Tuesday 2 December 2014

Six Months In: Things I've Learned as a Gallery Interpreter at the Royal Ontario Museum

In terms of my volunteer work at the Royal Ontario Museum, I have recently hit a personal milestone: I have completed my time as what's called a provisional Gallery Interpreter (i.e. a trainee volunteer) and am now officially an active member of the ROM's Department of Museum Volunteers. I do get some perks from this: best one being my own ID badge/key card so I don't need to trouble fellow volunteers to let me in each time I show up for a shift.

The ROM's famous Rotunda Ceiling mosaic. The text reads: THAT ALL MEN MAY KNOW HIS WORK
So what's a Gallery Interpreter, you ask? What we do is go out into the galleries with a small specimen or artifact that visitors could interact with. Engagements take the form of a short Q&A session, where we use guiding questions to offer information about both the object(s) we have, and the surrounding relevant museum displays. I myself spend most of my time in the two Canadian galleries at the ROM - the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples; and the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada - with one specimen each: a miniature replica birchbark canoe in the first, and a late 19th-century French-Canadian maple sugar mould in the latter.

A "period room" set up in the style of 16th century England in the Samuel European Galleries at the ROM. This is an example of one of my favourite parts of the museum, albeit not where I actually work.
Officially, I have only been a Gallery Interpreter since this past July, but before that, there had been more rigorous training where I had gone out into the galleries accompanied by a more experienced GI (as we're called for short), meaning that I have been out and about in those galleries for approximately half a year by this point. And in this half a year, I have learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way: things that I am sharing with you now as some of my favourite highlights thus far in my life as a Gallery Interpreter at the ROM.

1. Nothing quite beats working with historical objects.

Especially when said objects just happen to be particularly old, or beautiful, or relevant to your field of interest. I still remember when, in the early stages of my training (i.e. before I was even in the galleries), I was given a demo from an instructor on how one of these Q&A sessions would work. The gentleman had a piece of mosaic with him, and I was to pose as the "visitor". I knew going into the dialogue that the mosaic was used in the ROM's Ancient Roman gallery, but imagine my surprise when I discovered that the fragment I was handling was actually 2,000 years old, and a genuine artifact! And since our initial training included objects from both the ROM's Natural History and World Culture collections, I'm sure that's not even the oldest thing I handled by the time I was done.

2. The fascination applies to visitors as well.

I daresay some of the giddiness that comes from working with historical artifacts might seem to come just from my being somewhat of a history enthusiast. However, it's not just me or fellow museum volunteers and employers who get like that: the visitors do, too. For instance, while the miniature birchbark canoe I work with is a replica, I stand near some First Nations birchbark canoes that are well over a hundred years old. And people love it when I point that out!

One of the original First Nations birchbark canoes at the ROM. I work with a smaller, miniature version when I chat with visitors.
The same sort of thing happens with the maple sugar mould as well. Many visitors are fascinated by the fact that not only am I holding an artifact from the late 19th century, but that (with gloves and my supervision) they are welcome to touch it as well. GIs are trained to make sure that artifacts are handled with care at all times (for example: cupping our hands below the visitor's to catch any objects that might fall), so it's a fun and safe experience for everyone involved.

3. Some people just want to be taught.

I've seen this a number of times already in the past six months. The intent for the GIs is to engage with visitors in a conversation, and the Q&A idea stems from that. However, I have had several instances where visitors who are interested don't want the preamble. They'll come right up to me, point at what I'm holding, and ask, "What is that?" Depending on the overall tone of the conversation so far, I sometimes respond by asking for guesses, but it certainly has happened where I end up just telling them directly, and the visitor is very appreciative for the information. This happens a lot with the maple sugar mould in particular, since it's not as immediately recognizable an object as the birchbark canoe. I can see how trying to guess what it is can be rather intimidating, actually.

19th-century French-Canadian maple sugar moulds at the ROM.

