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Rethinking the Archives at Ryerson

A look at the upcoming Free School series
By: Afrah Idrees & Jocelyn Courneya

Pictured from left to right: Melanie Panitch, Sophie Hackett, Zun Lee, Ken Moffatt, and Curtis Sassur.

In March 2020, the Office of Social Innovation (OSI), Jack Layton Chair, and Ryerson University Library launched their collaborative five-part interdisciplinary series, Free School: Rethinking Archives. Each workshop was designed to lead participants through an exploration of archival practice and its connection to public citizenship. The first two sessions in the series were hosted in Ryerson’s Archives and Special Collections room, welcoming participants to rethink the archives within the space. However, like many in-person events, the remainder of the Free School sessions were postponed due to COVID-19 and will be shifting to online workshops this September.

We spoke with Melanie Panitch (MP), Executive Director, Office of Social Innovation and Ken Moffatt (KM), Jack Layton Chair, to talk about the creation of the Free School and their collaboration with Curtis Sassur, Ryerson’s Archivist, in organizing this special archives focused series. We also discussed their process of approaching the archives with both challenge and respect, and the movement of the remainder of the series to online sessions.

To start, can you tell us a bit more about the Free School and how the idea for the program came to be?

KM: First of all, I was surprisingly nervous about this… I'm used to interviewing people - not getting interviewed. Having said that, I'll just tell you a bit of history of what happened, and we can elaborate. We started by working with Rea McNamara when she was working at the Gardiner Museum.  She and I knew each other from the arts community and I ended up talking with her about doing programming there, particularly with respect to the Ai Weiwei exhibit because that felt like it fit the Jack Layton Chair really well - specifically the type of educational work we do. Melanie also joined and during those first meetings we came up with the idea for a ‘free school’. 

First, we had a series of community events that were interdisciplinary in nature, and then we came up with the idea of calling it the Free School because it was interdisciplinary, free of cost, and available to both students and people in the community.  

MP: At an early stage in my career, I was in education and teaching, and was exposed to the idea of free schools as an alternative kind of reform movement in the late 60s and 70s - which had a very strong focus on social justice. The notion of alternative schools has always resonated with me, as they were often held in these non-traditional edgy locations, which is one thing that stands out for us. The Ai Weiwei Free School at the Gardiner was in a gallery and surrounded by his work - and that brought us into thinking, “what are other non-traditional spaces we could take over that would create a different ambience for learning?” It just seemed to fall into what the Jack Layton School and Chair were about - and what social innovation was about.

KM: Also, the Free School is often tied to community practice or activism, and a number of our presenters in the Archive series have a social change and social justice orientation to how they come to the archives. 

Could you tell us about your roles and positions at Ryerson? How have your respective positions and expertise influenced the creation of the Free School? 

KM: I'm particularly interested in voice, especially voices that aren't always part of a mainstream expression in academia. As the Jack Layton Chair, I've been endeavouring to really open up the discussion and the ways we think about academia at Ryerson and around the archives. My PhD thesis, which ended up being a book, was actually archival research. I've always had a soft touch for the archives - let's put it that way. I had worked with the archivist at Ryerson, Curtis Sassur, because he runs a session for the Jack Layton Leadership School, and I had always liked his approach to the archives, which is historically contextualizing it - thinking about who's in the archives and who has been left out of the archives. So I thought we'd be good partners, the three of us.

MP: The leap to Ryerson from the Ai Weiwei Free School, was asking ourselves, “how would we animate some of the spaces on campus so that more students and more faculty would be able to appreciate them?” Part of the role of OSI is to think broadly around campus and how we introduce and underscore or make social innovation something that people can understand without preaching about it, but rather demonstrating it.  

In my doctoral work, I also did archival work, and it was a gendered history of an organization. It was focused on the Canadian Association for Community Living, from the day it was founded in 1958 until they stopped keeping records - and that led me to looking for women’s voices in old dusty documents.

Last year, the Free School focused on the exhibition Ai Weiwei: Unbroken, how did building off that series lead to this year’s topic on ‘Rethinking the Archives’? 

