Wednesday, 11 September 2019

An Interview with Keynote Presenter Professor Helen Chatterjee

Professor Helen Chatterjee will be delivering the closing keynote address, “Museums, Health, and Well-being: The Bio-psychosocial Impact of Museum Participation,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Prof. Chatterjee spoke with Ann Ramsden, Executive Director of the Arts and Heritage Foundation of  St. Albert, for an interview.

You are a professor of Biology specializing in genetics, evolution, and environment. With this academic background, how did you become interested in museological research?

I trained as a zoologist with a PhD in primatology, and my zoology research has always involved using zoology museum collections to look at morphological adaptation, evolution, and conservation of endangered species. During my PhD, I ‘inherited’ University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology. Initially, I began as a TA, teaching using the collections, but when the Curator retired, I took on that role. I ran the Museum for ten years before becoming Director, then Deputy Director of UCL Museums for five further years. I still use the museum today for teaching and research.

During my time at the Grant Museum, I began researching object-based learning and the value of museums to health and well-being. Ten years ago, I was awarded the first ever UK research grant to explore the role of touch and object handling in relation to well-being and health, and my work has expanded from there.

Tell me about the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and your role in it.

Initially, I co-founded the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing with colleagues from National Museums Liverpool, but we had always planned to merge with the National Alliance for Arts, Health & Wellbeing due to the many synergies between arts, artists, arts organisations, and museums. We did so last year to form the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance; we provide the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, to which I am also an advisor. We are currently setting up a National Strategy Centre for culture and health.

What can museums offer in terms of health and wellness? Is this the same for human history and natural history museums and collections?

Our research shows that whilst natural history and archaeology collections are more popular, eliciting well-being is less about the actual objects used and more about the nature of the conversation and the quality of facilitation.

Our main research findings are that museums offer positive social experiences, leading to reduced social isolation; opportunities for learning and acquiring new skills; and calming experiences, leading to decreased anxiety. We have also found increased positive emotions (e.g. optimism, hope, and enjoyment), increased self-esteem and sense of identity, positive distraction from clinical environments, and increased communication between families, carers, and health professionals.

What barriers have you encountered with participation in cultural events?  What strategies can you suggest for museums to overcome these barriers?

Transport and psychological barriers are the biggest. I often hear, “Museums are not for me.” However, once participants are supported in their visit – with awareness of any physical or psychological challenges they may be dealing with – they have a different view of museums.

Who are museums’ partners in health and well-being?

Partnerships in health might include hospitals and primary care providers, and in social care, residential care homes. Partnerships may also be developed with not-for-profit charities, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, and other voluntary or support organisations.

How do we train museum staff, volunteers, and board members to become active participants in health and well-being?

Partnerships with health, social care, and support organisations are essential as they will often help to provide relevant training and support. There are also initiatives such as Dementia Friends or Mental Health First Aid and Safeguarding training. There is also a need for this kind of training to be included in museum studies programs.

The foreword of the APPG Creative Health report notes that “[c]ulture change cannot be imposed by government, and we are not asking for legislation or organisational upheaval or more public spending. Government can, however, support the process of change.” Does this mean that museums and cultural institutions need to reprioritize within existing resources?

Yes, I think well-being needs to be strategically embedded in organizational strategies, staffing, and structures to support well-being provision across the whole of the service.

Professor Helen Chatterjee is a Professor of Biology in UCL Biosciences. Her research includes biodiversity conservation and evidencing the impact of natural and cultural participation on health. She co-founded the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, is an advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health, and sits on the Royal Society for Public Health’s SIG in Arts and Health, and the IUCN Section on Small Apes. Her interdisciplinary research has won a range of awards, including most recently the 2018 AHRC-Wellcome Health Humanities Medal and Leadership Award. She can be found on Twitter: @h_chatterjee

Prof. Chatterjee’s Keynote Presentation opens the second day of sessions at the AMA 2019 Conference, on Saturday, September 21. Prof. Chatterjee will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Saturday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.

