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Visions of History

3 Jun

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As you may know, June is National Aboriginal History Month and as usual MIA is preparing a slew of activities for visitors. This year, we’ve primarily focused on exploring the often-undiscussed tensions created by colonialism that manifest themselves in the art on display here. A special self-guided tour is available throughout June focusing on four specific pieces, and I will be lecturing on National Aboriginal Day (June 21) about this in more detail.

These discussions have seemed more and more urgent at the museum lately. Within the last month, our summer students and docent trainees have been learning about the power dynamics underpinning much of contemporary Inuit art. Meanwhile, the Makivik Corp and NFB have launched a new website tracing the histories of the two most famous forced relocations of Inuit. The story was also further explored recently on the CBC.

So, it was with interest that I opened a new informational poster produced by the Government of Canada and promoted as part of National Aboriginal History Month educational offerings dedicated to “Canadian Arctic Expedition: 1913-1918″ this morning. The poster is a small portion of the text of their expanded webpage about the expedition on the Northern Strategy website.

Throughout the pamphlet there are names and short biographies of Southern explorers and scientists, but no personal identifiers for any Inuit pictured. This portion of the pamphlet features an Inuit woman's ulu but offers no context for why it has been included with the text or who it would have belonged to.

Throughout the poster there are names and short biographies of Southern explorers and scientists, but no personal identifiers for any Inuit pictured. This portion of the poster features an Inuit woman’s ulu but offers no context for why it has been included with the text or who it would have belonged to.

The text emphasizes the contributions of non-Inuit explorers who visited the Arctic over a five year period in two primary fields: scientific discovery and establishing sovereignty for Canada. As a result, the language downplays or ignores important traditional knowledge of local Inuit. For example, the poster explains:

The Expedition discovered five major Arctic islands as well as a number of smaller ones, established the outer edge of the Continental shelf and mapped Arctic coastlines.

I’m quite certain local Inuit were aware of these islands prior to their “discovery” in the twentieth century. Further, the poster insists on the importance of the expedition for establishing Canadian sovereignty and “control” repeatedly, while painting Inuit as helpers at best and props at worst. None of the Inuit pictured are named, though all southern explorers are, and their involvement is described tellingly:

The Canadian Arctic Expedition had a significant impact on the knowledge and understanding of Northern people, particularly the lesser known Copper Inuit. Diamond Jenness’ extensive anthropological studies and collection of artifacts provided great insight into the daily life and culture of Inuit. A large number of Inuit men and women made invaluable contributions to the Canadian Arctic Expedition, acting as guides, seamstresses and cooks, as well as assisting with a number of physical tasks around camp. The relationships established and the knowledge exchanged during the Expedition had lasting impacts on the North and provided a basis for future relations between the Canadian government and Northern peoples.

It seems significant that the anthropologist Diamond Jenness’ studies are noted specifically as expanding southern knowledge of Inuit culture, while the Inuit themselves are relegated to background players. They assist with menial tasks around camp or guide the explorers (presumably to the places they “discovered”) but these “invaluable contributions” serve only to assist with the “real” discoveries made by the explorers and scientists.

National Aboriginal History Month seems like an appropriate time to examine the way we talk about the relationship Canada has with Aboriginal peoples, and this is as good a place to start as any. Thinking critically about historical events is important, especially when their consequences continue to be felt today. If you’re interested in learning more about the complexities around Inuit art specifically, I invite you to come visit the museum this month and explore more. There’s quite a lot to talk about.

- Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Curator

Construction Heads Up Part 13: March Break Routes

7 Mar
Hydro chamber construction on Queens Quay West

Hydro chamber construction on Queens Quay West.

As many of you prepare for the upcoming March Break, we’d like to post a little reminder about some of the construction that has been happening here at the Harbour front.

For the remainder of March, the TTC will be limiting access on the University line affecting those traveling between St. George and Union stations. Major re-signalling work over four weekends this month will modernize the TTC signals, relays, wiring and cabling equipment, much of which was originally installed when the University line opened 50 years ago. To accommodate surface travel, a frequent, accessible bus service will operate and shuttle service information is available on the TTC site.