4. Sometimes, I am the one who gets taught - and that's even better.

Just about every single GI has had an encounter like this: a visitor comes by who turns out to be an expert in the field relating to the object in question. I hear a lot of these stories coming from the Natural History sections of the ROM in particular, especially relating to children who are currently in their dinosaur/animal enthusiast stage.

I myself have had a similar experience with the miniature birchbark canoe. One woman I met turned out, in fact, to be First Nations herself (specifically Ojibway) and made similar miniature canoes as a hobby. So she was the one telling me a lot about the process she used: soaking the birchbark to make it pliable, sewing it with sinew (the ROM's replica uses thread), and even beading her canoes for decoration. That was definitely a rewarding experience, and I hope to have more in the future!

5. Being a GI can be a great chance for cultural exchange.
Folk musicians from the ROM's Polish Heritage Day in the summer of 2014, one of many such Heritage Days devoted to Canada's many ethnic communities as part of the ROM's summer activities.
 The ROM receives visitors from all over the world - and even if it didn't, Canada is a sufficiently multicultural nation for us to meet visitors from all sorts of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. What this means is that some of the conversations I have had as a GI focus around comparisons between cultures: Canadian and the visitor's culture of origin.

Some such instances that come to my mind right now include a Swedish visitor talking about woodworking techniques while looking at the birchbark canoes, an East Asian family comparing the qualities of birchbark as a construction material compared to bamboo, a Brazilian family comparing the handiwork of Canada's First Nations peoples with their own indigenous crafts, yet another Brazilian visitor telling me about how rubber is made from tree sap harvested like Canada's maple sap is, and visitors from maple-producing parts of the United States giving me tips and pointers on some of the inner workings of the business.

And that's just scratching the surface!

6. Sometimes, the visitor's more interested in me than in the objects.

I've had cases where overseas tourists are more interested in sharing to me about their thoughts on their trip to Canada thus far than anything directly related to the objects I'm working with. And that's fine - if everyone is comfortable and at ease, I am more than willing to listen and, hopefully, provide further positive memories for them to bring home.

There's also been one occasion where I was in the First Peoples gallery with the birchbark canoe, and a visitor asked me if I was First Nations myself. I told him that no, I wasn't; I'm actually Chinese. He was surprised, since he thought that if I was working in a First Nations-related gallery, I would likely have to be First Nations myself. That's the sort of question that gave me pause to think for quite a long time afterwards.

7. Because, like it or not, politics does get involved sometimes.

Perhaps this is a lesson that's rather gallery-specific, as I have only had this sort of thing happen to me when I'm in the First Peoples gallery. Many visitors are genuinely curious about the place that the First Peoples have in Canada, and I, being a visible ROM worker, naturally become a magnet for those questions.

Modern-art sculpture inspired by the traditional Plains First Nations eagle feather headdress: the wapaha.
 This is especially the case since the history of Canada's First Peoples is a painful one: one that is based on what once was a form of cooperation between Native Peoples and Europeans, but that degenerated into oppression and discrimination before now steadily working towards some form of reconciliation and recognition. So it's understandable that some visitors are concerned, for instance, that the ROM is presenting a colonialist view on the history - particularly since so many of our artifacts come from 19th and early 20th century European donors. Other times, however, I am met with surprise that the First Peoples and their cultures have survived through the tribulation into the present day: their view was that this had all been in the past, but the ROM is careful to show the First Peoples in the present as well.

In both cases, I respond the same way: acknowledge the questions and comments, but encourage the visitors to direct them to the actual ROM curators, who could give more thorough answers than me. Particularly in the former case, things can get very touchy, very fast; and as a GI, I'm not in the position to actually discuss the ROM's political stance. So I pass it on, and hope for the best.

I will, however, reveal this much: the First Peoples gallery at the ROM was designed with the input of many First Nations advisers, and the ROM has been careful to make sure that all the current interpretations and commentaries shown are actually from a Native perspective.

Six months in, and I've already learned so much. Who knows where I'll be after another six!


All photographs from the Royal Ontario Museum, taken by Kita Inoru

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