Engaging Community: The Affirmation Bowls Project
Simcoe County Museum
|Preamble||Our Story||Learnings||Moving Forward|
Simcoe County Museum is located in the centre of Simcoe County, just a few minutes’ drive from Barrie, Ontario. The museum was founded in 1928 by Women’s Institute members Mrs. Stocking and Sutherland. Originally a collection of artifacts for a temporary display, the display grew into a permanent collection of objects from Simcoe County that depict the history of the area, from 10,000 BCE to today.
Like so many other rural, community museums, Simcoe County Museum is in an area that, until recently, has been similar in demographics. However, for the past several years, the population demographic in Simcoe County has been changing; from two percent of the population who identify as a visible minority in 1996, to approximately thirteen percent in 2016. While this is still well below the provincial average, it is an indication that the County will only continue to become more diverse.
It was during a Museum at the Mall event, a pop up exhibit we hosted at Georgian Mall in 2012 where staff really became aware of the changing community of Simcoe County. The temporary exhibition at the mall allowed staff to reach members of the public that had never connected with the museum. During this time, staff heard many stories from new Canadians about their experiences and connections with the various artifacts and exhibitions.
Today, cultural institutions as a whole are seeking new ways to become relevant to new, diverse audiences. Within Simcoe County, population growth and increasing diversity in the area, have made our staff aware that there are community groups who are underserved or underrepresented by the museum. To better connect with the people of Simcoe County, and to encourage participation from multiple communities, staff chose to implement the Affirmation Bowls Project as a means of connecting our local LGBTQ+ folks, persons with a disability, newcomers, and the Indigenous community.
The Affirmation Bowls Project is an initiative by Barrie Artist Laura Thompson. In this project, 108 participants received a fabric bowl, described by the artist as a sculpture. The artist instructed participants to display the sculpture in a prominent location where it will be seen daily, prompting them to think of friends, family or even strangers who have been an important part of their lives.
After three months, participants must pass their bowl to someone whose presence in their life they wish to affirm. They must tell the recipients why they want them to have the bowl and why they are special to them. Over the year, the cycle will repeat four times. As the bowls travel, the stories of why they are given and received will be collected. The fourth person will return the bowl for a final exhibition of the bowls and the stories of their travels.
In order to confirm interested participants, the team met with folks from The Gilbert Centre and PFLAG Barrie-Simcoe County (LGBTQ+), the Local Immigration Partnership, Barrie Native Friendship Centre, CNIB and Deaf Access. Through discussions with these groups, it was confirmed that these community members often feel underserved and underrepresented by their cultural institutions. During these meetings it was also realized that the LGBTQ+ stories are not told and there are still areas where improved accessibility is greatly needed.
While the project launch on January 28, 2018 confirmed participation from 108 people, the team were slightly disappointed that these 108 are not fully reflective of the communities that were approached. Upon reflection, the team agreed that the participation from diverse communities would have been improved if the team could have presented the project to the regular meeting attendees and not only the leaders, in order to get the message out to a broader number of individuals and share their passion for the project.
It will not be until January 2019 that the full results of this project will be realized, as these 108 bowls and their travels will directly impact 432 people. Already, the project has attracted participants from Simcoe County, and from as far away as California and the United Kingdom. It is hoped that the final 432 participants will be comprised of community members from all of the different groups approached by staff, and will be reflective and relevant to the community served by Simcoe County Museum.
All 108 participants are engaged in making this year long project a success. Based on the initial gathering, it was clear that there was excitement from participants to be part of the storytelling, and the exhibition. Although the artist expressed that there could be anonymity in the stories written, the group seemed eager to have their stories told, and to share them with the exhibition audiences.
Community driven initiatives like this are bringing more meaning to the museum experience for people in the community. The fact that people are eagerly accepting the opportunity to create the stories, participate in the activities, and see the project to the finish demonstrates that the community is ready for a more participatory, community-based experience.
In a community-based project, staff will not have absolute control. There will always be What Ifs, and staff have to know that it’s okay to relinquish some authority. In the Affirmation Bowls project, the artist designed the format and the schedule of the project, which left staff with a number of questions. For example, What if the bowls don’t move on? What if people don’t follow the rules? What if bowls go missing? The joy (and stress) of working on a yearlong project with 108 people, 108 pieces of art, and an artist is that staff will not know how it all unfolds until the pieces and stories of their travels return to the museum for the exhibit.
It is clear that the museum must engage the community in the projects, exhibits, and events being planned and presented. It is also clear that the community is eager and willing to participate. The Affirmation Bowls project reinforced the importance of these types of collaborations. It is also clear that community engagement in museums happens in many different ways; it’s not just through an exhibit, an education program, a single event or activity. Community engagement is woven through all museum operations, programs, and services. To be successful, it must be woven this way.
In 2019, the results of the project will be known, and it will not be fully understood what the impacts of this collaboration have been until that time. It is the hope of all parties involved that the bowls travelling - whether around the world, across the country, or down the street will bring people together in a positive way, and build stronger relationships to the museum, and to the community.
In the meantime, community shared with us what the Affirmation Bowls project meant to them and why they wished to participate, we’ve included some of their insights here:
- “I believe in the power of thoughts and words”
- “[The Affirmation Bowls project] sounds inspiring and interesting, I love the creativity of it”
- “Because I believe connection, community and creativity are incredibly valuable and important”
- “[The Affirmation Bowls project] felt like a neat way to connect to my niece in B.C.”
- “I really love the universality of positive sharings”
Simcoe County Museum extends appreciation to Laura Thompson for bringing her vision for the Affirmation Bowls project to the museum. During a time when people are facing difficult or uncertain times, this project serves to remind us of the kindness and generosity that still exists in our day to day lives. Thanks also to the folks who spread the word to get the message out to others so that this project could be a success.
Partner – Laura Thompson
Funding – Ontario Museum Association, Simcoe County Museum
The Gilbert Centre
Deaf Access Barrie
Barrie Native Friendship Centre
Local Immigration Partnership
PFLAG Barrie-Simcoe County
Curator, Simcoe County Museum
Kelley Swift Jones is Curator for the Simcoe County Museum in Minesing, Ontario. Kelley has worked in the museum field since 1990, starting in a summer position at a museum in a tourist town. From those early experiences, she realized that the needs of the museum visitors are equally as important as the needs of museum collections, and that every visitor, like every artifact, has a unique story to share.
Museum Reception, Simcoe County Museum
I have worked at the Simcoe County Museum for 5 years as the Gift Store Receptionist. I am an advocate for LGBTQ2SIA+ rights, in 2015 I was board member for Barrie Pride and I am the co-facilitator of the Barrie-Simcoe County PFLAG chapter.
This project was also supported by artist Laura Thompson.
Advisory Committee Member
Founding Artistic Director, Why Not Theatre
Advisory Committee Member
Founder and Owner, small LANGUAGE CONNECTIONS;
Co-Founder and past Co-Director, DEAF CULTURE CENTRE