The following weekends will NOT have service between St. George and Union station:

  • Sunday, March 10 (starting Saturday, March 9 at midnight).
  • Sunday, March 17 (starting Saturday, March 16 at midnight).
  • Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24.

For those who are already close to the Harbourfront,  demolition work will continue at the Peter Slip Bridge  after having been delayed due to bad weather. Pedestrian access on the southside of the Peter Slip Bridge is not available due to the confined working space. The northside sidewalk remains open at all times. Crews are expected to remain working in the area until May when the surface of the bridge including the new TTC corridor is complete.

The York Street construction of the new parking lay-by (which will provide a safe area for short-term passenger loading and unloading from coaches and tour buses visiting the waterfront) is nearing completion.  Final paving is expected to be completed this week and regulatory signs will be posted once the lay-by area is finished.

If you’d like to avoid all the driving detours our pedestrian directions from previous blogs still apply or you can plan your route based on the full construction details found at the Waterfront Toronto website.

- Posted by Brittany Holliss, MIA’s Visitor Services Officer

Remembering Kenojuak Ashevak

8 Jan

Today, the art world lost one of its strongest and most well-known voices: at the age of 85, renowned and celebrated Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak passed away in Kinngait (Cape Dorset). Kenojuak Ashevak was unquestionably one of the most well-respected artists living and working in the North. Born in 1927 in Ikirasaq, a camp in southern Baffin Island, she was one of the first women to join the graphic program when it was introduced to Kinngait in the 1950s.

Kenojuak Ashevak

Kenojuak Ashevak, CC, RCA (October 3, 1927 – January 8, 2013), via Wikipedia

One of the driving forces throughout the history of the printmaking program in Kinngait, Kenojuak has produced some of the most iconic graphic art in the North. Her famous print, The Enchanted Owl, has become synonymous for many people with Inuit graphic art. Produced in an unusual two-colour run of red and green, the image was chosen by Canada Post to commemorate the centennial anniversay of the Northwest Territories in 1970 (which then included all of Nunavut).

Stamp featuring The Enchanted Owl

A colour proof trial of the green version has been a part of the museum’s permanent collection since we opened and has been included on our QR code self-guided tour (complete with audio guide track). We were very fortunate recently to pair it with a red version on loan to us a few months ago, as part of our tribute to her influence.

Both prints arrive at MIA

Both the red and green Enchanted Owl, reunited after over fifty years, prior to being installed.

Though The Enchanted Owl is undoubtedly her most well-known work, she was a prolific artist who was best known for her whimsical, colourful images of birds. Her sense of composition was particularly impressive, achieving balance, power and grace simultaneously in many of her images. She also continued working and experimenting: in the last print collection, seven of the thirty prints were of her images, including the atypical but striking Red Fox.

Her impressive artistic output seems matched only by the recognition she received throughout her career: originally inducted in the to Order of Canada in 1967 as an Officer, she became a Companion in 1982. In 1974, she was inducted in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and just last year she was inducted into the Order of Nunavut. Her work has been shown internationally in exhibitions in many museums and galleries.

Her impact on art production by Inuit has been enormous and has been felt on many levels. Her influence can be felt in many younger artist’s works and in many people’s appreciation for the art form. I know that was true for me. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Kenojuak over two years ago here in Toronto when she was part of the Art Gallery of Ontario‘s Inuit Modern Symposium. I had just started working at the museum and was absolutely blown away that I was able to meet her. She was incredibly gracious, and I am so grateful to have been able to meet her and be inspired by her work. I am just one of the countless people who Kenojuak inspired with her art and who will continue to be inspired by her work and her career.

On behalf of everyone here at MIA, I would like to extend our sincerest condolences to Kenojuak Ashevak’s family, friends and community members. She will certainly be missed.

- Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Associate Curator and Director of Education

Experiencing Art: Is It Really Better Alone?

2 Dec
MIA visitors exploring the museum together.

MIA visitors take a closer look at the museums display of “Enchanted Owl” prints by Inuit artis Kenojuak Ashevak.

