Sir John Soane’s Museum

I love the Soane! A museum in London, it is such an interesting and unique place. There’s really nowhere quite like it.

But wait! you say, Isn’t it just another historic house?!

It is indeed a historic house. But it’s not quite like any other you will have seen. Where else can you experience an architect’s own vision, surrounded by architectural fragments used historically (and now) as a teaching collection, an Egyptian sarcophagus, and a fantastic collection of Hogarth’s and Canaletto’s? It’s a bit of a bizarre place, but also so fantastic as you wind your way through the sometimes tiny spaces, and figure out how it all really fits together. It is also the smallest national museum.

Sir John Soane’s Museum by Marc Atkins / Art Fund 2017

Full disclosure: when I lived in London I volunteered here for several months, though it was one of my favourite places long before then.

It’s so awesome to hear that they have been nominated for Museum of the Year! This comes on the back of a lot of hard work and changes, restoring previously closed spaces, including the private apartments, which I was fortunate to see (and help give tours of!) just before I left.

So, what is Sir John Soane’s Museum, exactly?

Most simply, it is the house of Sir John Soane, who was an extraordinarily important architect. But it goes so much deeper than that, which helps explain the bizarre nature of it. It was also his studio, display room, and a teaching space.

Many of the rooms are crowded with art, artifacts, and objects (much beyond what was even normal for the time period). This was due to Sir John’s collecting and exhibiting nature. Because of his own upbringing, he felt it was important that students have access to at least fragments of real architectural masterpieces, even if they couldn’t afford to go and see the whole in the original location.  Soane was also friends with many other architects and artists, and acquired many pieces personally, including the Hogarth paintings.

The painting room, where the Hogarths are displayed, at one point contained more paintings than the National Gallery! While a fairly small room, Soane put his genius to work and devised panels that could be opened and closed to reveal more paintings, and to let in more light. (This room also often elicits literal gasps and wows. What I call a museum moment)

Room features throughout the house also show his genius with light at a time before electricity. He often incorporated windows, skylights, and concave mirrors to maximize on any natural daylight.

The architectural collection at first looks a bit like a random disaster, but in fact it all fits together, whether by theme, material, or symmetry. It was all done thoughtfully and with purpose, to the point that Soane himself wrote guidebooks for visitors to the house! As much as possible has been left how Soane left it, or is in the process of being restored back to his original vision. Many parts of the guidebook have been taken from his own.

I do very much recommend the guidebook! It definitely helps you find your way through the house, as well as provide much needed context (and/or ask the visitor assistant questions! seriously!). In this regard, when I was in London I had one friend visit and then complain that there weren’t labels on anything to explain what they were.

  1. This definitely isn’t a traditional museum. Remember, the collection was largely for teaching architectural students
  2. Most house museums don’t have labels anywhere
  3. The sheer number of object labels required would just get lost in everything, and would completely detract from the spaces; the information they might contribute would not be worth the detriment to the experience. But again, this is where the guidebook and visitor assistants come in!

I know that means asking a stranger a question, but I promise its worth it. And you weren’t going to read hundreds and hundreds of labels anyway.

I am more than sure I originally had much more to say about the Soane, labels, and visiting it, but at this point, it’s sadly been more than a year since I was there!!  I certainly recommend it though if you have an hour or two in London. It’s definitely an experience.

Have you been to the Soane? What did you think? What are your thoughts on labels vs no labels?

Night at the Museum! (Adults Only)

While it’s easy to think of museums as that dusty place with all the weird art on the walls, that simply isn’t true of what they really are. Museums and galleries have so many things going on now, for all different audience types and interests.

This includes nights out at the museum! Many for adults only. Think wine samples, cool cocktails, pop up restaurants, DJ’s, guitar hero, karaoke, sketch artists, fashion shows….    and no kids.  This is a chance to explore, play, and have fun.

Calgary now has many of these nights, and they are definitely all worth checking out. And check back regularly- the themes and activities often change, which means you can easily add these nights into your date night or friend outing schedule, and never get bored.

Here’s a round up of the next night time adventures at our local museums and sites.

Studio Bell After Hours- May 26
The last after hours had guitar hero, retro video games, live band karaoke, wine samples, food trucks, DJ’s, and tons of other programming. It’s also a good chance to check out music legends, learn about Canada’s music history, and try out an instrument or two.

Telus Spark Adults Only Night- Second Thursday of every month (June 8)
Firstly, this is your chance to play with all of the cool hands on activities that you wouldn’t normally get a chance to, since all of the exhibits remain open. Second, there are bars. Third, there’s a new restaurant that sounds fantastic. There are also many different activity stations based around a theme. Have you ever tried a strawberry DNA-quiri? Maybe you can next time you head to Adults Only night!

Calgary Zoo Adult Night – June 15
Celebrate Canada’s 150 and the whopping crane at Calgary Zoo’s first adult only night (I think?) Food stations, wine and beer sampling, live music, lawn games, selfie stations, and presentations are only some of the activities planned for the night.

Glenbow Launch Party- June 16
The last launch party I was able to go to had feature cocktails themed around the new exhibitions, a sketch artist, a photo station, and live music. A great night to see all the new exhibits. Here’s the write up from the Glenbow site for the next one:
“Glenbow celebrates the opening of a new season of exhibitions, including Kent Monkman’s Shame and Prejudice: A Story of Resilience, with our art party.Entertainment includes Calgary-based garage-pop band Ghostkeeper, Metis spoken word artist Cobra Collins, DJ Myke Atkinson, arts and crafts in the Discovery Room and beer from Village Brewery.”

