Sunday, October 9, 2016

MacAllister "Mac" Johnson

As we passed the Mac Johnson Wildlife area near Brockville, on the way to the family cabin, I thought of my old prof, MacAllister "Mac" Johnson. I wondered if it was the same person. One of the few profs I had at UofT for whom I had a true fondness, I decided to look him up to find out.  Sadly, what I learned was my professor passed away in August this year.

Mac referred to himself as a "dinosaur" because he was a relic of a time when art history was examined through a philosophical lens that married aesthetics and history. He loved that I was utterly unable to separate art from the context in which it occurred.  He, like his own professor, Erwin Panofsky, loved iconography and the meanings behind everything.

He was, I believe, a confirmed bachelor who liked movie dates with Millie, his chihuahua, and once astounded us with the statement that 'The Mummy', starring Brendan Fraser, was an aesthetic and artistic triumph and really "a lot of fun". He made me like  frou-frou 18th century art because he steeped it in the history of its time, the hidden messages, and the technological advances of print making. RIP, Mac, you were poorly understood by your department, thought quite eccentric by many of your students, but I always wished I'd known you better.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Thinking About Memory

Memory is a tricky thing.  Few of us have perfect recall, and many of us have deeply flawed memories at the best of time.  Our ability to recall past events changes as we age, and brain injuries, illness, medical intervention, and substances have an impact on how our brain stores and retrieves memories.  I, for instance, am terrible at remembering names and rarely remember small talk.  I often need prompting in social situations, because I remember faces far better than anything else.  (So, if I don't introduce you to someone, it's because I either can't remember your name, or the other person's.)  Yet my early childhood memory is phenomenal, as is my memory of events.  I can remember trivial knowledge, which is great for Quiz night down at the pub, but not so great when I'm trying to remember the little details I need to know for the work I do.  Good thing I keep excellent reference files, eh?

I work with the memories of others.  It's the nature of working with the history of the recent past.  The work I do is heavily infused with oral history and lived experience, but I receive that history second-hand.  For many of the veterans with whom I've worked, the memories of their Second World War are remarkable in their clarity and vividness.  For each and every one I've interviewed, their experience is Truth.  Some will say that they don't remember all the details, some will offer a disclaimer that they "may be wrong, but this is how [they] remember it."  When two veterans recall the same story, they often remember it differently.  Everyone brings their own biases to their experience, too, at the time and again when the event is remembered.  This can significantly alter how something is perceived.  Occasionally, their stories conflict in names, dates, or the sequence of events, but to each, theirs is True.  Yet they can't both be accurate.  Or can they?

How do I, as a curator and historian, parse these divergent oral histories, knowing that our unsteady, inconstant memory makes them potentially unreliable? 

I have been thinking pretty hard about these questions lately. I don't yet have an answer good enough to share, but I am reading about memory and oral history when I have free time. If I am going to progress with that book about Canadians on radar during WWII, I need to figure out how to balance the authority of History with the authenticity of lived experience.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Where Credit's Due

Here's a terrible screenshot from the Vanastra episode of Still Standing taken with my phone.

About eleven months ago, I consulted with a major motion picture studio to provide information on Cold War radar.  The researcher found Secrets of Radar Museum (and therefore, me) and I helped her find the information she needed.  It was a lot of fun and I'd love to do more of it, but I can't help be a little disappointed that neither the museum nor I received a credit line.  Especially with a movie of this size (you might have heard of it, X-Men: Apocalypse) and a captive audience waiting for a post-credit teaser, it would have been really great exposure. 

Which is why I am very happy that CBC's quirky TV stand-up comedy show Still Standing did provide credits for both SoRM and myself for the work we did helping to fact-check their recent Vanastra, Ontario epidsode.  We also put the studio in touch with a spry Second World War veteran, Jim Sands, who was able to make the trip across the province to participate.  I am very grateful that Still Standing made the effort to thank those who helped.  Sure, it won't get the viewership of an X-Men movie, but it matters.  So thanks, CBC and Frantic Films !

You can watch the Vanastra episode of Still Standing here.  It's 22 entertaining and fascinating minutes about one of the strangest, coolest little communities in Ontario.  

And, if you're looking for someone to provide some history research for your project, I am looking to do more !

