Monday, January 28, 2008

Reinventing the Children’s Museum, One Monkey at a Time

Having been raised in Cambridge, Ontario, it is fantastic to see my hometown and the surrounding area, finally getting excited about the Children’s Museum of the Waterloo Region. The museum which opened in 2003 has had its’ share of struggles; these have included the deterioration of exhibits, lack of attendance, and inability to keep a solid director. However, over the past year I have been pleasantly surprised by the numerous articles in one of the local newspapers, The Record, which has outlined the reinvigoration of the Children’s Museum. In particular, one of the most recent articles by Raveena Aulakh entitled “He’s a Wizard in a Place of Wonder: Running a Children’s Museum isn’t Child’s Play” has outlined the multitude of positive changes that have taken place, and attributes them to the successful leadership of the latest director, David Marskell.

The article describes Marskell’s re-conceptualization of the museum as a combination of a children’s place and a science centre, so that the museum will appeal to people of all ages. Very cool exhibits have been installed to accompany this new approach to the museum. As Aulakh reports, the museum has a robotic chair that breaks and then puts itself back together, and has paired up with the University of Waterloo to create an entire floor dedicated to a Digital Media Centre which allows students to interact with advanced technological devices and use video conferencing to communicate globally with other students.

Currently, the region’s attention has been captured by the temporary Jane Goodall exhibit “Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”. The exhibit which started on January 25th and will remain until May 25th is estimated to continue the Children’s Museum upward climb. This is an expensive exhibit, but Marskell is confident that it will not only bring people into the museum, but that it will encourage guests to come back, even after the temporary exhibit has moved on.

The Children’s Museum in Kitchener has demonstrated how crucial it is for cultural institutions to have good leadership, take risks, and to find innovative ways to allow people to interact with exhibits. Furthermore, I think that the Jane Godall exhibit is a fun and downright brilliant way to engage the public; after successfully completing my Cambridge rite of passage working at African Lion Safari for two summers, I have learned that monkeys truly are the key to the public’s heart.

* Picture by Aaron Logan, from

Sunday, January 27, 2008

"Life-Changing" Museums

I only remember vague details about the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, but I clearly remember how visiting the spot had made me feel. Although I could not have been older than eight years old, the historical interpreters did a fantastic job of explaining the significance of the Boston Tea Party’s defiant behaviour, and the role that it had in leading to the American Revolution. I vividly remember being filled with a sense of awe, thinking how amazing it was that I was standing on the site where a crucial historical event took place. This brief amount of time spent on this old ship in the Boston Harbour had an immediate impact on me. It was my “aha!” moment, the point in time when my love for history had first been activated.

I found myself revisiting this experience when my museology professor asked us to read and respond to the article “Inside the ‘Black Museum’” by the historian Andrew E. Masich. Masich was awarded a grant to travel the world in search of museums that he felt had the power to change visitors’ lives. Museums that Masich deemed life-changing included well known museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the lesser known Black Museum in Scotland Yard, London, which is only open to prospective law enforcers.

I easily reflected on what museum had changed my life, because I have never forgotten that moment of awe, and the wonder and excitement that the site of Boston Tea Party instilled in me towards the study of history. I do not know that the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum would make Masich’s list as one of the top “life-changing” museums in the world, but as Masich's article advocates, every museum has the power to make a long lasting impact if approached with the right mindset.