University-Museum Partnerships: The “Placing Memory” Project and Community-Based Research

Organization of Military Museums of Canada conference in SAIT’s lovely Heritage Hall.

In the spring of 2016, I was invited to participate on a panel at the Organization of Military Museums of Canada conference in Calgary. The organizer wanted to bring together scholars who had something to say about the potential for partnerships between museum curators and university scholars, based in part on some of the innovative ideas around public engagement articulated in The Participatory Museum, by Nina Simon. My contribution was to explain the nature of the partnership between the Ambrose University History program and the Museum of the Highwood in High River. Here is the text of my paper:

Paper: “Placing Memory in High River’s Built Environment,” Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

Panel: History, Museums and their Public in the 21st Century: A discussion around the concept of public history and the role of museums within society.

Conference: Organization of Military Museums of Canada Conference, Calgary, June 21, 2016

First of all, thank you to Dr. Georgiana Stanciu for organizing this panel, and for inviting me to participate in it. I am eager to learn more about the potential of the “participatory museum” in the realm of public history from Drs. Keshen and Hardy, and from the wider discussion to follow our presentations. I will begin with a disclaimer: I am neither a military historian nor a museum curator. My role this morning to offer the perspective of a professional historian who is currently collaborating with a local museum on a community-based participatory research project—a project called “Placing Memory in High River’s Built Environment,” and funded in part through a research grant we received from the Alberta Historical Resources Foundation’s  “Heritage Preservation Partnership Program,” in June of 2015. What I will do now is describe the project, and explain the ways in which our partnership with a local museum, the Museum of the Highwood, in High River, has been vital to its success.

Placing Memory in High River’s Built Environment

The “Placing Memory” project has its roots in two developments—one relating to my work as chair of Ambrose University’s history program, and the other relating to my work as chair of the Town of High River’s Heritage Advisory Board. At Ambrose, over the past two years, we have been engaged in a cyclical program review for our accreditation body, Campus Alberta Quality Council. As we assessed the strengths and weaknesses of our history program, my colleagues and I decided to re-centre our program not on geographical or chronological areas of study, but around historical thinking, methodology, skill development, public history, and applied research. This is not unique. Indeed, it represents some of the current best practices in history undergraduate education. Practically, however, what it meant for us and our students was the creation of a new set of history core requirements centred around a methodology course, a public history course, and an applied research course. The last of these—Applied Research in History—is a third year course which is team-based and project-based. In other words, the students and I partner with local museums, historical sites, or other history groups to tackle small real-world research projects in which we offer our faculty expertise and student research energy to help produce works of public history. My important colleague in this work is my fellow Ambrose historian Ken Draper, whose background includes both oral history and museum studies.

In High River, the Heritage Advisory Board was created about six or seven years ago to work with town staff and external consultants to facilitate several Heritage Inventory Projects. These are funded in part by Alberta Culture’s “Municipal Heritage Partnership Program,” and identify, assess, recommend, and promote worthy properties for designation as municipal historic resources. One day, in the course of our regular meetings, various members of the Heritage Advisory Board expressed a longing to do more than just work on these Heritage Inventory Projects—to do more to foster a sense of historical awareness in High River. I mentioned that I would be willing to facilitate an oral history project, and the response was enthusiastic. Importantly, we knew we would have a willing partner in the Museum of the Highwood, whose director and curator, Irene Kerr, also sat on the Heritage Advisory Board.

As I worked with both Ken and Irene, the project took shape. From a theoretical standpoint, it was natural to employ a community-based, participatory research methodology. As many of you will know, what this means is that members of the community are active participants in research directed back into the community itself. This involves shared authority, shared expertise, shared decision-making, and shared ownership of the products of research. This has unfolded largely through our project steering committee, comprised of one faculty member (me), one Ambrose student, Irene Kerr from the Museum, and about six other members of the High River community, many of them from the Heritage Advisory Board. By linking the vast local knowledge of community members with the expertise of Irene and myself and the perspective of one of my students, we worked collaboratively to set goals for the project, identify important local sites of memory, as well as potential interviewers and interviewees, frame interview questions, and provide initial feedback on early interview results. The steering committee also critiqued the work of Ambrose history students and helped draw historical meaning from the research data we collected. When the steering committee resumes meeting in the later summer, it will review drafts of the project report and historical findings, and give advice on how we can best disseminate the results of this research in the local community.

From a practical standpoint, it was natural for the project to revolve around oral history as a means to access local memory and knowledge about the meaning of various important places and spaces in High River, since this would dovetail with our work on the Heritage Inventory Projects. As Paul Thompson argued in his ground-breaking work, The Voice of the Past, “Oral history… can be used to change the focus of history itself, and open up new areas of inquiry; it can break down barriers … between educational institutions and the world outside and … it can give back to the people who made and experienced history, through their own words, a central place.” (p. 3) By interviewing members of the High River community, we have been able to access the collective memory of the community. This notion of collective memory is quite important to our work. As the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs argued, memory is a collective, not an individual endeavor. Our memories are created in and preserved through social frameworks. As he wrote, “It is in this sense that there exists a collective memory and social frameworks for memory; it is to the degree that our individual thought places itself in these frameworks and participates in this memory that it is capable of the act of recollection ” (On Collective Memory, 1992, p. 38). It is in precisely here that the steering committee has been vital to the success of the project, serving as the social framework in which the individual interviews are being woven into a collective memory of High River’s defining places and spaces. In short, linking community-based participatory research with oral history has proven to be a powerful approach to discovering more about the history and identity of High River.