A story in the New York Times has recently been making its way around the internet that’s been of particular interest to art museums. The cruxt of the article “Art’s Emotional Tug Is Best Experienced Alone, A Study Finds” is

How much museumgoers know about art makes little difference in how they engage with exhibits, according to a study by a German cultural scholar who used electronics to measure which items caught visitors’ attention and how they were emotionally affected. The scholar, Martin Tröndle, also found that solitary visitors typically spent more time looking at art and that they experienced more emotions.

This got our staff talking – a lot. In the spirit of open dialogue, we’ve decided to compile the reactions of four of our staff members here: our Gallery Director Christine, our Volunteer Coordinator Lindsay, our Visitor Services Officer Brittany Holliss, and me, the museum’s Associate Curator. We’re curious to hear from others what they think about this study, too, so let us know.

From Christine:

The researchers have used innovative technology to track the physical reactions of visitors during their experience in the museum, and the technology has potential for many uses in visitor research. However, the actual interpretation of the data seems more like guessing than a scientific reality.

That knowledge is making people ignorant seems quite a leap based on the observation that professionals in this field spend less time looking through the exhibition. Quite possibly the professionals have already seen many of the works before. In general, they have an extensive background and years of experience attending museums and exhibitions, which they may be using to process the information around them more quickly. As a museum professional myself, I can spend little time in a room but the exhibition might make an enormous impact on me, which I process later in solitude.

The idea that visitors want to trip over the art is also suspect in terms of interpreting empirical data. The data does not show (unless they have more data hidden elsewhere) that people want to trip over art, instead it shows that they have a physical reaction to art that is in their way. This is not to say that larger, experiential works do not affect larger numbers of visitors less or more, but the data does not conclusively show that is the case.

There are some things I agree with on a personal level; that smaller museums with fewer works are more manageable and therefore quite enjoyable, but that is because those elements suit my individual personality. In fact, I would suggest that the vast majority of people spending time in the museum where research was carried out also like that style of museum. Smaller museums tend to attract specific audiences, whereas world famous institutions like the Louvre will arguably attract a more diverse audience.

In the end I think the study collected interesting data, but more data is required and the constant variables need to be determined in the environment. For example, what are the temperatures and noise levels in different areas that could affect the way people physically react in a space alone versus in groups (smaller spaces may be less comfortable for groups and manifest physically). Further studies in different sizes and styles of art museums should also be undertaken, as well as in different regions and countries. Qualitative studies should accompany this quantitative study to help interpret the data, since the researchers are trying to discuss very qualitative results.

From Lindsay:

After reading the article published in the New York Times on Martin Tröndle’s eMotion study on visitor interaction and emotional reaction to artwork on display in the galleries of Kunstmuseum St. Gallen in Switzerland, I was surprised by the reported finding that “arts emotional tug is best experienced alone.” As an individual without an art history background, I get a greater appreciation of artwork when experienced socially; taking guide tours or simply talking with a friend helps me delve deeper into the piece in front of me.

Having conducted visitor studies within museums previously, the dataglove technology developed by Trondle’s team excited me as tracking visitor movement throughout galleries can be very difficult and time consuming. However, I started to question the methodology and analysis of the data collected based on my initial reaction.

I tend to lean towards sentiments put forth by Bonnie Pitman, former director of the Dallas Museum of Art and co-author of Ignite the Power of Art: Advancing Visitor Engagement in Museums. I’m not convinced that sweaty hands or an increased heart rate is an indication of an emotional reaction to the art. Perhaps these visitors were feeling uncomfortable within the museum space? Or were hot due to over crowdedness? In circumstances like this, these physical reactions would not be indicators of an “art-affected state”.

It’s a bit of an overstatement, in my opinion, to say that people with a proficient knowledge of art are “ignorant” for being more selective in what they chose to look at rather than diligently going from one work to another reading the accompanying text panels. It is important to keep in mind the contextual factors that could impact the length of time spent and the number of pieces viewed by a visitor. Firstly, the fact that the individuals participating in the study knew that they were being monitored could have influenced them to stay in front of a piece of art longer than they would under normal circumstances.

