MUSEUM POLICY SUBMISSION
TO THE DEPARTMENT OF CANADIAN HERITAGE (DCH)
By Toronto Ward Museum
Submitted after the September 3, 2020 Virtual Roundtable Dialogue
COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on the cultural, heritage, and sport sectors, which were among the first to close, and will be among the last to fully reopen. The Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, along with Parliamentary Secretary Julie Dabrusin invited the Toronto Ward Museum (TWM) to attend a virtual roundtable on visual and digital/multimedia arts, museums, and heritage institutions.
The event was held on September 3, 2020 and the TWW was capably represented by our immediate past chair, Douglas Worts. The objective of the session was to receive feedback and dig deeper into some of the challenges, ideas, and proposals set forth by the broader arts and heritage community. Attendees were also invited to submit written policy recommendations to be used to help make informed decisions on potential program changes and funding processes, as the Government of Canada continues to develop and adjust its economic recovery efforts
TWM Past Chair Douglas Worts authored the TWM submission, with contributions from Julia Matamoros, Irina Mihalache and Perry Lupyrypa, and we are pleased to share it with you below:
We live in a time when the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has committed to redefining the very essence of what a ‘museum’ actually means. For many, museums need to be redefined and re-tooled so that they address the critical issues and trends that are shaping the living culture. Essentially to be truly relevant to our living culture. Amongst these trends and issues are the need to transform long-standing patterns of systemic anti-Black and Indigenous racism, as well as the systematic destruction of the biosphere. Historically, museums were not designed to address these types of challenges. As a result, efforts must be made to re-tool and redirect museums so that they help living cultures to adapt and transform in relationship to the changing realities of our world.
Changing the definition of museums will always be a contested process because it is seen by some as potentially destabilizing for the status quo. However, ICOM understands that there are currently a massive number of organizations around the globe that are working to further the cultural wellbeing of communities, in pursuit of a better world. The sad fact is that many of these organizations currently do not even meet official definitions of ‘museum’ – and therefore do not receive the kinds of support they need to achieve their cultural goals. The Toronto Ward Museum suffers from this reality in Canada – and it is not currently eligible for core funding as a museum.
Cultural organizations clearly need resources in order to operate – an essential role played by governments for a long time. But for organizations like the TWM, which do not conform to traditional museum definitions and traits (especially that the museum has no collection nor building), essential aspects of the museum go unfunded. Despite much success at raising project funding, the TWM has experienced critical gaps in financing vital administrative functions not included in project financing. Chronic challenges emerge that only take away from the innovative work of such museums and their partners. In addition, innovating new models for generating meaningful impacts on the living culture require special financial attention. Analyzing cultural trends, mapping societal systems dynamics, searching for effective leverage points, generating innovation, prototyping, testing, processing feedback, modifying strategies and so on, all take time and money. These types of activities, when tied only to project funding, all too often result in fragmented and frustrated efforts.
It is becoming clearer that the failure of our societies to address the large, wicked problems that have converged into an existential crisis, have common roots in the values, behaviours, traditions and systems of our societies. To say this another way, it is culture that has created these conditions, and only cultural change will alter their courses in significant ways. If the Department of Canadian Heritage sees the operations of cultural organizations in this light, then government has a potentially vital role to play in nurturing new processes of systematic transformation, as well as the generation of meaningful cultural impacts across society. As a major funding body for Canadian museums, DCH is in a unique and strategic role to facilitate this work – acknowledging that it too will need to acquire new skills, capacities and performance indicators for its own work.
Over my career in the museum world, it has become clear to me that DCH has its own hierarchical structures, silos and visions. These regularly are updated of course. However, it seems likely that, in order for the cultural sector to rise to the challenge of becoming cultural catalysts and change, DCH will need to re-examine its own operational assumptions and re-cast its own vision of the future. Such change within status quo structures and organizations has become widely acknowledged as being essential across our society, if we are to successfully navigate towards a culture of sustainability and flourishing.
