Curator for a Day

When I was a kid, growing up in the Nation’s Capital, I visited a lot of museums. On more than one occasion, with school or with cub scouts, I was able to sleep over in many of the National Museums including the Civilization Museum (now the Canadian History Museum), the Aviation Museum, the Nature Museum, and one of my favourites, the Science Museum. These unique, special experiences that allowed us youngsters a glance at the behind-the-scenes ‘how it works’ of a museum is exactly why I work in museums now.

When any opportunity arises to share my passion for all things museum with those around me, I jump . Thus, our new ‘Curator for a Day’ program (or ‘Jr. Curators’ for short).

Our latest crop of ‘Jr. Curators’ came to the St. Catharines Museum on the most recent PA Day, Friday, January 15, 2016. Their task: learn about caring for artifacts, explore the Museum’s collection, and create an exhibit for display to the public in the Museum’s lobby.

Jr. Curator Kit: A VIP Pass to the Museum and a pair of artifact handling gloves.

Artifacts Tell Stories

One thing that is sometimes difficult to get across to our younger visitors is that all the objects in our collection have some importance or significance to them, usually because of the story that is attached to them. This is what we generally call the intangible value.

Here’s a great example of differentiation between tangible and intangible values;

Imagine, if you would, a quill pen and ink well. The quill is white goose feather and is about 15 cm long. The ink well is a white porcelain contain, vase-like, closing to a small opening in the top. The quill pen and ink well are neat objects because we don’t use them today, we use ball-point pens and computers to communicate via written word.

That’s the tangible value. Everything we can see and know just from looking at the object. Here’s the intangible value (remember, this is just an example!);

Now that we understand the tangible values of the objects in front of us, what if I told you that the quill pen and ink well were a set that belonged to William Hamilton Merritt and the set was used by him, and other founding members, to sign important founding documents of the Welland Canal Company in 1824?

There is the intangible value. It is something that we don’t know just by looking at the object. Generally, it is this intangible value that makes historic objects significant to our community history and identity, and it is those stories which museums are responsible for sharing, and for taking care of.

To the Vaults 

After our young curators were introduced to the importance of objects in our community history and identity, we took a tour to see all the different types of objects that the Museum is responsible for looking after. Since the Museum’s collection is so large, there is a huge variety of ‘stuff’ and types of storage spaces in the maze that is our collection vaults. The Jr. Curators were able to view first hand the lengths we go to and resources that are devoted to looking after our historic objects properly. Even though a cannon ball from the War of 1812 is a big hunk of iron and probably indestructible at the touch of a human, the stories that are connected to that object are so important, and distant (therefore fragile) that we really must take extra care of the objects.

Story Telling

After a short break (with cookies, fruit, and juice) our Jr. Curators began their work creating their very own exhibitions using real artifacts.

The Collections staff and I had picked a few items that we knew were ready to be displayed and that matched a couple of themes: sports, toys, winter. That gave us a few options for story telling and for an exhibition theme. Aside from some basic logistical boundaries (no, artifacts can not be displayed on top of each other), we had little restrictions and I had no idea what to expect from our Jr. Curators.

We started with a theme and a story idea. We had a look at the pool of artifacts we had to work with, and our first group chose to focus on toys. Our second group amalgamated our two other themes into an exhibit about hockey (sports + winter). With that, the Jr. Curators were hands on, looking over their artifacts, writing labels, and crafting an overall story to help visitors engage with their displays.

And then, all of a sudden, we had our display cases. The Jr. Curators were expert-level display designers – I felt like I was working with real professionals. They clearly understood major attributes of exhibit design, and brought the kid perspective of sight-line issues to the table. If an artifact was blocking another, then it moved. If a label couldn’t be seen, it moved too.

Look out world, there are five awesome future curators on their way.

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Fun with Twitter

An important part of an exhibit is promoting it so the public knows to come and see it. Social media, especially twitter, makes it really easy for museums to reach broad and new audiences. So, the Jr. Curators, with a little help from me, composed some tweets to encourage folks to come see their exhibit.

Warning: Emojis were enthusiastically selected by the Jr. Curators.


Hands on Ownership

What I like best about this program is that the participants get way more involvement than anyone could ever expect. They are given ownership and responsibility over a set of artifacts and a project. Their work product is now on display for the world to see. There is only a handful of experiences that can provide this type of ownership and the feelings of pride and confidence that go with them. It is those emotions that will help the participants to remember the program, the artifacts, and the impact the Museum had on them, the the impact they had on the Museum, with hopes that they and their families find extraordinary value in the protection and preservation of our community identity.

It took sleepovers in 5 national museums to hook me on museum life. It took two hours to make a significant impact on our Jr. Curators, one that I hope they remember for the rest of their lives.

Adrian Petry is a public historian and the public programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. 

“Play Time” curated by Jr. Curators Vaughn and Luke, and “Old Ice” curated by Jr. Curators Jack, Hudson, and Liam, will be on display in the lobby of the St. Catharines Museum until Family Day, Monday, February 15, 2016. 


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