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On the Properties of Things: Collective Knowledge and the Objects of the Museum

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On October 25th and 26th, 2018, Ryerson University, in collaboration with Mount Allison University and Toronto’s own Aga Khan Museum, hosted On the Properties of Things: Collective Knowledge and the Objects of the Museum. This international conference saw over fifty attendees from institutions such as the Oxford Museum of Natural Science, University of Birmingham, University of Lisbon, Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Canadian Museum of Nature, NHM Vienna, ABC Life Literacy Canada, University of Toronto, and many more.

The conference featured plenary speakers Ruth Phillips (Carleton University) and Paul Smith (Oxford University Museum of Natural History), Ryerson’s own Naomi Hamer and Ingrid Mida, and Audrey Rochette, who brought essential ideas about Indigenous perspectives on museums with her presentation. Likewise, Ailsa Barry (Canadian Museum of Nature) highlighted her institution's work with Northern Indigenous communities in collaboration with their now-permanent Arctic exhibit. Undergraduate student Alix Main (Mount Allison University) also presented her work on literary resources for climate change education that she developed at the Joggins Fossil Institute. Several other Mount Allison University undergraduate students presented their research on cultural literacy and educational development in collaboration with ABC Life Literacy Canada.

The workshops that occurred on the first day were engaging and entertaining. Will Tattersdill (University of Birmingham) explored the history of the art of dinosaurs, and even got participants drawing their own saurian interpretations; meanwhile, upstairs, Michael Korey (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) dealt with “interrogating” difficult objects, ones that don’t quite fit easily into any given museum category, to challenge the audience’s thinking on categorization.

Highlights of the second day included a trip to the Aga Khan museum. Aside from enjoying a tour and sampling baklava, conference attendees engaged in intense discussion and exploration across four different workshops before returning to share their experiences as a group. It was great to get out of the conference room and into a museum to see just exactly what everyone had spent a day and a half thinking about come to life, so to speak.

Before the conference, Ryerson’s Centre for Digital Humanities worked in collaboration with conference organizers Sophie Thomas, Rebecca Dolgoy and Janine Rogers, as well as Research Assistant Terrence Abrahams, to create a digital “exhibit” that will be developed into an exercise in experimental pedagogy. They presented the beta version of this site before the trip to the Aga Khan Museum. The digital project engaged the audience and opened up conversation on what such a project could achieve via collaboration and cross-discipline connectivity through object-based knowledge and provenance. Now available for you to explore, the digital project, still a WIP, exists as an experimental pedagogical tool and exercise in collective knowledge itself. Over the next year, the conference organizers will be putting together a special issue of the journal Museum & Society featuring essays, interviews, and hybrid forms of academic writing from conference attendees. Stay tuned!

By Terrence Abrahams