Monday, 26 August 2019

A Preconference Conversation with Keynote Presenter Dr. Carol Ryff and Moderator Dick Averns

Dr. Carol D. Ryff will be delivering the opening keynote address, “Bridging the Museum Experience to Well-being and Health,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Dr. Ryff sat down with Dick Averns, artist and engagement coordinator with CARFAC Alberta, for an interview. 

Averns: Thanks for sharing some insight into your work, Carol, on the Conference theme, As a Whole: Well-being, Health, and Museums. So, how does your work and research promote health and well-being, and how do you see museums as relevant?

Ryff: For the last thirty years, my research has addressed three main questions: What is human well-being? How can we measure it? And how does it matter for health? My past research has not explicitly linked museum experiences to health and well-being, although I am an advocate for work in that direction. I’m especially interested in how partaking of museums might impact people’s sense that their lives have meaning, purpose, and direction, as well as their sense that they are experiencing personal growth over time.

So in the future, do you see museums playing an increasing role in the fields of health and well-being?

There is growing scientific evidence to show that encounters with the arts – broadly defined to include visual arts, music, literature, poetry, film, and dance – do contribute to human well-being and facilitate recovery from illness. Great art, for example, can inspire deep reflections about beauty or pain or historical change. Indigenous art is also a form of broadening personal experiences with music, dance, and self-expression.

In general, I subscribe to the philosophy that life-long well-being (including self-knowledge, quality ties to others, purposeful engagement, realization of personal capacities) requires continual learningthe taking in of new sources of information. Museums are a great place for broadening our personal horizons.

How do you envision museums building partnerships or making connections in order to act for the benefit of individual and community well-being?

In Denmark, a country that contributes extensive public support for a wide array of museums, there is emphasis on “evidence-based curating.” Effectively, the government wants more assessment of how museums matter. As an example, some there advocate for “art on prescription,” which encourages older persons to visit local museums, become engaged with museum activities, and use these places as forums for continuing education.

That’s a great example. I wasn’t aware of this in Denmark, although I do know that the UK has been a pioneer in social prescribing. The Kings Fund has a great introduction.

There’s also an organization in the UK, People United, that seeks to promote kindness in community contexts via the arts. Museums can also play a part in such endeavours.

In Philadelphia, the Porch Light Program created community art projects, murals, in run-down neighborhoods. The work involved partnerships between local residents, health and policy officials, and researchers. Their evidence shows that creating these striking murals has enhanced the sense of safety and efficacy in these neighborhoods.

I like this example because it embraces public art and speaks to the possibility of museums taking a lead in initiatives that go beyond their own walls, and considering community art and social practice.

Turning to the AMA conference, Carol, what takeaways would you like attendees to garner from your presentation?

I hope to convey that those who are involved in curating museums are doing more than managing repositories of human culture. They are providing not just opportunities for learning about and engaging in history and the arts, but also possibly playing important roles in how to approach contemporary life challenges.

What is missing to date are more systematic assessments of these wider impacts of museums. This is a field where collaboration and partnerships with researchers studying human health and well-being has important future potential.

Thanks Carol, this is illuminating for sure. I look forward to your session and talking more in person and with our conference delegates.

Likewise. Thanks Dick.

Dr. Carol D. Ryff is the Director of the Institute on Aging and Hilldale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has investigated how psychological well-being varies by age, educational status, and cultural context, as well as by the challenges and transitions of adult life. Her research considers whether well-being is protective of good health, how some are able to maintain or regain well-being in the face of adversity, and what neurobiology underlies this capacity. Recently, she has become engaged in linking the arts and humanities to well-being and health.

Dr. Ryff’s Keynote Presentation opens the AMA 2019 Conference on Friday, September 20. Dr. Ryff will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Friday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Opening and Closing Plenary Presenter Preview with Joe Vipond

Joe Vipond has worked as an emergency physician in Calgary for eighteen years. In 2012, he became one of the key organizers for the successful Alberta Coal Phase Out campaign and the subsequent Canadian Coal Phase Out campaign. He currently is involved with The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), the Alberta Wilderness Association, and the CAPE-Alberta Committee, a regional group of physicians, nurses, and other health professionals who successfully negotiated the creation of Alberta Health Services first Office of Sustainability. When not doctoring or trying to change the world, he does his best to be a good husband and dad to his two amazing children, Sadie and Willa.