A visitor experience, in terms of level of engagement, shouldn’t only be measured quantitatively. While I can appreciate that “solitary visitors typically spent more time looking at art”, this does not necessarily mean that the viewer is gaining a greater appreciation of the artwork they are looking at. People become engaged with objects when ‘cognitive hooks’ are present; these differ from person to person based on their individual interests and backgrounds. So, I might look at a piece by an artist whose name I recognize longer than an unknown artist, or at a landscape of a place that looks familiar, or a piece with a title that ‘means’ something to me based on my own personal experiences. Such ‘cognitive hooks’ usually translate into a visitor becoming engaged with a work rather than being a mere passive observer. I might not look at these pieces as long as others, but I will likely remember the reaction I had to them and acquire knowledge about them because I can relate to them on a personal level.

That being said, the potential practical use of the dataglove technology is important to note as the ease it brings to tracking visitors within the museum space could be quite useful. Findings, such as “visitors tended to feel more stimulated by sculptures and installations that impeded their progress through the galleries,” can help with exhibition design. Having visitors wear the gloves and walk through a display as part of formative or remedial evaluation could be beneficial in determining the optimal pacing and flow of an exhibition. Only time will tell how best to employ this new technology.

To be fair, my reaction is perhaps a bit premature as I have not had access to the qualitative analysis of the post-interviews that accompanied Tröndle’s study. I look forward to reading Tröndle’s paper when it’s published in the Museum Management and Curatorship journal this December.

From Brittany:

I know I’m probably going to instigate a series of sighs and eye rolls from readers as I straddle the fence post, but the longer I think back on my past museum visits the harder it is to determine which method (experiencing art solo or in a group) was the “best” or most emotionally stimulating.

As a museum studies student here in Toronto I’ve visited galleries for all sorts of different reasons: writing exhibition reviews and critiques, studying examples of new museum methodologies, touring with museum professionals to learn behind the scenes information, and simply checking out openings out of my own interest. In some of these instances I’ve gone alone, with friends and family, or as part of a larger school group and each of these experiences came with its own pros and cons. I’m sure we can all recall a time when our trip was interrupted by noisy and pushy crowds or been alone in a quite gallery pretending that it was our own personal collection (or is that just the art dork in me?). But the reverse of these can also be true. How frustrating is it when you’re just so extremely excited to be standing in front of  your favourite museum piece in all its glory but not be able to turn someone standing next to you and gush over the artistic brilliance (again, am I the only who will randomly jump in with a fun fact that just needs to be shared?).

The article includes a statement suggesting how those who, “… communicate with an artwork cannot converse with those in their company simultaneously.” Well if you literally mean for those things to happen at the exact same moment then I’m in agreement but from my personal experiences things seem to follow the formula: move to a painting, stare for a moment, discuss, and repeat. Depending on the company, the conversation might not be very academic, but there’s usually some kind of analysis or dissection and always a critique or compliment even if it’s a simple “THAT’S supposed to be art?!” Without those kinds of interactions with a fellow museum goer I’m not sure I could safely say my viewing time of a single art piece would be extended even if I had the opportunity for silent reflection uninfluenced by another’s opinion.

And here’s a good place to emphasize that this was an ART exhibition. Would this same type of visitor evaluation work if it were applied to science or natural history museum exhibitions? Would the same types of emotions be activated? Could the same types of emotions be activated? Maybe it is not the visual properties that the art is revealing that visitors are connecting to; maybe it is a concept or idea that has activated something inside of them. It is difficult to tell from this single article and not have access to the full report to determine whether or not this is an instance of causation versus correlation.

And there you have it, my justification for a non-committal answer!

From Alysa:

Since the study in question is about gauging emotional reactions, I want to be upfront with my initial “gut response” to this article: I was overwhelmingly skeptical about these arguments. The reason why has to do with two components of this argument: (1) the assertion that the emotional power of art is best experienced alone and (2) the idea that “knowledge [of art] is making you ignorant.”