Presently, Ambrose history students and volunteer interviewers from High River have completed at least 23 one-to-two hour interviews (most of which have been transcribed). (We hope to reach 30 interviews by the end of the summer.) Additionally, Ambrose students conducted another series of short interviews with 16 people from the High River community at a History Harvest event held in November, 2015.

The University-Community-Museum Partnership

The strength of the “Placing Memory” project is the partnership between the Ambrose University History program, the Museum of the Highwood, and members of the High River Heritage Advisory Board, who participated as project volunteers. Without the Museum of the Highwood, this would not have been possible. I want to identify six aspects of the museum side of our partnership, which I hope will stimulate our thinking about both the assets museums have to offer and the benefits museums can receive from projects like ours.

  1. Credibility

The Museum of the Highwood is an important local institution, and the chief repository and interpretation centre for local history. Its recent exhibits have touched on subjects like the local history of television and film production, of the Macleod Trail, of the local business district, and of the place of music in the community. The museum offers regular outreach programs, works with school groups, and hosts community events, including an annual historic homes tour. Its director writes a weekly column in the local newspaper, usually highlighting an image from the museum’s photo archive. Because Ambrose is a newer university from Calgary, we have little profile in High River, which lies just outside the city. In order to engage in research in the community, the credibility we gain from our partnership with the Museum of the Highwood has been a valuable asset. It has opened doors into the community, not least through its relationship with the local media.

  1. Relationships

Related to the asset of credibility has been the asset of the Museum’s relationships with community members. The Museum of the Highwood has a broad network of contacts in and around High River, and maintains these relationships in part through regular e-mails and an active presence on social media. Because of our partnership, the “Placing Memory” project has received periodic promotion. A particular example of this was our History Harvest event in November of 2015, for which we issued a call to the public to bring keepsakes and other objects of memory to the museum for university students to film and record as virtual artifacts. As a result, we were able to interview 16 people and record information on 35 artifacts relating to local history.

  1. Space

This leads to yet another asset our partners at the Museum of the Highwood brought to the project: space. The Museum was a safe and welcoming place in which to hold our History Harvest event, collecting interesting research data on objects of memory. In the latter phase of our project, the Museum will also serve as the chief location for public events, including planned public lectures, the unveiling of a virtual exhibit, and the planned creation of a museum exhibit.

  1. Research

Research was another key to the partnership between the university and the museum. Irene Kerr at the Museum of the Highwood opened her archive to my university students. She offered training in archival research methods, shared her own museum research experiences with the students, and arranged for one of her research volunteers to help our students search the museum’s extensive photo archive. As a result, Ambrose students invested over 75 hours into background archival research and photo identification and scanning, gaining valuable experience and gathering useful contextual material into which to locate the oral history interviews they conducted.

  1. Training

As already mentioned, the Museum of the Highwood served as a place of training for university students engaged in the “Placing Memory” project. However, as we historians have trained local volunteers to conduct oral history interviews and provided instruction into the relationship between history and memory, and we have worked with the local steering committee to drive this community-based participatory research project, as we have involved upwards of 50 community members in one aspect or another of the “Placing Memory” project, the Museum also stands to gain a pool of trained volunteers and historically informed citizens it can mobilize for future museum projects. The “Placing Memory” project has stirred local interest in local history, and the Museum should benefit from that.

  1. Content

As the students, local volunteers, museum staff and university historians work together on the “Placing Memory” project, we are producing significant historical resources for the Museum. Copies of all the oral history interviews (both audio and transcripts) will be deposited with the Museum for addition to its collection. (This is particularly significant in the case of the Museum of the Highwood, which lost its oral history collection in the 2013 flood.) Similarly, as members of Ambrose University complete the project, we are creating virtual exhibits relating to both places of memory and objects of memory. These exhibits will be linked to the Museum of the Highwood website, adding to their virtual exhibition offerings.

The Participatory Museum

In her work, The Participatory Museum, curator Nina Simon has called on the museum community to engage in collaborative projects and participatory exhibits that involve community members far more actively than before in the life of the museum. While many of these involve designing spaces and activities that invite members of the public to respond to museum exhibits and their messages, we are excited about the way that university-community-museum partnerships like “Placing Memory in High River’s Built Environment” make possible a deeper level of historical research. Here we can combine the expertise of museum curators and university professors with the energy and capacity of students and the enthusiasm and “necessary contribution” (to use Simon’s term) of the local knowledge of community participants. We consider that to be a winning combination.

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