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Unnecessary Evils of Necessary Evils

This is a (very raw) primer for understanding the stress of submitting grant applications.  It's a necessary evil if you work in galleries, museums, culture centres, theatres, and all the culture drivers therein (such as curators, artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, etc.).  If you already understand the perils of grant-based funding, none of this will come as a surprise.  It's more of a validation of the challenges you face.  I'm not offering solutions, or even taking a particularly deep look at this.  Maybe I'm just venting.  Some of what I'm talking about here relates to personal experience, but it's also anecdotal.  I've worked in the culture sector long enough to have heard all kinds of horror stories.  So, there you go.  Read on, if you dare.

Imagine, if you will, you work in the culture sector - okay maybe you don't - but you probably know someone who does.  This post probably applies to research scientists, too, for that matter, or anyone whose livelihood is directly tied to grant-based funding, donations, and sponsorship.  Even the big institutions and organisations, yes even the ones that appear sustainable (what's that mean, again?), survive in part on fundraising.  Big institutions tend to be better at finding funders because they have the resources to look for funders.  They have departments with people devoted to researching possible funders and donors, they have marketing departments to get the word out and drum up support.  Money breeds money, so they say.  So let's leave them out of this conversation, because when small and mid-sized culture organisations go up against the big'uns, most of the time, they lose.

For small institutions, the ones that don't have enormous donor bases, or large memberships, or who have subject area or interest that may not be immediately relatable for the average person, the struggle to find funding, especially long-term funding, is real.  I don't think it's an overstatement to say that the majority of culture organisations fall into this category.  In the science world, this probably equates to exploratory science, pure research.  It's where many of the most life-changing discoveries have happened, and yet these research labs are the ones most frequently scrambling to find funding to keep their research alive.  Small culture orgs are also often the innovators in their fields, because they have to do more with so much less.  They don't have access to the funds for big tech, or flashy exhibits, swish publications.  Usually, there are a few key individuals, maybe only one or two, who try to figure out how to create buzz, develop engaging programs, figure out how rent or utilities will be paid, etc., and very often, they don't work full-time, or they're volunteers, or they're only paid through project grants.  Often, they're highly educated, and typically, they're passionate about what they do.  So passionate, in fact, that the rest of the world takes for granted that these folks will just keep doing what they do for shockingly low wages.  And, sadly, many of them (myself included) will, at least for a while.

So, back to fundraising and writing grants.

We in the culture sector know the tear-jerking, breakdown-inducing stress of writing grants.  We put ourselves in front of funder after funder trying desperately to find one who will take an interest.  We take time and resources away from our often struggling organisations in order to lock ourselves up for a week at a time to write grant applications.  And we write many, many grant applications, don't we?  Oh yes we do.  It's like applying for a job: sometimes it's for a highly paid job, sometimes its for short-term unskilled labour, but every time, we have to make the case for why we're the right one for it - in this case, funds.  Only instead of applying for a job or two that will, hopefully, pay a living wage, culture orgs are applying for dozens of jobs.  Instead of one or two jobs paying the bills and allowing for a few new toys or a small renovation, it's more like one job to repair the roof, one job to put food on the table, one job to clothe, another to cover utilities, another to buy school supplies for the kids, another to keep the lights on... because none of the jobs alone will do more than one thing.  And every application has different requirements, different rules, and quite often, a host of invisible prerequisites you never knew the committees were looking for.

Like any worker who works multiple jobs, trying to make ends meet, culture organisations spend a lot of energy just making sure they can make it to the next month.  They exist, like so many people who just scrape by, hand to mouth, too concerned with where the next buck is coming from to spend time investing in their futures.  And, like so many salaries, funding is static or going down.  More requests on funders, for fewer dollars.

Then there are the funders.  There are any number of types out there, and if you've ever spent any time looking at the granting websites, you know that every single one of them has different (and sometimes variable) eligibility requirements.  This grant won't fund operations expenses (you know, like rent, utilities, light bulbs, toilet paper, etc.); that grant won't fund organisations with a military bias; this other grant will cover projects, but not the salary for the person who is working on the project; this one is only available in these three communities; that grant won't cover anything unless it supports literacy, or whatever.  Some grants look perfect, but when you research the projects they've funded, you discover that they only give money to projects at a university.  Sometimes a granting organisation will only allow applicants who they have invited and, please, no phone calls, emails, faxes, or any other form of outside solicitation, so unless you know so-and-so on the Board, forget about it.

Often, culture organisations rely heavily, some might say too heavily, on government and government supported funders.  Often, government grants are the only ones which cover operations.  They usually have a lofty mandate to support and empower organisations and to assist in making those organisations sustainable.  Of course, sustainability in the culture sector, especially as it is currently laid out, is more myth than reality for most orgs, because they are
a) not-for-profit,
b) subject to the whims and interests of membership and volunteers, and,
c) the culture of philanthropy in Canada is under developed and under rewarded by current tax laws. 
I'm sure there are other reasons that sustainability is more myth than reality for many orgs, but those are what came to me off the top of my head.