I think that these are interesting ideas to discuss – how is art “best” experienced – but that the study and the article do not always tally with other research or experiences we see in MIA. The idea that there is a situation in which the emotional experience of an artwork is “ideal” seems misguided because it ignores differences in artwork and in visitors. John Falk’s Identity and the Museum Visitor makes a compelling case for looking at visitors not as “engineers and dentists” – or their professional or demographic categories – but rather that their motivations for visiting a cultural institution have far more influence over both their expectations and experience. Through this lens, the issue of “knowledge making you ignorant” is much more complicated: when I visit an exhibition of art, I am often looking at different aspects of the exhibition because I am a museum professional. In Falk’s terminology, I am a “Professional/Hobbyist”. This does not preclude me from engaging with the exhibited works; it does often mean that the course of my visit looks different than a non-professional. That visitor motivations can play a far larger role in how people interact with artworks and exhibition spaces than their level of knowledge or occupation leads me to believe that marking the duration of stay as one of the most important factors dictating engagement seems misguided at best.

Even when I am not looking at an exhibition through the lens of a professional, engaging with artwork takes many forms – some of which can be dictated by the form of the art itself. There are many different levels on which someone can engage or be moved by an artwork and I would hesitate to say that each has a measurable physical reaction in line with what the study was measuring. The idea that can be most emotionally powerful when you are alone also contradicts what we have observed here – that emotionally important experiences can happen around artwork in a group of people, even when the object is not being used as a social object to facilitate other interactions. To return to the issue of visitor motivations, emotions related to expectations of a visit could likely produce a physical response as well. For example, if my expectations going to an exhibition were to have many interactives and there were none, I may have sweaty palms because I would be frustrated.

In the end, I think that to designate one response to art as “the best”, or even to prescribe that there is a “best” way of achieving one particular reaction to art, can elide many important differences in museum visitors (and the museums themselves). As art museums, we should seek out and support a diversity in our audiences, and that means accepting that art can have as many different meanings and values as we have visitors. Ben Davis’ “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society”  makes this point strongly – maybe part of the reason that art museums as a whole have not kept pace with its potential audiences is due to assigning these kinds of value judgements on experiences.

 

-Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Associate Curator and Director of Education

Art, Responsibility and Stereotypes

14 Oct

It’s no secret that stereotypes of Aboriginal peoples exist, as distressing or damaging as they can be, and that these ideas can manifest themselves in many different forms. The best take I have seen on stereotypes related to Inuit is the short film Sloth, by Inuit filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril. It’s only two minutes long, but pokes fun at both historical and modern popular views of Inuit:

The point of this post isn’t to get into why stereotypes form, but to point out that they are damaging and pervasive. This has become extremely clear in recent press coverage of acclaimed Inuit artist, Annie Pootoogook.

Annie Pootoogook

Annie Pootoogook in 2009 via Nunatsiaq News

We, like many of you, have been reading stories about Annie for a number of years. Her art has been internationally exhibited; she was the winner of the prestigious Sobey Art Award in 2006; and had broken many other barriers for contemporary Inuit artists. But recently, she has been the subject of a different kind of press attention, one not focused on her art but on her personal life. I won’t link to the series of articles in question, but Annie has fallen on hard times and the response to her personal circumstances has been varied, but often is heavily steeped in stereotypical views of Aboriginal peoples and artists.

For example, numerous comparisons have been made between Annie and Ahnisnabae artist Norval Morrisseau (whose son Christian’s work we are exhibiting currently in our Aboriginal Voices Gallery). Presumably, this is because they were both “troubled”, but I find  it noteworthy that no other, non-Aboriginal artist’s name is invoked. Surely there have been “troubled” artists (and people, for that matter) of many different backgrounds.

Like many museums, we have exhibited Annie’s work before  though at present we do not have any on display. We still feel that Annie is an important voice in contemporary art and that her work needs to be considered on its artistic merits. We also take very seriously our role in displaying art sensitively and in promoting accurate information about the artists whose work we represent.