Please provide a brief overview of your role and the work that your organization does. How do you see your work connecting to the museum world?
Museums have two important connections to climate. First, they are institutions of communication. Through museums we learn. And we desperately need to learn more about the science of climate. It has become the undiscussable topic...who really wants to talk about the possible end of the world, and our role in it? But we desperately need to talk about it. Because by ignoring the subject, we also make it impossible to fix it.
Second, like all other institutions, museums need to rapidly decrease their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, at least by 2%, some say 6%, per year. These are drastic reductions in a short period of time. Strategic, well organized, economically sound transition plans need to be developed, and fast. As museums have the advantage of being very visible, they may be inspirational models of GHG reduction for other societal institutions.

Why are you interested in participating in the AMA’s 2018 Conference?
The Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) is a small, national organization comprised of physician volunteers and a small cadre of employees. Despite our tiny size we have managed to achieve some huge accomplishments: pesticide bans in numerous provinces and cities, a national asbestos ban, an Ontario coal phase out, the Alberta Coal Phase Out, and shortly thereafter the Canadian Coal Phase Out. These will combine to decrease Canada's GHG emissions by about 66 megatons by 2030 (depending on what the electricity generation is replaced with), or about 9% of Canada's total emissions.
What I bring to the AMA’s Conference is the power of advocacy. The simple action of standing up for something is powerful, and can change the inertia of institutions big and small. Combine advocacy with organization and you've got an unbeatable power. We need to all be climate leaders now, and I hope to share my learnings with nascent advocates.

Opening and Closing Plenary Presenter Preview with Cathy Molloy

Cathy Molloy is the Director of Markham Museum. She was born in Toronto and grew up in the Rouge Valley, specifically on the edge of one of its wonderful ravines. Before returning to Markham Museum and becoming its Director in 2008, Cathy worked as a Curator at both the Oshawa Museum and Markham Museum, and was instrumental in raising funds to build the Aurora Cultural Centre. Cathy’s interest in environmental issues goes back to her teen years where she participated in the Boyd Conservation Archaeological Summer Field School, which was the start of a life-long desire to better understand how humans interact with the natural world.

Please provide a brief overview of your role at Markham Museum and the work that your organization does.
The Vision of Markham Museum is to "inspire a life-long curiosity, pride in, and care for, the people, tangible heritage, places, lands and waterways of the City of Markham: past, present and future.” Our mission is 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. We will engage science, industry, history and the arts to understand how Markham became what it is today and what its possible futures could be”.
Markham is, demographically, the most diverse city in Canada. It is vital that the museum connect to the community as a whole. Additionally, protection of the environment is a strategic priority of Markham Council, and many of the city’s sustainability initiatives relate directly to the goals of the Museum.
While the new LEED Gold building that houses Markham Museum was being constructed, an archaeological excavation discovered a wealth of pottery had once been on the land. The land sits on a clay bed of the Rouge Watershed. The study of the pots eventually led to the development of the environmental program direction at Markham Museum.

Why are you interested in participating in the AMA’s 2018 Conference?
The Strategic Plan of Markham Museum is dependent on partnerships with community groups, academic groups, other government agencies, and local businesses. The theme of this Conference is Cultivating Connections, so the discussions are very relevant to our work. As the program direction of Markham Museum is rooted in our natural environment, I am interested in learning about the work that other museums and organizations are doing.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Museums and Environment

One of the questions that repeatedly comes up when museums are asked to think about how they can engage with environmental issues is “our museum is about [insert subject here] - how do we engage in discussions around the environment when it does not apply to us?” When museum professionals look at their institutions through a different lens, however, it becomes obvious that there are many connections to the environment. By highlighting these connections, museums can be agents of social change by engaging their communities in timely discussions around this vitally important topic.

Still not sure how your museum might fit? Consider the following broad examples:

Historic House Museums

§  Historic houses are an opportunity to explore construction techniques, modes of heating, and how lessons from the past can help modern homes be more energy efficient. They also present opportunities to examine the micro-history of the area around the home, and can provide a rich source of information about how human relationships with their environments change over time. This can help confront current questions about our changing climate, environmental degradation, and sustainability.

