child Rearing Provision of the Canada Pension Plan.

A third case was especially touching – after being brought up in extremely difficult circumstances a young child was transferred to the custody of the Children’s Aid Society many years ago. Now, as an adult, this individual is looking for more information about his birth mother. He knows her name, and when she died, but now he wants any record that bears her signature or her name – simply to bring together all the evidence of her life, and of his own existence.

Children's Aid Society Building, Vancouver, ca 1895, G-02215, RBCM-BC Archives photo

Like the others, his request brought a very human dimension to the work we do here.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Back to Class

From the desk of Kim Gough, Program Developer, Royal BC Museum

The September long-weekend will always remind me of going back to school. The last few days of summer vacation was sometimes filled with dread and sometimes terribly exciting. One of the things I looked forward to were the field trips. Growing up in Alberta, I never had the chance to come to the Royal BC Museum as a student, but many BC school children have. Last year over 20,000 students attended self-guided visits and over 3,000 students attended docent-led programs at the museum. Helmcken House , located in our precinct just to the east of the museum, has been offering school programs since 1942. However this October the pitter-patter of school children’s feet will not be heard in Helmcken House while the museum makes much needed improvements to fire suppression and security in the historic building.

This is also an opportunity for my department to make some changes and improvements to the education programs that we have been offering in Helmcken House. Luckily at the museum, we have another great space for students to experience life in the past – Old Town. The new program I have developed will let kids travel back one hundred years to explore a town and discover how people’s needs were met in their communities.

Old Town at the Royal BC Museum

Our new program will offer children an opportunity to share ideas, ask questions, use their imagination, use their senses and make personal connections to the past. Finding the right type of hands-on engagement is essential to making a memorable experience for the students. I always try to keep in mind the different types of intelligences as described by Howard Gardner and provide an experience for as many of those types as possible. Is there something for those who like math, music, movement, logic? What about those who like to work together, and those who like to work alone? It has been helpful to me as a reminder not just to provide the types of activities that I enjoy.

A school program at the Royal BC Museum

If you aren’t already familiar with Howard Gardner, take a look at his list of nine types of intelligence. What type are you? If you are a school programmer or developer, share your tips for developing hands-on experiences – I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Less is More

From the desk of Tim Willis, Director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience

I’m intrigued by what is going on in a visitor’s mind when they first arrive in a museum. I suspect it’s a mix of excitement (we hope) and anxiety (where do I go, where do I pay, what’s on?).

Design theory says that people need time and room to adjust from the outside world before they negotiate the beginning of a visit – and I’m sure this is right. However, in many cases (our situation included) the architecture of the building does not allow this respite. Instead, one is required immediately to make decisions.

Adding to the anxiety I’m sure, is the information we seem determined to thrust in their way: directional signage, visitor services, admission rates, special events, membership deals and promotional blurbs of various kinds. As museum buildings age, coordinated signage treatment seems to breakdown. The result can be a cacophony – just when the visitor is looking for simplicity.

I don’t think it needs to be this way. In my view, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London provides – overall – one of the best museum experiences anywhere. Visiting the V&A is easy, and their entrance experience is a model of simplicity.

Images: Two video monitors convey all that you need to know at the V&A

The entrance rotunda is a study in restraint. The absence of signage is a real lesson. Millions of visitors come through this space every year. And it appears that they get most of what they need from just three sources – an information desk and two video monitors. It seems that focusing everyone’s attention to a very few key places is more effective than asking them to look everywhere.

Less is more.

Image: V&A’s Dale Chihuly sculpture has a certain ‘wow’ factor … but beneath it the entrance lobby is a model of restraint

Tim Willis

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


From the desk of Sean Rodman, Strategic Partnerships Manager at the Royal BC Museum

Have you heard of Artifact or Artifiction, the annual museum gala fundraising event? It’s a game where the guests are the players. Twenty curators with artifacts or specimens are stationed throughout our galleries. Guests have to guess: is a curator telling the truth about an artifact, or making up an explanation?

While the event is a lot of fun for both guests and curators, it is also an important way of supporting the work of the Royal BC Museum. This year, all the funds raised are going towards our educational outreach program, including sending the “Aliens Among Us” exhibit on the road.

It’s a huge event, and we work with many partners in the community to pull it off. One of our partners, CHEK News, is helping us to spread the word: they offered to create a 30 second promotional video for us that will be aired over the next few weeks.

This was my first time seeing a TV crew at work, and it was fascinating. Early one morning, while the galleries were still closed, we snuck in with a small team from CHEK. Along with us were Tony Parsons, news anchor and MC for Artifact or Artifiction, and Gavin Hanke, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology.

The first thing that impressed me was how quickly the CHEK crew turned the centre of our Behind the Scenes gallery into an impromptu TV studio. Lights, reflectors, a big camera on a tripod, display monitors – all of it popped out of a series of carrying cases. Soon the gallery was ready to go, with our mammal display serving as backdrop to the shoot.

Tony delivered his lines professionally and, although he didn’t have a speaking part, Gavin held his own on stage. By the time the gate to the gallery was rolling upwards and a crowd of visitors was streaming in, the crew had wrapped up and was heading down the freight elevator to capture their next story.

A few days later, we received the finished product. It will air over the next few weeks, and is already available online. What happens next? Well, hopefully the promo spot on CHEK will help us to sell out of tickets soon – we’re over half-way already!

The only downside? I suspect that Gavin, our curator in the spotlight, now dreams of a career on the tube. I think his agent is already pestering the Knowledge Network for his own series….

ps. Want to watch the final product?