 Typically, and for very good reasons, government grants require the most paperwork.  No ministry or department wants to have backlash because "taxpayer dollars" have been wasted/misspent on a culture organisation that has misappropriated funds, or bought a desk chair and printer cart when the rules clearly stated that office fixtures are ineligible expenses!  They want to show that funds are being used for their intended purposes, and that both the funder and the recipient are accountable.  But sometimes, the hoops organisations are expected to jump through to secure often meagre funds, are unnecessarily evil.  There are grants that require orgs to submit an audit.  Audits are important, but they're also expensive.  To an organisation with a budget of less than $50,000, an audit that costs over $4,000 may well be prohibitive.  Especially since the audit comes before the grant, and the costs of the audit may not be eligible expenditures for the grant.  Imagine being required to submit an audit for a grant that won't provide more than $8,000, and the grant will take a solid 25 hours to complete.  Is that worth the pain?  Imagine your organisation has only one staff person.  And that person is paid out of a project grant which won't cover these unrelated costs!  Now imagine that you took the time, unpaid, to write that grant, your organisation paid for the audit, and then your organisation still failed to secure the funds... 

So you contact the funder to find out what you did wrong, or what you could improve for next time.  Sometimes, rarely, they offer real, meaningful advice.  I just recently learned a grant I'd applied for was declined, but they followed up with an invitation to re-apply and to contact them to find out how to improve for the next intake.  We did, and much to our surprise, we were told just how close we came to being funded and three ways we could strengthen our already strong application.  Wow.  You can bet we will reapply.  but, like all those HR departments who promise to get back to you, but rarely do, with their hiring decisions, culture orgs are lucky to get a form letter informing them their request was declined.  I've called funders to find out how to improve future applications and often they can provide so little feedback that I'm left wondering whether all the applications were just thrown in the air and those that landed face-up were selected and those that landed face-down weren't.  A colleague of mine told me about the time they weren't funded because their organisation didn't have a business plan.  A business plan was not on the list of required supporting documents, nor was it refered to anywhere in the grant guidelines.  Understandably, my colleague was pretty upset, but as with most funders, there was no appeal process. 

Sometimes an org is invited to reapply, is offered advice on how to improve, and then they still don't get funded, for any number of reasons.Maybe it was a financial short-fall on the funder's end, or a policy change at a top government level, or maybe the decision committee changed their mind - it doesn't even have to be a problem with the culture organisation's application.  Then you have to tell your membership where the money went, why it didn't come, which breeds little in the way of security or confidence, and then other potential funders become concerned... you can see how this might affect a museum's sustainability pretty quickly.

I am happy to report that while I've lived through the chest-clutching, hair-pulling horror of having desperately needed grants not come through, and will likely live through it again, I can demonstrate a 65% success rate for receiving funds or at least partial funds to support my organisations (and my livelihood).  But I probably spend a solid third of my time researching, planning, and writing grant applications, most of which do not in a real way support day-to-day operations, and usually not my salary, either.  So, there you go.  I hope this shed some light on a mysterious and often traumatising aspect of trying to run a culture org.  The challenges differ from place to place, country to country, but with few exceptions (lucky bastards), this struggle is very real. 

The next thing I write about, I promise, will induce fewer panic attacks. 

Want to read more about the horrors of budget cuts, demands on granting organisations, making do with less?  Here's what the Province of Ontario learned from its province-wide Culture Talks sessions?  You can download their summary here.  Here's a recent article about the situation for Canadian art museums (mind you, bigger, well-funded museums) from Canadian Art magazine. Here's a 2015 summary article relating budget cuts and stress levels from the Museum Association (UK).

Sunday, March 27, 2016

New ROM CEO and a Museum's Future

Once upon a time, I worked at Canada's second largest museum, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I worked there over seven years in several front-line capacities from Membership and Visitor Services to Education animation of blockbuster exhibits.   Prior to that, I volunteered there in Vertebrate Palaeontology and as a co-op student in the Outreach Department. I also did some contract communications work in New Media. As a kid, I went to ROM camp and spent many a Saturday and Sunday afternoon noodling about.  Now, I haven't worked at the ROM since 2005, and while I have friends who still do, and sometimes they talk to me about the state of the museum, I am certainly not current.  That said, my opinions about the Museum are based in lived experience as part of the ROM family as much as my academic background.