Topic-Specific Museums

§  Like historic houses, it is not always obvious how topic specific museums can engage proactively with environmental issues but the potential is there. For example, dinosaur museums are rooted in science and can relate the dramatic environmental changes that occurred millions of years ago to similar changes happening in the modern world. Sports Halls of Fame can connect the sports their inductees participate in with the environmental necessities that make these sports possible; for instance, shorter and warmer winters will make snow and ice based sports harder to pursue. Ethnic and immigrant group-specific institutions that interpret the pioneer experience can re-frame their distinct cultural practices as lessons that will help future generations reduce energy consumption and live more sustainably. Even a museum about something as specific as rodeos can engage with contemporary environmental issues by asking different questions.

§  Location Specific or Geographically defined museums

Museums that are based in a geographically-specific location can ask different questions about how their area has changed over time to consider the role of people in that change. Reframing exhibits and interpretation to look at how agriculture, industry, and settlement change the environment encourages people to think about how their daily interactions affect future generations. Historical photographs are a great resource to compare what a place looks like today with how it looked in the past; this approach can also be used to look at how nature reclaims spaces after people stop using them.

No matter how topic-specific a museum, there is a connection to the environment. Museums and other cultural institutions have an important role to play in engaging the public around these issues, as they are a trusted source of information that help promote a culture of inquiry and exploration.

Lauren Wheeler
Program Lead

Monday, 8 January 2018

The Lougheed House's Beltline AlTOURnative Project

The Lougheed House received the 2017 Leadership Award for Engagement for the Beltline AlTOURnative Project. In this post, the project team shares their story of engaging Calgary's Beltline community in a new and different way. 

The Lougheed House is known for traditional Victorian grandeur, and as a sandstone sentinel of the prairie. The House offers interpretive tours that contextualize its historical and current place in the growing city of Calgary throughout its’ 125 years of history. However, there are many additional stories that could be wound through and around this local landmark; stories that are challenging yet necessary to tell.  

The Beltline AlTOURnative Project was an experiment in museum voice. The project involved inviting four local Beltline residents to present an interpretive experience in the House based on their own research and personal perspective. Access to the house, library, and archives was provided as they developed the tour. What they presented was up to them. Postcards were sent in the mail to every Beltline resident, inviting them to come to a free tour given by one of these four participants. The Beltline AlTOURnative Project was unique because it expanded the realm of the House’s history. It allowed the House to share stories that are not traditionally part of the organization’s public offering.

Staff learned how pervasive the institutional qualities of the museum are. We are subject to assumptions and prescribed behaviors because of the popular notions of museums. It was challenging for the participants to overcome their perceptions and to trust in their own right to interpret the space. The Beltline AlTOURnative Project represents the first time that Lougheed House invited individuals with different types of expertise in to interpret its stories. The resulting four experiences were unique gifts to everyone involved. The majority of visitors at the series had never been to Lougheed House; they reported a desire to return, as well as increased interest in exploring Alberta history and their places within it. The experience of exploring history from their own perspective, and their subsequent public communication of their knowledge and experience, was empowering for both guides and visitors who were able to see stories like theirs reflected in the House.

“I’m grateful to have had the time to do this research and to share what I found with the community. Women’s stories have continually been left out of the museums and official histories; which over time left me less than enchanted with the establishment as it not so subtly cut out the contributions of my gender in history. In my lifetime there has been a great call to include women’s accomplishments as young, motivated women look for the hidden role models that came before us. I hope that more museums could open their doors to more research and showcasing of the actions and contributions of women and minorities.” – Camille Betts, Participating Artist

This was truly a community project and it couldn’t have been carried out without the participant guides to whom the Lougheed House is profoundly grateful. Funding for the project was provided by Calgary Arts Development Association’s Small Experiments Grant. Additionally, the House is grateful for the AMA’s Operational Staffing Grant which helped support this project. Finally Lougheed House is indebted to the communities that it serves, who propel us to do our very best in stewarding their grand House.

