The “Pathways to Toronto” online exhibit is the product of a unique and innovative collaboration between the Toronto Ward Museum (TWM) and students and scholars at the University of Toronto, Canada. The project originated in Dr. Donna Gabaccia’s seminar “Digital History: Pathways to Toronto” at the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies, University of Toronto Scarborough. Beginning in September 2015, this course taught upper-year undergraduate students about digital methods and approaches to the study of history, focusing on immigration to Toronto over the past two centuries. Each student chose one “Pathway” story of a person whose travels and relocations brought them to Toronto. Some students researched historical figures while many others interviewed living people, including their own parents and relatives. Students in the Master’s level course “Global Cultures and Museums” (iSchool, University of Toronto) took up the “Pathways to Toronto” project in January 2016. Working in groups, their central task was the interpretation of six “Pathways” stories chosen by the TWM from among the fourteen projects developed by the Digital History students. The MA students also conducted some further historical research and curated storyboards to pitch for the final online exhibition. At each level, nearly every student responded in post-project evaluations that the “Pathways” project was a challenging but rewarding experience.
Collaborative work is central to the creation of museum exhibitions, and public engagement is increasingly important to universities. Yet partnerships between museums and university students are less common, and the work done in undergraduate classrooms is rarely hosted by cultural institutions. This work is clearly worth doing. For all their hard work, students gain tangible professional experience that can be featured on their resumes. The “Pathways” project had many pedagogical benefits; it brought curatorial, digital, and collaborative work into the undergraduate history curriculum, and incorporated historical research and theory into the professional Master’s program in Museum Studies. There are also incentives for educators, including the chance to bring invention to pedagogy, to create original content with students, and to develop interdisciplinary and productive partnerships outside of the university. At an administrative level, many universities are stating their commitment to community outreach. In funding and promoting partnerships with cultural institutions, universities can prepare their students for work after graduation, provision their faculty in the production of innovative scholarship, and sustain meaningful engagement with public and institutional communities. Meanwhile, in curating and hosting university work, the museum develops unique content, grows their audience and engages in community outreach, builds links with academic partners, and supports the career development of students. There is the hope that such inventive programming will attract funding and/or sponsors for cultural institution; ideally, the success of “Pathways” will encourage other museums, including more established institutions, to pursue similar collaborations.
The TWM is not a typical museum. It’s new and run by a small but growing and committed team. It’s a digital and interactive space centrally dedicated to inclusivity, social justice, and civic engagement. Moreover, the TWM is distinct as a community-led effort to establish a cultural institution that searches, invites, and creates space for these kinds of partnerships. The museum’s mission and philosophy complement the theoretical and practical approaches of the two university classes, namely, to “develop the interpretive frameworks and storytelling techniques for a digital exhibition while reflecting critically on a series of concepts and their histories: globalization, immigration, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, diversity, mobility, and many others.” A strong alliance developed around this core mission between the faculty leads and TWM’s founder, Gracia Dyer Jalea. They attribute the success of their co-management of the “Pathways” project to their shared critical perspectives as well as to continuous and amicable communication.
The project faced some challenges. Its timeline was constrained by the framework of the university semester. Each course benefitted from a project management approach on the part of faculty. Staying on track meant sticking to a workback schedule built around coursework; faculty, staff, and the TWM shared work online (email and Google Drive) and communicated over conference calls and in-person meetings. The TWM partners visited the classroom to hear student presentations and provide feedback at the beginning, middle, and end of the term. The project leadership described seamless communication at the planning level; at the same time, some students reported wanting more in-class consultation with their TWM partners and a more concrete vision of the final format and design of the exhibit. As with many creative experiments, the final form emerged from their work.
“Pathways to Toronto” was a successful pilot project. The hard work and creativity of the students is at the centre of this success. In post-project interviews, the leadership also highlighted the contributions of specialists and support staff. This project benefited greatly from the expertise and labour of the Digital Scholarship Unit at the University of Toronto Scarborough, notably Lydia Zvyagintseva, Digital Scholarship Librarian for the Humanities, and Deputy Chief Librarian Sarah Forbes. Lydia worked with Professor Gabaccia in the design and instruction of “Digital History” and was central to the execution of this first phase of the project. Sarah Hamdi, Digital Communications expert for the TWM, likewise played a pivotal role in the second phase of the project; she acted as consultant, designer, and technical lead for the final online exhibit. The project team also included Stephanie Cavanaugh, first hired as a research assistant (Digital History Curricular Enhancement and Assessment project at UTSC) and subsequently engaged by the TWM as Historical Research Consultant for the exhibit. In addition to the work of the students, professors and institutional partners, a project of this scope requires project management and administration, design and technical support, research assistance, consultancy, marketing and communication.
In the final evaluation process, the professors, students, specialists, and partners at the TWM shared their recommendations for best practices in university-museum collaborations:
- Establish a clear mission, audience, and format. What does the host (museum, cultural institution) expect from the final student project? Do these expectations mirror the course requirements, or will subsequent work be required to ready the final project?
- Get funding. Apply for classroom grants to bring on support staff, who are invaluable as teachers, consultants, and experts in their respective fields; these include librarians, digital experts, research assistants, information specialists, project managers, designers, etc.
- Do essential paperwork early. Secure complete and signed consent forms, confidentiality and copyright license agreements at the beginning of the project. Record and share contact information for all participants.
- Set clear roles and expectations for all participants before any coursework begins. Will the students do primary research? Conduct interviews? Use digital tools? Act as interpreters and curators? Do they have a say in the final layout and design?
- Schedule check-in points at the beginning, middle, and before the end of the project timeline. Agree on the parameters of communication between all parties. Have a clear consultation process between partners.
- Establish working definitions of key concepts and terminologies, especially in interdisciplinary partnerships. Professional and theoretical vocabularies differ between academic fields, and are not always familiar to public audiences.
- Record the process. Keep notes and conduct periodic evaluations with all participants (we used Google Forms). This is important for communication between partners, creates a shareable archive of the process for your colleagues and community, and may be useful in applying and reporting to funding institutions.
Stephanie M. Cavanaugh is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Early Modern Conversions project at McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas. Her primary research focuses on religious conversion, migration, and the formation of identities in the sixteenth-century Spanish world. Stephanie earned her PhD and MA degrees in History from the University of Toronto and a BA in History and English from the University of New Brunswick, in her hometown of Fredericton.