TWM POLICY RECOMMENDATION
Continuing calls from the museum sector for a new National Museum Policy, reflect the urgent need for meaningful change. Specifically, the changes that seem most needed for museums are ones that will help them to serve the living culture, not simply institutionalized culture. The Toronto Ward Museum encourages DCH to embark on a significant transformation of its museum program so that the focus is less on organizational outputs (e.g. exhibits and onsite programs) and more on community-based, cultural impacts that contribute to wellbeing across all stakeholders. Increasingly, it seems vital to conduct this work within an integrated social, environmental and economic framework, based on equity, wellbeing and cultural adaptation. This is no mean feat in our fast-changing, pluralist world, in which social justice seems increasingly elusive and our systems of human culture have resulted in exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. As challenging as this all sounds, there seems to be few other visible options. Culture is the foundation of how we live – and it is here where the most foundational change must occur. Cultural organizations can not realize such a vision alone. It will require completely new forms of vision and values-aligned partnerships, involving governance, business, traditional non-profits, NGOs, individuals, communities and, of course Nature (through human stand-ins and scientists representing Nature’s interests). It’s a tall order.
Through its recent consultations with the museum community across Canada, DCH has striven to understand the changing needs of the ‘cultural sector’. This is greatly appreciated by museums, especially given the fast-changing, complex and embattled world we all inhabit. We look forward to DCH working with the field to generate new supportive strategies that can help museums to be effective in their efforts to foster ‘cultures of flourishing’. One of the emergent insights of this challenge, specifically relevant for the 2020s, is to focus on how the cultural sector can best create meaningful cultural impacts that are relevant for securing human and environmental wellbeing. As mentioned before, the most pressing issues in our culture of pluralism include the ongoing problems of systemic inequity – especially anti-Black and Indigenous racism, as well as systematic destruction of the biosphere. These issues exist on a widespread scale across virtually all human cultures, and the drivers are woven into social, economic, legal and political systems. Finding ways to draw insights from the past, to change and adapt in the present, while aspiring to visions of a viable future, are all tasks that require the mobilization of the ‘muses’. Significantly, this cannot be done through traditional approaches to museums that focus on visits to bricks and mortar facilities, and which operate in the leisure-time economy (which require both discretionary time and money to even walk through the doors). Building societal cohesion requires a major focus on building relationships – between individuals; within and across groups; between people and organizations; between people and societal systems. What is needed societally from museums, as cultural organizations in 2020, is very different than it was a century or two ago – even 30 years ago.
The future of cultural organizations will not be found in simply finding new funding measures for status quo operations. There is a vital need to clarify the cultural needs and opportunities that are present in the living culture. It is essential that youth and diversity play critical roles within the processes of understanding the challenges of the status quo, envisioning the future for the cultural sector and linking it to the vision of a viable, sustainable culture within a healthy biosphere. With clarity on this front, it would be possible for DCH to mobilize the cultural sector around much more meaningful cultural goals and desired impacts. It seems certain that the current approach of DCH through project grants will need to be rethought in fundamental ways. The piecemeal nature of project grants often works against the realization for supporting an evolving, responsive vision. There also may be many reasons to rethink the nature of how current museums have been incorporated – since all of these structures are designed to perpetuate the status quo (with some provisions for tinkering at the edges). The next 20 to 50 years will feel very different from how the sector has operated in the past – and this is likely true for every sector in society. Change is in the air! That is the scale of cultural transformation that is required. There is little chance for realizing such a vision for the cultural sector, unless DCH is able to embrace it and become a very active facilitator in the process.
