Wednesday, September 21, 2011

To Chaperone or Not To Chaperone?

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

Chaperones are critical to school programs at the museum. they are often required to drive the students to the museum and then once here we ask them to help with the education program. But how? Do the chaperones feel comfortable in their role - if they even know what it is?

There have been many studies on how text, labels and exhibition layout can affect learning, but not so many on the the role and effectiveness of chaperones. During my recent preparation for school program training I've read some interesting case studies including one by Elizabeth Wood. Her 2010 article "Defining the Chaperone's Role as Escort, Educator or Parent" suggests that chaperones behave in these three ways. I have often thought of them as escorts but the idea of treating school program groups more like family groups really struck me.

Considering that chaperones with school program groups are often parents or close family relatives, it seems natural that they would want to interact with the students as well as monitor them. If I were in the gallery interacting with a family I would ask the parents and the children questions and I would also answer questions from the adults while still focusing on the children. Why not do that with school groups?

Chaperones in school program groups can sometimes cause distraction by talking amongst themselves, wandering off or answering questions before students have had time to think about an answer. In school program training this year, I am suggesting to the docents that we welcome chaperones early on - not only as escorts but as participants. Instead of reminding them not to interrupt the program, let's invite them to participate - and when they do participate, let's turn it back to the kids. By acknowledging chaperones and inviting them to learn with us, we may be able to reduce some of the distracting behavior that can take place but more importantly we may be able to increase the learning that happens for everyone in the program.

Have you been a chaperone on a school trip or have you worked with school program groups in a museum? Do you think this approach will work?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Re-imagining History

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

‘Challenge’ is a rather overused term these days – often a euphemism for ‘problem’. But I have to say we have a beauty of a challenge right now.
 We’ve just begun to re-imagine our History Gallery. It’s time. Much of the History Gallery was created in the 1970s and it has been visited by more than 10 million human beings. It is still in great shape and its immersive settings continue to surprise and delight. But we have new stories we’d like to explore and the existing presentation has never really fulfilled its interpretive potential. 
Imagining how to renew this iconic presentation presents a remarkable – and perhaps unique - challenge and some head-scratching questions:

Maintaining the Magic
The 'Old Town' gallery is built with enormous precision and detail. A whole street is perfectly replicated. How do we add a layer of new interpretation without ruining the illusion? 
Old Town’: the detail in the buildings
and their interiors is astonishing 

In the Beginning…
Though the gallery is organized around a general timeline, few visitors are aware of it. Does a chronology help visitors to follow a story and situate themselves? Should we break from this structure and present the gallery as a series of themes?
 The Modern History begins with
Captain Vancouver but few visitors
realize that they are on a
journey through time

Nurse, scalpel please
To achieve a transformation, there needs to be a critical mass of new presentation …not simply a rejuvenation of old displays. So, what parts do we keep… and what needs to go? Do we have the courage to remove large [and surely beloved by someone] elements?
The Exploration Gallery:
a candidate for replacement?

Who’s not invited?
How do we represent the numerous cultural groups that have made British Columbia their home? The very nature of our society and history is cultural diversity. How do we adequately represent everyone who came here to make a new home?
Currently, Chinatown provides a
glimpse into some particular experiences
of Chinese British Columbians

Where are the people?
Though the entire existing gallery is about the endeavors of human beings, it is surprisingly devoid of any sense of human personality. How do we connect people to the real experience of people from the past?
The Majestic Theatre and The Cannery:
both appear to have just been abandoned!

These are just some of the challenging questions our planning team is confronting right now. We’ve a long way to go – though I think it’s the challenge in the true sense of the word that is firing our imagination right now.

I’d love to hear from anyone with thoughts as to how we should approach any one of these considerations.

Tim Willis

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Youth in the Service of Age

From the desk 
Conservator at the 
Royal BC Museum

David Douglas was a hard-working Scottish botanist.   When he died, aged 35, he had introduced about 250 North American plants to British gardeners.   In addition to the Douglas Fir, he described 7,000 of the 92,000 plants known to botanists in the early 19th century.  Over eighty plant and animals have douglasii in their scientific names.

Douglas' often requested book of sketches alongside a Pseudotsuga menziesii cone 

He travelled to the Pacific Northwest in 1824 and 1830.  His Book of Sketch maps of a Journey from the Junction of the Columbia and Okanogan Rivers to Quesnel and North, April to May 1833 is in the BC Archives and frequent requests are made by researchers who wish to view or photograph the manuscript maps.  Unfortunately the book is in very poor condition; it is too delicate to travel and photography is difficult because of the damaged binding.  The 25 single-sided pages containing the maps sketched in iron gall ink are relatively stable at the moment, but iron gall ink is notoriously destructive to paper.
We are very fortunate this summer to have Emilie van der Hoorn, an intern from the University of Northumbria (UK) working with paper conservator Betty Walsh.   Emilie has a particular interest in iron gall inks and she tested the pages with Iron Indicator Paper developed by the Netherlands Institute for Cultural Heritage.  These revealed that there are loose Fe2+ ions present which will catalyze the degradation of the cellulose; in time the ink will eat through the paper. 
She has proposed that the iron gall ink be treated soon to preserve the relatively good condition of the sketches, and that the remaining pages of the book be washed and de-acidified.  There are two options for treatment.  The least invasive would be to interleave sheets of gelatin impregnated alkaline paper between the inked pages.  These would neutralize acids to a pH at which the gelatin could complex the Fe2+ ions preventing migration of the corroding ink to facing pages, but not preventing acids and ions embedded in the paper from degrading further.  Alternately the pages could be treated with a calcium-phytate method.  Developed by the Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed in the Netherlands, this would leave the paper cleaner, probably more supple, deacidified, and with an alkali reserve to counter future acid buildup; ink corrosion would not continue.  The book would have to be taken apart, and rebound after the treatment was complete, however the binding is fairly ordinary and, once apart, the manuscript maps could be better photographed for use by researchers. 

It is always a difficult decision to disassemble an artifact.  Although conservators aim for reversibility in their treatments, in many cases this is impractical.  Conservators also tend to be … conservative, unwilling to experiment with treatments that have not stood the test of time; there are many cases where doing nothing has caused less damage than elaborate “improvements”.  However, the problems with untreated iron gall ink are well known.  

Interns challenge us with their questions, inspire us with fresh ideas from their recent studies, and galvanize us with their youthful energy.  Because of the crush of other projects, treatment of the Douglas Sketchbook will happen after Emilie has returned to her studies, but in the meantime we have all benefitted.  Emilie examined, analyzed and articulated the treatment of a valuable artifact, the Archives received the perspective of two of the leading schools of paper conservation, and the manuscript maps of David Douglas are poised to illuminate future research.