When I read the Toronto Star article about the ROM's new CEO, Joshua Basseches, written by Martin Knelman, two things struck me. Firstly, Janet Carding, the ROM's former CEO, is given no credit for anything. She came in after William Thorsell's overlong tenure, and found herself heading up a demoralised workforce and a museum in the midst of an identity crisis, brought about largely by the newly opened and controversial Crystal.   Under Carding's watch, the ROM developed an exceptional social media presence, influenced at least in part by her regular attendance in the galleries, watching and interacting. Knelman doesn't seem to understand that the exhibition schedule of this year and last, which he acknowledges for numbers and buzz, were set by her, whereas her first two years at the ROM were under the programming theme dictated by Thorsell.  Carding's forward thinking and vision was stymied by the previous Board direction and executive, which was also a reflection of the years under Thorsell. During her time at the Museum, that Board dramatically turned around under new leadership.  Basseches is inheriting a ROM that is a far cry from the monument to a questionable architectural vision and CEO's hubris to which Carding arrived.

The other thing that bothers me in this article is that the author refers to the Rotunda as "gloomy".  It most certainly isn't, but it has lost its purpose and is woefully under used. Does Knelman remember the bright, vibrant space it was when it was the ROM's entrance? It once teemed with life, laughter, flowers, meetings, partings, and expressions of awe.  That it seems gloomy now speaks to the entrance that was returned to Bloor St when the Crystal was built. I spent a lot of hours meeting and greeting people in the Rotunda, and it was many things, but never gloomy.

My compaints with the article end here. For the most part I am cautiously optimistic. The ROM is, at its best, a beacon to curiosity, engagement, and imagination. The ROM staff and volunteers work incredibly hard to make the Museum a place of wonder and enjoyment. The collections are among some of the best in the world, and it's curatorial departments breed excellence in scholarship. At its worst, and in my opinion, largely due to the ill-conceived architectural monstrocity that is the Crystal, the ROM is an unfriendly, exhausting magnum opus to elitism and pretention.  The floors and walls are angled, the white walls harsh, the flow of traffic illogical, and everything is custom sized and therefore expensive to repair and replace. The Crystal set back museum architectural theory by 40 years. The Crystal's effective and intended uses (for instance the restaurant C5) didn't even last a decade, when public buildings usually have a lifespan of 20 to 30 years.  So, yes, Basseches has his work cut out for him.

If I have any words of advice for the incoming CEO, I suggest he establish an open, transparent dialogue with the ROM staff - at every level - immediately. The institutional memory is a long one; many staff have been there for 30+ years and they have experienced several dissonant and conflicting leadership and pedagogical philosophies in a relatively short timeframe. Build trust, don't pander, and offer respect to a diverse group of educated, dedicated, professionals, Mr. Basseches, and you will have a loyal, profoundly grateful staff to return a gem of a museum to its rightful place as a paragon of culture, learning, emotional and intellectual engagement, entertainment, and scholarship. You do that, and the people of Toronto will return in droves and, I believe, forgive the sins of past leadership.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Remembrance Day +1

Original photo by Benoit Aubry, available here.
Yesterday was Remembrance Day here in Canada.  It's celebrated in various parts of the world as Poppy Day, Armistice Day, and Veterans Day.  It's history is pretty well chronicled, as is the Poppy pin, an international memorial symbol directly linked to the history of Remembrance Day.  (If you're interested, the Canadian War Museum provides a good explanation, here.)  This isn't about the day, or the pin, per se.  This is about remembering and gratitude.

My mother's father, Jan Hogenkamp, was either mounted artillery or mounted infantry with the Dutch Army.  He died long before I was born, so his story of riding out to face the vastly superior German Army and the embarrassment of surrender came to me second hand through my mother.  He would continue to fight, however, as a committed member of the Dutch Resistance, along with his sister Ina, and his best friend Gert. I am fiercely proud of their selfless dedication to their cause, and to the anonymous numbers of people their actions assisted.  I'm also grateful that they all survived, because many of their compatriots did not.

My Zaida - my father's father, Paul Hirschman - wanted to serve in the war and enlisted, but family lore says he never got further than New Jersey.  I don't know if that's true, but knowing him, it probably was.  He had lousy luck.  Or, in this case, maybe great good fortune, since he never saw combat.  My understanding is that he, as an optician, ended up making glasses for service men and his skill set was too important to sacrifice.  Maybe.  He was also really short and himself bespectacled, but I do have the vaguest memory of seeing a black and white photo of him in uniform.