MP: We organized it - but, of course, learned a great deal going through it, and in doing so, you realize that Ai Weiwei is not only reacting to our current affairs but also our history. Ai Weiwei smashes traditional pieces of pottery to challenge the way society, the Chinese society specifically, has set up cultural values, the historical implications, the legacies. I think in doing that he is positioning new openings for change and social change. So the notion of history is very strong in that exhibit and in his work.

KM: I think another way Ai Weiwei speaks strongly, is that he tries to give voice to refugees. So he's also involved in the concepts of voice. There is something about being around the art and artefacts that I think is very similar as well. We found at the Gardiner that we were able to be right in the exhibit, which was incredible and much more powerful. In the archives, you're also sitting amongst old furniture, among books, statues, and that sort of thing. You can peek into the stacks. 

One of the things Melanie and I talked about early on is that we wanted to challenge the archive, but we also wanted to respect the archive, because there is something about trying to imagine people's lives from a different time.

Ken Moffatt

Through this series, why was it important for you to bring focus to the archives and make the archives more publicly available?

MP: Well, I don't think I'd ever been in there, and I think it's kind of an underutilized and unknown space on campus - sort of an underappreciated gem. Not to say that everybody doesn't know about it, because people do, but I think it's a little unknown, so that was particularly appealing. Here was a space on campus that we could animate and bring attention to.

I remember smiling when Curtis, echoing this thought, commented that he had “never seen so many people in the archives at one time before,” and I think that really speaks to how this series is allowing for more community members to ‘discover’ this important space at Ryerson.

KM: One of the important principles of the archives is that Curtis is very willing to rethink the archives and where some of the constraints of it are. One of the things Melanie and I talked about early on is that we wanted to challenge the archive, but we also wanted to respect the archive, because there is something about trying to imagine people's lives from a different time. But also the importance of history in a moment such as now when things are changing so fast and some histories are getting lost altogether online. It's a really important and interesting place to think about history and knowledge.

There was a kind of electricity, listening to them bring this forward, that felt highly charged and deeply engaging.

Melanie Panitch

The guest speakers in the series all come from diverse academic backgrounds and areas of expertise. How does this help us in understanding the archives from new perspectives?

KM: I’m very interested in how the medium carries stories and how there might have been a historical bias to written texts. I feel like some of our participants, like Zun Lee and his photography, external link, show how there are very powerful stories and histories that are present. 

MP: I found listening to Ruth Panofsky and to Lauren Kirshner, external link that I went away and took out a book on Adele Wiseman. Their presentation was so full of direct quotes, that some people came alive to me, which led me to want to learn more and know more. There was a kind of electricity, listening to them bring this forward, that felt highly charged and deeply engaging.

Why was it important for you to include members of the Ryerson community in this series?

KM: It's really a wonderful opportunity to be drawing people from different disciplines together in a series - I think a lot of really creative ways of thinking happens from interdisciplinary collaboration. It creates a kind of community and academic link as well. That's also another Free School principal - let the educator get to express themselves.

In light of COVID-19, the remaining three workshops in the series will be moving online. How is this digital move one way of rethinking archival practice and its connection to public citizenship?

KM: We're in a difficult moment - I'm tired of online. You get tired of everything being online. Everything's a Zoom call and we’re not having the immediacy of the room or the togetherness of the people - so I don't want to glorify the citizenship of online learning. Right now we have a tendency to do that, to get through this and to handle it. But there does seem to be a positive notion that it could reach more people. You don't have to worry about the capacity of the room now, and maybe different people will sign into it who might not have otherwise. 

MP: I mean, in a way, we will be learning. There’s one advantage: whereas in real time people could not bring food into the Archives, now they will be able to eat lunch.

KM: Yeah, we're right in the middle of the series. We've had two in the room and three upcoming online. It's still a good question. I just have a reluctance to say moving everything to technology is good public citizenship, which seems a little bit like the story we're hearing right now. 

MP: I share Ken’s ambivalence and we will certainly be learning as we go ahead in this reimagined format.

Upcoming Sessions

The Free School: Rethinking Archives is an interdisciplinary series comprised of five workshops exploring archival practice and its connection to public citizenship. Check-out the upcoming sessions in the series!