We have, however, been admittedly reticent to discuss the recent news coverage of her life because it was not directly related to her artwork and, frankly, struck our staff as problematically represented. However, some of our visitors have wanted to discuss this with us and with each other and so we felt that we should open up this space for conversation:

Do you think stereotypes of artists or Aboriginal peoples influence the way we see and speak about an artist’s work? Who do you think bears responsibility for breaking down these views? Do you think we could do more to directly confront these issues?

- Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Director of Education, Operations and Outreach

Note: Please be mindful of our commenting policy, which we strictly enforce.

We’re Putting Stephen Colbert On Notice: Why Naming Rights Matter

10 Oct

You might remember that in late July we thanked Justin Bieber for letting us clear up some confusion about Aboriginal peoples in Canada – and now it’s been brought to our attention that we need to do the same for Stephen Colbert.

Stephen Colbert

On last night’s episode of the Colbert Report, host Stephen Colbert‘s opening segment revolved around the Arctic (beginning around the 4:23 mark – unfortunately, the video I’ve linked only works in Canada but if you’re in the US you can watch it here). In discussing the recent story about Australian businessman Paul McDonald being fined for breaking the law in Nunavut, Colbert says (around the 5:10 mark):

Did you know the Eskimos now have twenty-five different words for “douchebag”?

There’s something about this that needs clearing up and it’s tied up with popular perception of Inuit.

Colbert is using the word “Eskimo” to describe Aboriginal residents of Nunavut. As an American, I know that many of my countrymen still use that word but here in Canada (and specifically in Nunavut) people use the word Inuit. Two weeks ago, I explained some of the issues around using the word Inuit but to recap: Inuit simply means “the people” in Inuktitut, one dialect of Inuit language. This is the word Inuit used to describe themselves, not “Eskimo.”

Linguists argue where the word “Eskimo” came from, but the most popular back story is that it was derived from a word certain First Nations peoples used to refer to Inuit, which meant “raw flesh eater” and so had negative connotations. Whether this is true or it actually meant something else, the point is it’s not the word Inuit use to describe themselves and is considered derogatory (at best) by many.

The distinction is even made later in the episode when Colbert cites Greenland’s Vice-Premier Jens B. Frederiksen as saying (in relation to China around the 6:30 mark):

We are aware that is because we now have something to offer, not because they’ve suddenly realized that Inuit are nice people.

Even though Colbert did a nice job saying umiaq, that’s missing the point a bit – it’s important (even when making jokes) to respect naming rights. And for the record, as far as I’m aware there’s only one word modern Inuit use for “douchebag” – and it’s the same as in English (which is a language many Inuit today speak).

So Stephen Colbert, we have no choice but to make our own “On Notice” Board and put you on it with the Biebs.

- Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Director of Education, Operations and Outreach

Fun Fact Friday: Why We Don’t Say “The Inuit People”

28 Sep

Welcome to our first Fun Fact Friday post! Staff will be posting one “fun fact” every Friday, so if you have questions or requests please let us know in the comments.

Map of the Arctic

A map of the Arctic

Our inaugural fun fact is about language. We often get questions about proper terminology and have taken up the issue before in other context, but the most consistent one is about the use of the word “Inuit.” If you read the blog often or have been to the museum, you might have read or heard us saying things like “art made by Inuit.”This often strikes English speakers as being grammatically incorrect – don’t we mean “art made by the Inuit”?

The word Inuit means “the people” in Inuktitut. This  isn’t necessarily obvious to a non-Inuktitut speaker, so many people will say “the Inuit” or “the Inuit people”. However,when you say “the Inuit people”, what you’re really saying is “the the people people”, and that’s a little redundant. So if you have ever wondered why we don’t use a definite article before “Inuit”, that’s why – it’s already embedded in the word.

If you have any questions you’d like answered or something you’d like to know more about, leave us a note in the comments and we will be sure to answer it in an upcoming “Fun Fact Friday.”

- Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Director of Education, Operations and Outreach

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