Until I came to The Secrets of Radar Museum, those were my personal connections to the Second World War.  Certainly, I must have had distant family in Europe who perished in the Holocaust, but most of my immediate Jewish family arrived in the first two decades of the 20th century.  This is not to say my connections are no less important than those of people whose family members fought and died (or survived), but they were outside the realm of battles and frontlines.  Since arriving at SORM, however, I've had the distinct honour of working with, speaking to, and developing friendships with numerous veterans of the Second World War.  I am routinely asked how I got into radar, and while I used to say my background was in museums and history, not actually radar, I have genuinely become interested in radar, but not because it is electronics, or radio, or any of that.  I am interested now, because of the people.  The war-time radar program gathered all manner of Canadians into its fold, all united by a few things: intelligence, curiosity, ingenuity, and a fifty-year oath of secrecy.  Every one of these men and woman has a story to tell. 

The great tragedy for me is that there are so few of them left now.  Even ten years ago, there were three times as many radar veterans living as there are now.  And in the three years-and-a-bit I've worked at SORM, we have lost several veterans, some of whom I never had the chance to meet, but a few whose lives briefly touched mine.  This Remembrance Day, I reflected on how lucky I have been to get to know the radar veterans I have.  Some of them have become my friends.  I've met their family and friends, and I can see first-hand how wide a net these men and women have cast into their communities.  I am grateful to know them, to share meals and drinks with them, to record their stories, and share their stories with the public.  I wish I had known many of them, or known them better, but I am grateful to know their histories, handle their photographs and mementoes. 

Although the number of ancient veterans marching in the parade wanes thinly, now, my list of names has grown.  My feelings for Remembrance Day have deepened, as has my resolve to preserve their stories.  I will remember them.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writing a Mosaic

One of the great pleasures of my work, for which I never lose interest, is examining, listening to, and reading history shared by those who were there.  We call these primary sources.  They may be illustrations, photographs, witness testimony, letters and other correspondence, oral histories, memoirs, diaries, and the like.  Of course, they are the products of people, and human memory is fallable, biased, and sometimes completely incorrect, but none of that really matters when you start applying multiple primary sources over each other.  Layers of primary sources create mosaics of experience and emotion.

Back in late July, I spent an afternoon and evening listening to the personal experiences of radar veterans of the Second World War.  These were follow-up interviews.  I had the pleasure of joining the Ottawa-area radar veterans for lunch and a day of oral history interviews the previous summer.  I now have several hours of recordings from numerous veterans, which adds to the recordings that were made by the Secrets of Radar Museum between 2002 and 2008.  Time is of the essence for capturing the voices of the men and women who served in WW2.  The youngest among them are 88 years old, the majority in their 90s.  Their numbers are dwindling fast.

More than simply carrying out interviews, I found myself being handed numerous items to take back to the museum.  These included correspondence, self-published memoirs and accounts, books, CDs, and more.  These objects were given to me for the museum, for my research, for "the book".  What book?  "The book you're going to write."  So I brought it all back with me and I thought about the book they all expect me to write.

I have been approached in the past about writing Canada's radar history, there's even a publisher that has expressed interest.  I've never really thought seriously about it, though.  I felt I wasn't expert enough, or I lacked the time, or the will, or the interest.  The only book I ever wanted to write was my mother's family's experiences during the Occupation of the Netherlands, and I've never gotten very far with that.  The idea of writing a book about radar is daunting, particularly as I have only the barest understanding of radio, physics, or electronics.

Mmm, tastes like chicken...

So there I was, surrounded by material that these veterans gave to me for "the book".  I thought about their faces as they put their histories in my hands.  In their eyes was the certainty that I would do it.  There was trust that I would tell their stories with dignity and respect.  When I accepted the materials into my hands, I was unknowingly accepting the responsibility for their histories.

I've never written a book.  I have no idea how to go about it.  I have read a lot of books, and certainly plenty of history books dealing with World War Two.  A few of them are excellent reads.  Some of them are interesting.  Too many of them are dry, or inaccessible, even boring.  I want my attempt to do justice to the personalities of the veterans, to have the levity and approachability of comfortable conversation, even when talking about difficult subjects.  I honestly don't know if I can do it.  But this summer I decided I'd give it a try. 

I have started writing "the book".  My hope is that I can take all that has been put down before me, those works that have been published, those which have only been circulated amongst friends and family, the letters, the photographs, the maps, documents, and mementos, and most of all, the hours of oral history recordings, and turn them into something worth reading.  I have no timeline, I only hope I can create for them the mosaic of history, experience and emotion they long for and deserve.