Curating Change: Bringing Diversity to Museum Collections through Audience Insight
|Preamble||Our Story||Learnings||Moving Forward|
Markham Museum is a 25-acre (10ha) open-air museum, located just north of historic Markham Village in the City of Markham. The site features 30+ historic buildings, including houses, barns, sheds, a train station, a school, a general store, a church, a blacksmith shop, a harness shop, a cider mill, and a saw mill. Since its creation nearly 50 years ago, the museum’s scope and direction have evolved. Initially a historic village with a collection mandate that covered Markham Township and the surrounding district, the museum now focuses on the contemporary geographic boundaries of Markham and utilizes its historic structures and new, LEED Gold certified collections facility to understand Markham through a science and technology lens.
The museum’s current strategic direction is the result of a careful examination of the effectiveness of the museum’s traditional approach. In 2009, after nearly 40 years of the museum’s existence, the demographics of Markham had undergone tremendous change. These changes guided a shift, whereby the museum now aims to examine Markham by engaging technologies developed and used by all human cultures to live in the natural world; agriculture and food; material culture; engineering; and environmental. It engages science, industry, history and the arts to understand how Markham became what it is today and what its possible futures could be.
The aim of this change was to allow the museum to always start from a place that is inclusive of everyone in Markham, regardless of whether or not they belong to the community’s “founding families,” and/or the historically predominantly European population groups. This new approach was formalized into a strategic plan, which was officially adopted in 2017. This approach has been employed however, for the last nine years, and in that time: revenue, community engagement, and programming success have all increased.
Changing the museum’s strategy from the top affects different aspects of museum operations at different rates. While programming and temporary exhibitions have seen a fairly rapid overhaul, the museum’s collection, by its nature, is not as quick to adapt to a new mandate. Presently, Markham is one of the most ethnically diverse municipalities in Canada, but its museum collection and our long term exhibition program lags in representation.
In order to address this, the Museum has been developing a comprehensive collections review, in order to create a standard process meant to simultaneously guide both collecting and deaccessioning. A crucial component built into this process is audience insight. It is imperative that the Museum engages with, and listens to, its diverse, cosmopolitan and urban community if it hopes to ensure that all individuals can see themselves reflected in the collection at Markham Museum. Information gathered in the study will help us establish guidelines and a strategy for allocating resources toward the collection today and in the future.
Collecting audience insight for this project took the form of a workshop designed to engage participants that are representative of the contemporary population of Markham. As of 2011, 72% of Markham residents identified as visible minorities, with 58% of Markham’s population being immigrants. Through collaboration with faculty at Unionville High School, our first workshop consisted of 18 students from three different high schools across the City. Starting with this cross section of our population not only ensured ethnic and cultural diversity (16 of the 18 students were not born in Markham), but also targeted consultation with a group that is more difficult to capture in a more traditional way as part of a museum audience. The second run was a post-graduate group of museum studies students, and the third and fourth with students from another Markham High School.
The workshop consisted of two parts. The first half involved an introduction to Markham Museum as an institution, our new strategic approach and the basics of what, how and why museums collect. Participants were split into three small groups and rotated between stations in both behind-the-scenes and public spaces in the museum. Staff at each station facilitated hands-on artifact assessments, storage vault and exhibit gallery tours and participatory artifact handling lessons. The morning overall was a crash-course in curatorial work and understanding how museums function.
For the afternoon, participants were provided with a map and a series of check points and were sent on a self-guided scavenger hunt across the museum’s 25 acres. The checkpoints were located in exhibitions, historic building displays, artifact storage vaults, and administrative office spaces. Each checkpoint included a QR code and a URL, and participants could use their smart device to connect to a short survey about what they were seeing. The questions were designed to encourage answers that highlight the museum’s biases, inclusivity and representativeness.
The higher level curatorial staff who facilitated the morning orientation took a step back for the afternoon portion. The morning ensured that participants were well-equipped with an understanding of museum foundations, and the core programs that guide our new strategic direction. In the afternoon, participants were trusted to visit the checkpoints independently, without an intellectual authority hovering over them. The surveys were also anonymous. This was done with the aim of encouraging responses that were participants’ most honest observations.
This strategy was continued with the debrief discussion which finished the day. The session was facilitated by one of the museum’s junior programs staff, someone who would be perceived as less of an authority, or someone looking for the “correct” answers. Notes from this session combined with the survey results provided valuable, focused insight on our collections and how we use them, from groups that reflect the diversity of Markham.
The more data the better
The survey was designed to provide helpful audience insight, specifically regarding diversity and inclusion in our museum’s collection and exhibitions. We chose this intense format because we felt it was essential to provide participants with a lot of knowledge in order to extract meaningful feedback. While valuable, this turned out to be a lot of time and energy input for a relatively small quantity of responses. While we were satisfied with the ethnic diversity within our workshop groups, four groups of participants from mostly the same age group lacks representation of the Markham community in other ways. Fortunately, the success of the program and positive feedback from participants on the overall experience have encouraged us to offer this workshop on an ongoing basis. The time invested in developing this program can now also be carried forward to a public program we can offer on a fee basis that not only continuously strengthens the representation in our survey results, but that also serves an added value to the institution.
Empowering participants is crucial for gathering quality insight
It was critical to design a process for audience insight that was engaging and empowering. Our initial run of workshops was tailored to a mostly teenage audience, which informed the inclusion of two important elements that ended up being critical to the workshop’s success. Firstly, we designed a data collecting process in which participants were encouraged to use their smartphones. And secondly, we made a point to treat participants like adults. This was done by offering enough trust to allow them to carry out the scavenger hunt without any direct supervision. Students had access to parts of the museum usually closed to public access, and after being equipped with the appropriate knowledge in the morning, could even touch and pick up artifacts in storage. By setting them up to be active and self-directed participants in the museum, we believe they came at our survey questions with greater confidence in the value of their feedback. In our debrief discussions participants consistently pointed out that being trusted to touch and interact with the objects was one of the most enjoyable parts of their whole experience.