Amanda Foote and Caroline Loewen
Beltline AlTOURnative Project Team
Lougheed House
For more information about the project visit:  

Thursday, 21 September 2017

A Welcome from The Alberta Legislature

The Alberta Legislature is not a conventional museum. At first glance, its only artifacts seem to be a building and portraiture of long-forgotten lawmakers who maintain an air of solemnity (despite visiting schoolchildren making fun of Speaker Wilson’s prodigious mustache).

It is much more than that, however.

Our mandate is broad: to educate the public about the functions of government, to share the province’s political and social history, and to let Albertans know that the handsome Beaux-Arts building in the river valley isn’t just a landmark or an office for politicians. It belongs to the people of Alberta.

The Legislature lacks a “Friends of the Museum” society. Our Board of Directors is made up of 87 highly-motivated people selected specifically for their capacity to command attention, argue their points, and Get Things Done. Each is answerable to about 40,000 others throughout the province and nearly all of them tend to disagree with each other. Said Board tends to change every 4 years, often subtly, sometimes dramatically. Furthermore, they do not consider themselves a museum board.
The actual museum activities of the Alberta Legislature are conducted by the Visitor Services branch of the Legislative Assembly Office, headed by the Sergeant-at-Arms and answerable to the Speaker of the House. The Legislative Assembly Office itself is the oft-overlooked non-partisan body that provides services to Members of the Legislative Assembly. We keep the gears of the provincial bureaucracy turning smoothly so that our elected legislators can focus on what they’re here for: legislating!

That non-partisan part above is important. They make us swear an oath! We take it very seriously (our boss has a small force of armed men and carries a sword; we’re not crossing him!)
Visitor Services hosts exhibits, develops activities, and delivers programming to the public 362 days per year. Visitation and programming  occur across the entire 53 acres of Treaty 6 Land that make up the Legislature Grounds (where you can try our new Augmented Reality game: Agents of Discovery), as well as the magnificent Legislature Building itself, a dedicated subterranean Education Centre (more pleasant than it sounds!), and a Visitor Centre nestled into the ground floor of the Edmonton Federal Building (the name’s a long story – ask us!). We welcome approximately 224,000 people annually, most of whom are greeted by our ace team of highly skilled Heritage Interpreters (identified by their charm, fetching splashes of Alberta Tartan, and the fact that they’ve probably already approached you. We’re not subtle. Or shy.).  

Just less than 30,000 of those visitors are booked school tours and programs. Our site school, School At The Legislature, offers up to 35 schools a full week of on-site learning every year for students to really dig into the ins and outs of Westminster Parliamentary Democracy. Nearly 100,000 of our visitors come to the Legislature for special events. For instance, we have the second biggest Canada Day celebration in the world (yes, in the world. Ex-pats have Canada Day parties too, you know!). Our summer Fridays @ The Legislature concert series are a hit, and the Building’s superb acoustics delight visitors during our Celebrate the Season festivities (several hundred thousand lights, site-wide holiday music, and a skating rink don’t hurt either).

Within the Visitor Centre, travelling and curated exhibits are hosted in our Borealis Gallery. The Dream We Form By Being Together, draws on Indigenous practices and understandings and is focused on the theme of reconciliation. Next door is our Pehonan Theatre which shows an immersive film called “Our People Our Province.” This space can be transformed for concerts, film screenings, or talks and panels. The Visitor Centre also houses the Agora Interpretive Centre, an interactive museum space that explores themes of tradition, participation and citizenship. Our retail space, Alberta Branded, is also housed in the Visitor Centre and showcases crafts and artwork by Albertan artisans.
Sometimes art, sometimes history (usually a bit of both), the Borealis Gallery is our world-class space that brings quality exhibits to the people of Alberta. From Magna Carta to works from the Group of Seven, there’s always something interesting on display. Our current exhibition,

We here with Visitor Services at the Alberta Legislature sincerely hope that the delegates from the Alberta Museums Association and the Western Museums Association find their conference time to be engaging, thought-provoking, and professionally useful. We hope that it will also provide ample opportunity to experience the many excellent museums and other amazing sites that Edmonton has to offer. And we hope you get the chance to swing by and see what the Alberta Legislature has to offer!