Saturday, February 17, 2007

Invention to Innovation: Current Exhibitions

It is truly amazing how much hard work is required to produce an exhibit text. The UWO Public History students have worked diligently since September 2006 to produce the Museum London exhibit Invention to Innovation. The exhibit examines how nineteenth and twentieth century inventions affected life in London, Ontario. It also features aspects of current innovation in research and development in London. The exhibit runs 10 February through 12 August 2007 at Museum London, 421 Ridout St. North, London, Ontario.

The partner virtual Invention to Innovation exhibit ( provides much additional information on invention and innovation, as well as on the objects featured in the Museum London exhibition.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Film as GDR history, view into current German psyche

(I clearly lack the focus to continue my serial blog posts uninterrupted. This little foray into the uses of historical film is, however, but an intermission. The state of the ROM's permanent European exhibition is too terrible to remain without comment for much longer).

On 6 February, The Globe and Mail published a fascinating article on how first-time director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's new film Das Leben der Anderen (in English, The Lives of Others) challenges popular expressions of Ostalgie [1]. If you've visited Germany in recent years, or have kept an eye on current German culture, you'll likely have noticed this nostalgia for the former GDR. The 2003 film Good Bye Lenin! is a perfect example of the Ostalgie phenomenon, as are mountains of ampelman merchandise available in downtown Berlin tourist shops.

I believe that, far from being just cute or kitschy, Ostalgie can be genuinely dangerous. The Globe article expressed this important notion well: "(t)his warped sentimentality of life in the East has fuelled a 'conspiracy to forget' that was in genuine danger of rewriting the memory of Germany's history in the later half of the 20th century", it stated. Donnersmarck's film, it argued, challenges that "warped sentimentality", reminding its viewers that "life behind the Berlin Wall wasn't retro cool."

Judging by a description of its plot, Das Leben der Anderen recalls life in the GDR in a much more terrifying, honest and realistic way than do chubby ampelmen and nifty-looking trabants. Indeed, Donnersmarck told the Globe reporter that the growth of Ostalgie was his motivation for making a film that depicted some realities of the period. The film has been a great success: Donnersmarck commented on his amazement that respected intellectuals from the former GDR had announced publicly that the film had "opened a new chapter."

If Donnersmarck's film truly constitutes a significant shift in interpretation of the GDR past in film, it is, and will continue to be an invaluable resource for historians. Perhaps we can recall Marnie Hughes-Warringon's statement "historical films and written history are not forms of history; they are history" [2]. Historians can mine not only the film The Lives of Others, but also the contexts of its production and reception, for rich understandings of how former East Germans faced their nation's past in the early 21st century.

[1]. Edward Wilkinson Latham, "Ostalgie: Do You Miss the Stasi Too?" The Globe and Mail 6 February 2007, Review section. Though the article was fantastic, I have to say that the limited access the Globe allows to this article turns me off completely. Last week, I was able to access the full text of the article, along with a scanned image of its original paper format, through an "archives" search on The Globe & Mail website. Now, to have access to the article for a month, the full-text will cost me upwards of $4.00. The license to reprint the article online for one month costs $250-, while a license to email the article to 6-20 friends costs $20-. It's a ridiculous, and frustrating situation. I have half a mind to post the full text on this blog, because I think it could be of interest to my fellow Public History students. If you're interested in the article, please email me and I'll send you a copy. I've just installed Zotero, however, and am still learning about its amazing powers - does anyone know if my 'snapshot' of the webpage that features the article will remain in my library even after my 30-day license to this article expires?

[2]. Marnie Hughes-Warrington, “Introduction” in History Goes to the Movies: Studying History on Film (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 9.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Learning from the ROM's crisis (1)

Serial blog posts seem to be in vogue. I share Jeremy's thoughts on the value of shorter, more frequent posts, and so am jumping on the bandwagon. My aim is to reflect on the ROM's current chaotic state, as I believe we can learn much from the institution's "Renaissance." This is the first of a few installments that will reflect on my recent ROM visit.

The ROM is in a terrible crisis. Components of its old permanent installation literally fall off the walls at one end of the museum. At the other, construction crews assemble Libeskind's extraordinarily costly addition. Somewhere in between the embarrassingly decrepit European galleries and the plastic drop sheet that, taped up to cover a gaping hole in the wall, invites frigid February drafts and screeching construction-related noises to be an integral part of the visitor's experience, is one of the ROM's current exhibitions, D├ęco Lalique. "Classic. Elegant. Timeless." Indeed.

On Tuesday 6 February I visited the ROM with five UWO Art History Master's students, one U of T Art History PhD candidate, and one extremely animated UWO Professor of Art History and Museum Studies. We likely weren't representative of the 'typical' visitor group, yet a number of components of the ROM's presentation elicited such strong reactions from my group that I believe those reactions to be important.

After ascending from the temporary basement entrance, we emerged into the Samuel Hall/ Currelly Gallery (see the image below). I sincerely hope that "Renaissance ROM" will
involve renovation to this Hall. It is vast, and it sits at the Museum's centre. Effectively used, it could be an impressive space. What does it currently occupy? Faux leather couches and IKEA-esque tables, mismatched in colour. Additionally, stationed around the Hall's perimeter are objects that, devoid of curatorial interpretation, only serve to confuse. Two historical murals feature medieval jousting scenes, while glass cases present such objects as personal armour, large swords, and stuffed mammals. The large Buddhist statue featured in this photograph neighbors two dinosaur skeletons. Two 14-foot glass screens in this Hall present an interactive digital exhibition on the history of philanthropy at the ROM. The concept behind the whole installation is that the Hall offers "iconic" objects that "sample the breadth of the Museum's collections."

It is an intelligent concept for an introductory hall. The first room of our Invention to Innovation exhibit employs a similar tactic, doesn't it? Our introductory room, however, features a voice. It explains to the visitor how the disparate objects in the first room are related. What's more, it makes clear that their relationship illustrates the exhibit's chief concept. It is the presence of this voice that makes our introductory room an effective, well, introduction to the exhibit and its overriding concept. It is the absence of such a voice that makes the ROM's Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery look like an oversized attic, or a garage sale.

All members of my group agreed that, without any justification for their juxtapositioning, the exhibit of medievalising murals and armour, dinosaurs, digital technology and glassy-eyed natural history beasties made little sense. Furthermore, from a physical plant and interior design perspective, we agreed that the lighting in the Hall is dingy, and its modern panel ceiling with pot lights clashes with the stone and marble walls almost as much as the chrome couches do with the Hall's wood floor.

Has the ROM cast the Samuel Hall/Currelly Gallery aside? Is the Museum's current channeling of resources to the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal making some of its "old favourites" ineffective installations? My next post will suggest that the ROM has similarly abandoned its Samuel European Galleries. Their physical disrepair, lack of object documentation and pedagogical approach render "some of the ROM's most popular and renowned collections" unprofessional exhibitions.