Keep your data collection process flexible and tailor it to the group participating
Creating a process that relied on utilizing one’s smartphone came out of initially developing our workshop for a teen audience. This proved to be a very effective way of engaging this particular demographic (in addition to simplifying our own data collecting process). However, feedback we received from the graduate student group indicated that some participants felt that it took away from their enjoyment of the process. Having a greater knowledge of, and engagement with, the topic led them to want to write longer responses than the method was intended to capture. Therefore it is important to consider the group with which you are engaging, and be flexible with how the process unfolds. Tailoring your audience insight data collection to specific audiences on a case-by-case basis is important to ensuring the best response.
Though the quantity of our survey responses was small when considering the community of Markham in its entirety, there were some useful insights gained from our participants, including the following:
Room for improvement…
A semi-permanent exhibit which explores the high school experience in Markham lacks coverage of a non-typical school experience – those who couldn’t go to school, or finish it. There was also no mention of residential schools.
In other exhibits, certain panels were seen as telling pioneer history, men’s history, European history, rather than an inclusive Markham history. We need to do more to re-examine how we are writing our history, down to the fine details of the language we are using. Old habits in label writing may be hard to break but community feedback is clear that language matters.
In our latest exhibit, our strategy when it came to indigenous content was to approach it from a technology perspective – looking at ancestral Wendat farming technique and how similar principles are recently being applied by contemporary non-indigenous farmers in Markham. Our feedback indicated that this approach mentioned enough to acknowledge indigenous existence, but they would prefer to see a greater context and indigenous presence in our narrative overall.
There is a general desire for more interpretation in historic building displays, including first-person interpretation.
Lastly, beyond our exhibition content, the museum staff is mostly white women which is not representative of the diversity of the Markham community.
What we are getting right…
Some feedback confirms that the new approach our museum is taking is on the right track. Our focus on interactivity has been very well-received, as has our focusing on personal experiences rather than just historical facts. Interactive components, even those specifically designed for children, received a lot of positive feedback as being memorable and a highlight of their experience.
Other indications that an inclusive starting point is well-received include participants enjoying:
- An emphasis on “student experience” over “the history of schools”
- Quotes from modern farmers coupled with historical farming information – tying in the contemporary community component of a particular topic.
Further, our intention to focus on the ability for our audience to make connections between museum objects and their own personal experience seems confirmed by the fact that participants singled out objects that were most interesting to them because they could link them to their own experience and interests.
What came as a surprise…
While there was feedback that some participants did not feel it was their history being told at the museum, some indicated that they were ok with that and were still interested in hearing about the people who lived in Markham before them.
At our museum we are trying to reinterpret collections in a contemporary way, but some of the more traditional/nostalgic components of the museum are still some of the most popular with our audience – such as 30-year old static diorama displays. Even with a mostly non-white audience, feedback indicated that they still expect such displays at a museum and enjoy seeing them.
An important next step is to carry out discussions about how to turn the data we are collecting into action. Additionally, we plan to carry out more iterations of this workshop. Capturing a larger portion of the Markham community will increase our representation and the usefulness of the data that informs our collecting as well as our programs and exhibition development. It will also be important to use our audience insight to continuously adapt the questions we ask in our survey.
Workshop Delivery: Tammy Law, Curatorial Assistant, Markham Museum
Julianna Rock, Exhibit Engagement and Communications Administrator, Markham Museum
Andrea Carpenter, Programs Coordinator, Markham Museum
Lillian Galstalian, Education and Volunteer Administrator, Markham Museum
Caitlin March, Program Instructor, Markham Museum
Dayne Jespersen, Program Instructor, Markham Museum
Matthew Wright, Visitor Service Coordinator, Markham Museum
Shane Clodd, Visual Arts Department Head, Unionville High School
Ministry of Education – Government of Ontario
Curator, Markham Museum
Curator, assumed responsibilty for the collections and exhibitions at Markham Museum in 2009. She executed the transfer and consolidation of the Museum’s artifacts and archives to a centralized facility in 2011 and initiated the museums’ online collections programs. Working collaboratively with the program staff she is currently working to bring the collections and exhibtions in line with our new strategic direction. She collaborates with partners internaly and externally in the development of exhibitions.
Prior to joining the Markham Museum, she was the Manager of Museum Services at the Textile Museum and also worked as a consultant to the field for seven years. Janet has a Masters of Museum Studies from the University of Toronto and an undergraduate degree in science from the University of Ottawa. She is currently Vice Chair of the York Durham Association of Museums and Archives.
Assistant Curator, Markham Museum
Mark Scheibmayr has been Assistant Curator at Markham Museum since joining the team in 2014, where his responsibilities include coordinating researcher access to the museum's community archives, junior staff training and support, exhibition planning, and graphic design. Notable exhibition projects for which Mark was design lead include Construction City (2016), In Our Own Words (part of Myseum of Toronto's 2017 Intersections Festival), and Geared for Growing (2017-19).
Prior roles include Exhibitions Coordinator at the Design Exchange, and Education and Programs Coordinator for the Association of Registered Graphic Designers (RGD). He is also a freelance illustrator and fine art collections consultant. Mark is a graduate of Fleming College's Museum Management and Curatorship program and has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology from McGill University.
Advisory Committee Member
Advisory Committee Member
Advisory Committee Member
AVP Audience Development, Royal Ontario Museum
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