Thursday, May 27, 2010

Galt Museum

I have been consistently impressed with the exhibits mounted locally by the Galt Museum, but I was particularly struck by the recent Treasures and Curiosities Exhibit (Feb 20-May 2010). I feel strongly that this exhibit was not only engaging and innovative, but a role model for other regional museums to follow (which is why it's worth mentioning here, since most of my readers cannot travel to Lethbridge, or back in time, to see it).

The Treasures and Curiosities Exhibit had staff, board, volunteer and community members select their favorite artifacts from the Galt’s collection. This resulted in a very eclectic and slightly eccentric collection of artifacts, but presented two connecting threads: first, everything was from the Galt collection so by definition had a Southern Alberta connection; second, every item had a personal connection to, or resonance for, the community member who had selected it for the display. The write up on each item devoted as much space to the story of why the community member made the selection as on the item itself. This made for an inherently fascinating exhibit because even if the particular object held little interest for the viewer (i.e., me), the story of why someone else felt connected to the object was often as engaging, or more so, than the object itself.

The resulting display presented, therefore, several unique aspects:

First, just as Wikipedia includes entries on many topics the Britannica editors would never have deemed worthy of inclusion, the use of ordinary community members (as well as staff and board members) in choosing items for display created a wonderfully democratic process. Although the display was delimited by the fact that everything necessarily came from the Galt collection, and so all the artifacts were appropriate and of museum quality, the selection criteria still pretty broad! I find it highly unlikely that any expert curator would have put together this particular selection of items, and it is that very aspect of random juxtaposition that made the display so stimulating and such a creative success. Where else would you find a WWII model tank (made by a German POW interned near Lethbridge) next to a multilith, a grand piano, and six really creepy nurse dolls?

Similarly, given the broad sample of individuals included in the selection process, the criteria of personal resonance produced an extremely representative sample of time periods, topics, and Southern Alberta lifestyles. The greatest unifying theme was the sense of browsing through the Galt collections oneself and stumbling upon item after item with their own personal resonance for the viewer.

Second, I had a very strong emotional connection to several of the items. I would not normally have expected a multilith machine to be included in a museum display, and was strongly reminded of my mother, who ran that exact model of multilith for many years when the technology was still new. A far higher percentage of items in this exhibit had that effect on me than any other exhibit I can remember.

Third, I had a very strong impulse to donate to the Galt collection. Seeing, for example, the Gestetner 120 included in the display, I was reminded that I have a working condition Gestetner from two generations earlier in my basement – one of only a few dozen of that particular model left in the world. (Gestetner recalled and destroyed all the others when they realized the ‘perpetual guarantee’ they had been sold with was costing them too much money.) Indeed, there were any number of artifacts which gave me pause to think that I too had something similar, something better, or something missing from the display that could be offered to the Galt.

Beyond the association with particular artifacts, I think I and others become much better educated about the sorts of items museums actually collect when we see an exhibit such as this one. Most of us make the mistake of preserving the unusual – the commemorative coin, the souvenir, etc. – rather than the every day, common place items that are in fact the representative artifacts that museums require. Seeing this eclectic collection of everyday items, and feeling the strong emotional response such familiar objects trigger, educates potential donors about what they could be passing onto the Galt. This is especially timely given current demographics and that many of my generation are dealing with elder care and the disposition of estates. The range of items included in this exhibit – from a widower’s hooked rug of the ‘big bang’ (a nice example of both eccentricity and the concretization of abstract theory held in a particular age) to a ‘compact radio’ the size of trunk to first nation artifacts – was unusually helpful in demonstrating the scope of museum collections.

Further, as a celebration of the breadth and depth of the Galt Collection, one cannot help but feel a certain level of pride in and appreciation of -- and therefore the desire to contribute to -- that collection.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, the display served to highlight the purpose of collections and museums such as the Galt. A local exhibit of local history that teaches us all that this stuff matters. That there is indeed a personal connection to local history for all of us at some level, even if we originally came from and have roots somewhere else. This is what museums are about.

The extremely simple (I mean conceptually – I’m sure it was an immense effort to organize) design of this exhibit is exemplary – there is no museum that could not adopt this particular democratic and populist approach to mounting a display from their own collections. That I have never seen or heard of anything similar elsewhere suggests to me that the collections team at the Galt has hit on an extremely useful, applicable, and transferable innovation which others would be well advised to adopt.

So, go forth to your local museum and suggest that they attempt a similar exhibit -- and be sure to volunteer as one of those to pour through their hidden collection rooms to make your own selection for the display.

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