Given all of this, it is important to acknowledge that there is a prevailing conservatism within the cultural sector. So moving forward DCH will need to work hard to help create an environment capable of supporting front-line experimentation that revolves around planning for cultural impacts and outcomes. It would also make a lot of sense for DCH to be working in partnership with the Canadian Museums Association, and through them, the provincial museum associations, to build a fully integrated approach to the generation of a new cultural vision that revolves around the concepts of cultural adaptation and cultural impacts. Through such an approach DCH can help ensure that the many people who currently work in traditional museum environments are invigorated, passionate and committed participants in realizing this vision. The cultural sector is filled with creative professionals. With the right support, the creativity of this workforce can be engaged in redirecting the ship(s) in ways that help build a new and emerging cultural reality that is solidly grounded in flourishing for all.
The Toronto Ward Museum was created in 2015 with a vision of helping to address many systemic issues encountered in the lives of immigrants. Specifically, the TWM has developed co-creative strategies to build meaning, insights and relationships through the sharing of cultural stories. It uses a variety of contexts to achieve its goals – variously involving food, intergenerational research, oral histories, storytelling, mentoring and more. The TWM has been creatively innovating new approaches through a wide spectrum of collaborations, with a host of community-based partners. It is through the co-creative activities of the partners, working within specific community/cultural contexts, that produces the magic that impacts people. Sometimes the impacts are experienced primarily at the level of individuals, while at other times the impacts are felt within or between groups. The aspiration is to be able to scale positive, relationship-enhancing impacts, while maintaining the cohesion-building dynamics that can remain within communities long after a Toronto Ward Museum project concludes.
At the heart of the TWM model is a focus on three large areas of activity and impact. The museum strives to foster a spirit and practice of reflection, dialogue and co-creative action.
- Reflection is a process of looking inward as one hears about the experiences of others. When a person hears another’s stories, it can create resonances that draw on their own personal experiences. Such sharing can spur deep reflection about unexamined assumptions that one has lived with for a long time. Empathy can emerge from such moments of relatedness, providing a central process that helps people to connect in deep ways. By sharing personal and cultural stories, empathy enables individuals to relate to the experiences of others – thereby building relationship. And relationships constitute the heart of culture. It is relationships that open the way for creating an environment of trust and respect.
- Dialogue is vital if relationships are to develop between people. This is particularly true in our increasingly pluralist world. And these are not one-off conversations to be fostered during occasional visits to museums and cultural sites. Relationships require sustained dialogue, over a period of time, if meaningful cohesion is to be built. Dialogue involves the skills of both listening and sharing. These are not as simple as they seem. And the need for cohesion arises not simply in the leisure-time context of going to a museum. Rather, it must happen wherever people are working or living with others – throughout the living culture. The TWM’s approach, of creating a wide array of contexts for carrying out this work, is helping to expand the concept of ‘museum’ beyond the bricks and mortar of collection-based facilities. There are many opportunities to push the boundaries of this approach to nurturing the ‘muses’ within the living culture, not only within institutionalized settings.
- Co-creative Action is essential if the cultural inertia of the status quo is to be supplanted by an ability of museums to bring a mindfulness of, and an ability to foster, the active weaving together of cultural strands. Since our local and global ‘culture of pluralism’ has resulted in far too many situations of systemic inequity, barriers to meeting one’s own needs, environmental destruction and more, co-creative action must extend beyond public programs within a bricks and mortar museum. The museum needs to become a catalyst for cultural action that resonates and spreads through the living culture. This requires museums to develop new skills in the analysis of cultural trends, blockages, barriers and opportunities for meaningful cultural impacts. It will also require new approaches and creative strategies for addressing these realities, in contexts that function as leverage points for cultural change and transformation. There are already smaller organizations that are already rooted in community and demonstrating insights into how such processes can be fostered – such as the TWM. For too long, museums have seen their roles as primarily ‘experts’ that dispense knowledge and insights. While knowledge and insights are vital, they are insufficient for catalyzing cultural transformation in a changing world. This is the work that museums are capable of embracing. This is not to diminish the importance of collections and of the public spaces that museums occupy. Collections and buildings can be powerful tools in fostering a culture of pluralism and community flourishing. But the place where change has to be measured is in the living culture – not simply within the institutionally defined boundaries of leisure-time activities for those with the time and money to engage. Co-creative action requires partnerships that are vision and values-aligned – which is no small feat in our world of reductionist, ideological entrenchment.
