Artifacts matter

Reconstructing a large museum can be a bit hectic. Occasionally, we have produced a blog that got lost in the shuffle of more immediate events, only to pop up later to be posted when its content was nearly past its best-before date. Sometimes old blogs, like brown bananas, get tossed but I feel that the theme of this blog is relevant to our current initiatives and the greater state of affairs of museums. So, with a bit of tweaking, I’d still like to present it.

Like us at the Bank of Canada Museum, the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) will be opening a completely redesigned facility in 2017. In planning for this, the folks at Science and Tech have been holding a series of public consultations to help them decide what their museum will display and how they’ll go about displaying it. It’s a refreshingly inclusionary approach to museum making. Last February, CSTM held a small audience research event in the lobby of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and I checked it out.

a table with cameras and telephones on it

The very polite researchers from CSTM must have been on their feet all day long.

Walking into the thankfully warm lobby (it was the coldest day of the year), I faced a long table displaying a curious selection of artifacts. The idea was that the curator and researchers would observe the way I interacted with the artifacts, listen to any questions I had and make note of my comments and any memories the items sparked. In short, I was to identify with the artifacts. There were old cameras, miner’s lamps, a couple of telephones and a puzzling green box. Happily, we participants were able to don cotton gloves and play with the items—giving us a rare opportunity to give in to what is an almost overwhelming urge for museum visitors. I asked if the museum was considering providing reproductions of artifacts for visitors to handle. The curator behind the table made encouraging noises and jotted some notes. This is the sort of thing that they need people to ask them, things that relate to the visitor’s experience of the collection.

antique cameras

The colourful Kodak box cameras were made for children. I thought they were fashionable accessories for women.

a green metal box

This weird green box is not a toaster, but a car radio from the late 1930s.

a board of images of large-scale technology artifacts

Artifacts that were themselves really interesting to objects representing really interesting events.

However, the Canada Science and Technology Museum is better known for some very big artifacts and examples of such items were presented as photos on a nearby panel. They were a mixture of items of immediate visual appeal and objects that were less so but which nevertheless represented major events or important stories. When it comes to making a choice, it’s an interesting conundrum for museums: to show the obviously appealing items or show the things that tell the important stories. Participants were asked to indicate their favourite artifacts by weighing these two factors. It was great fun to participate and I hope the whole event was enlightening for the folks at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

This all brings to mind the changing roles of objects in museums. Over the last decades of the 20th century, museums have been displaying fewer and fewer artifacts. Sometimes it’s in the interest of reducing clutter and sometimes it’s because the stories being told are not necessarily about specific artifacts—rather, the artifacts take on a supporting role for a larger story. Our own collection will be taking on this role for aspects of our new museum, but for places like the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the artifact is, more or less, still king.

a yellow propeller aircraft

Some of the most experienced aircraft in the museum are likely these training aircraft from the Second World War.

battered and rusted antique airplane

This prized member of the collection shows every day of the 98 years of its life.

man viewing an aircraft from in front of the barrier

A visitor demonstrates how not to view the artifacts in an aircraft museum.

It was interesting that this consultation was held in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum because this is a museum where the artifact is also still king. Though the Aviation Museum is clearly driven by its collection, many of its artifacts perform the dual roles of representing larger human stories while still telling their own stories. For example, the museum’s Lancaster bomber never went to war, but it is painted in the colours of a historic Canadian squadron. In this way, a very interesting aircraft with a rather mundane personal history is able to speak volumes about the larger story of the Canadian experience over Europe in the Second World War. In becoming a representation of a greater story, the Lancaster lost some of its identity, but the Aviation Museum is careful to briefly describe the aircraft’s specific provenance alongside this broader interpretation.

Though it is wonderful to see these beautifully restored aircraft, it was refreshing to see an aircraft on the floor in an obviously unrestored condition. To see a vintage aircraft with all its rust, gaping holes and faded paint is to glimpse the depth of its experience. It’s hard to imagine, but some of the collection’s aircraft are over a century old and seeing the odd one looking like it was dredged up from the bottom of a river is not such a bad thing. Its condition also reflects current practices in museum conservation that favour maintaining artifacts in their “found” condition rather than restoring them. I don’t know what the plans are for this plane.

children playing on flight simulators

I was going to push one of these kids off a simulator so I could play, but their mom was standing right there.

man standing with arms out interacting with a simulation game

Dad vs. the German air force in the Ace Academy First World War dogfight interactive.

wooden toy airplanes that kids could ride

Scooting around on these things looked like serious fun.

But, enough about boring museum philosophies. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is a popular and fun family destination. There are a number of compelling interactives and simulators to occupy those who, for some crazy reason, are not fascinated by dozens of old airplanes. And really small kids can jump onto little wooden fighter planes and scoot around the floor on them. Mostly the kids played demolition derby with one other, but they are riding fighter aircraft after all. Do go, it’s a fun time and not a bad way to spend a really, really cold day with the kids. Bring a sweater.