by Marla Dobson, Curator, Museum of Health Care at Kingston
Walking into the Toronto Hilton for the 2019 Canadian Museums Association Conference, I was eager to get to know some of my fellow colleagues and to engage in some big thinking on behalf of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston. I am very grateful to Andornot for awarding me their Professional Development Grant, which allowed me to enjoy this conference.
In total, I attended four educational sessions, two of which were, on paper, about art. As a PhD in art history, this is a topic close to my heart. While this may, at first glance, seem at odds with the role of Curator of the Museum of Health Care, I believe that we can learn a lot about providing a people-centered visitor experience by examining the ways in which communities engage with the arts. At their core, these sessions demonstrated new ways of thinking about museum programming, not just in art galleries, but in museums of all kinds. Through the use of artist-in-residence programs as well as arts-based therapy programs, many museums are more deeply engaging their communities and providing innovative and potentially life-changing programming. The overall takeaway was the importance of involving your community more actively in programming, as well as thinking more creatively and thematically about your collections.
Another session I attended was all about abstract thinking in exhibition planning. For many years, museums have typically focused on providing ‘cold hard facts’ as central components of their exhibitions. While this is obviously still of vital importance, especially in the case of science and medicine museums, the session facilitators pushed us to think about how thematic and abstract ideation could help create more dynamic and engaging displays. At the end of the day, studies have shown that informational, text heavy exhibitions are not the best way to convey ideas. Thus, it is useful to consider interpretive methodologies that ask broader questions, provoke conversations, and deal with more abstract themes in order to make content more relevant and engaging. This way of thinking struck a chord with me in terms of the Museum of Health Care collections, which can be used to address a number of themes related to the human experience of health and disease.
Overall, these sessions helped to focus my thoughts and gave me ideas moving forward as a curator. I was also lucky enough to meet many interesting and influential people, as well as listen to a keynote address by Indigenous artist Kent Monkman, who spoke eloquently about the need to decolonize museums across the country. These experiences inspired me to think bigger and to consider the ways in which our organizations can continue to move beyond insular, traditional ways of thinking.