CULTURAL IMPACT FROM THE MUSEUM SECTOR
Museums and galleries have long been generators of exhibits and onsite programs. They monitor attendance and revenue as a way of measuring public interest and impact. However, these are not measures of cultural impact – they are simply corporate measures of attendance and revenue. Although the museum audience research community has been alive and well for almost 40 years in North America, it remains a rather minuscule part of museum operations. And even where museums employ audience researchers, they often have a very difficult time having their insights woven into the public program development processes. The issue is that the vast majority of museum programs are created as outputs and are not planned as being strategies to create cultural impacts. They often fall into the category of edutainment. Although often generating audiences that are happy enough with their experiences – very little is known about what the public goes away with or how people have been impacted. This is especially true with many permanent collection exhibits, most notably in large museums. If museums want to see themselves as being catalysts of cultural adaptation in a changing world, many new skills, strategies, partnerships and measures of success and impact must be nurtured.
VISION FOR THE FUTURE:
Within museological circles, there are an increasing number of examples where the vision for public programs is for participatory, co-creative impacts on communities. The Museums Association of the UK has adopted the motto of “Museums Change Lives”. The MA has been working for years to foster museum experimentation that demonstrates this aspiration. It is worth examining where measurable impacts have actually been generated to fully assess the extent of the MA’s real progress on this front.
Similarly, the Happy Museum Project (UK), which has been operating for almost a decade, is an experimental research and development program that has evolved over time. It offers many tools to help museums access and leverage the ‘muses’ through co-creative programming. They have developed and refined a set of principles, which are as follows:
- Create the conditions for wellbeing
- Value the environment and be a steward of the future as well as the past
- Be an active citizen
- Pursue mutual relationships
- Learn for resilience
- Measure what matters
Each of these principles is elaborated on their website – and they have produced a considerable body of research about the experimental projects developed through the HMP. The HMP has also embraced the integrated process of generating a ‘story of change’ to direct and guide projects towards successful outcomes. This is a process that would both challenge and benefit museums if it was fully integrated into museological methods.
In North America, some of the most noteworthy progressive museum work has been undertaken at the Museum of Art and History, in Santa Cruz, California, under the direction of Nina Simon . Simon took over the failing museum and transformed it into a hub and a catalyst that aims to co-create a culture of social connection, empathy, inclusion and vibrancy. It is a model well worth examining.
CANADIAN MUSEUM ENVIRONMENT
Canada requires a robust and supportive environment for museums to experiment with new forms of public engagement and to develop methods for assessing cultural impacts. Such an approach needs to involve all stakeholders – including government, museum associations, museums, galleries, zoos, science centres and so on – as well as co-creators across communities. As a funder and facilitator of museums, arts and heritage organizations, the DCH is positioned to play a critical leadership role in devising a new vision for the field that is nurtured from the front-lines and receives buy-in from all stakeholders (which means everyone – not simply those who currently are engaged with existing cultural organizations).
Inside-Outside Model: Museums Planning for Cultural Impacts
One tool that may be helpful as DCH considers its next steps is the “Inside-Outside Model: Museums Planning for Cultural Impact” ( A recent version is available at worldviewsconsulting.ca/blog – July 18, 2020 entry).
The Inside-Outside Model was developed by Douglas Worts, as part of the Sustainability Task Force of the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) in the USA. It helps to differentiate how what is done internally within museums, can be linked to the cultural needs that exist outside the museum.
Submitted on behalf of the Toronto Ward Museum, Sept 14, 2020
Past-Chairperson, Board of Directors, Toronto Ward Museum – www.wardmuseum.ca
Culture & Sustainability Specialist, WorldViews Consulting
Business website: www.worldviewsconsulting.ca
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