Contemporary Calgary Patio Party- June 8
I haven’t really been to a late night event at Contemporary Calgary (yet!) but it sounds great!
“Please join us for Contemporary Calgary’s Patio Party to celebrate the beginning of summer. Our loading dock will be transformed into an urban lounge, with disco balls and video projections! The evening will kick off with a talk by FRANK Architecture & Interiors, whose projects include Calgary’s chicest new bars and restaurants. FRANK will discuss social spaces and urbanism. Afterwards, the patio will be open and drinks, music, and food will complete this celebratory evening!”

Any others to add to the list?

Studio Bell
Live band karaoke at Studio Bell! (Note: not my picture)

Visit to the Glenbow with a Friend

It is so great that the Glenbow is able to have free First Thursdays and free community days, allowing those in who could not otherwise afford to. Or, in some (many?) cases, attracting visitors that have never been, or not since their school days, and have not since found a real reason to go in.


So was the case the last community day when I visited with a friend. I myself have been to the Glenbow numerous times, including as a regular volunteer several years ago, but am currently unable to afford the cost of admission. It was a great opportunity to see the new exhibitions. For my friend, this was the first time she had been to the Glenbow in years. Besides the expense, there is obviously some lack of perceived value. It’s not worth spending a day here if you’ve already been. Nothing changes. Or what changes is not attractive enough. I know there are temporary exhibitions, and these are of amazing calibre, highlighting great Canadian artists and local collections. But perhaps something is also missing. With the new (ish) direction of the Glenbow to focus on Western Canada, and specifically art, we have lost something. There is now almost nowhere, certainly in Calgary, and I would argue anywhere West of Ottawa (with a few exceptions), for Canadians to explore global culture. To learn about past civilizations the world over. To view artifacts, not just artworks. To learn empathy and make global comparisons. Not that the Glenbow shouldn’t tell Western Canadian stories. It should. And it does. But so does Fort Calgary, Heritage Park, Lougheed House, and all of the other great sites in Calgary and Alberta. These are great stories, necessary stories, important stories. But they are also stories that overlap, coincide, and focus on similar events, themes, and time periods. We need to tell them, but there are many other stories to tell too.

There are also many great art galleries in Calgary, and hopefully soon to be a destination art gallery- Contemporary Calgary.

My friend commented that while visiting and seeing the art exhibitions was nice, she would like to see more objects. From places you can’t maybe see here. One of her favourite spots was the Asian galleries- where she could see objects from hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. And I agree. I think something has been missing since the days of Petra and Egypt, Greece and Rome. There are no institutions locally with any sort of international focus, specifically on material and social culture. And I feel that we are severely lacking for it.


I completely understand the narrowing of the mission, vision, mandate for the Glenbow, but that doesn’t mean I don’t mourn the loss of what else could be on display and explored. If the Glenbow isn’t going to do this, who is? Is it time to start advocating for a more globally focused museum or gallery space?
(Note: If someone wants to go for this- I’d love to contribute. I have a pretty broad background, specifically in Roman art and archaeology!)

A point of, perhaps confusion, was the military gallery. I definitely understand the constraint of time and resources, and the changes in direction since it was first designed and installed, but it’s certainly showing its age. There are so many new methods of designing exhibitions now, and the gallery as a whole no longer fits into what the Glenbow is trying to do. As my friend and I discussed the gallery, which seems a bit random and confusing, filled with lots of replicas and statues, our conversation was overheard, and some other visitors leaned in to say they agreed.

Overall, it was a good visit though, and I particularly enjoyed the ‘artifact’ portion of the Moodie photo exhibition. Seeing their original glass slides and lanterns was very interesting, and added a depth to the main exhibition. There were also some installations and sculptures that were awesome.

While the current direction of the Glenbow may be open to critique, there are still great things happening. Definitely check out their upcoming exhibitions and events, including Out for Lunch tours, Art Baby tours, Youth Open House, and Behind the Scenes tours, among many others. Don’t forget Free First Thursdays.

Facebook Live interview: #museumselfie Museums & Social Media

The other day I did a Facebook Live interview with Sarah from Jumping Elephant for her Expert Series. We talked about social media, museums, and engagement, and covered everything from #museumselfie to eggplant emojis to rocks. Watch and let me know what you think! Any other great examples of social media and engagement by museums you’ve been to or work for? Let me know!

Museums, sites, and topics featured: @MarDixon, #museumselfie, ask a curator day, snapchat, twitter, instagram, @NYPLEmoji, Royal Ontario Museum, Glenbow, Lougheed House, Firefighter’s Museum of Calgary, British Museum, National Music Centre, Telus Spark…

New Year! Quick Update

Wow!  I can’t believe it’s been almost 3 months since my last post. Certainly not something I intended! I’ve had lots of different topics brewing in my mind, and I really do hope to get some of them down soon! I’ll need to make it a priority to carve out some time to get a new blog out at least once a month, if not more.

But why haven’t I written anything in so long?! Really, there’s no excuse. But I have been quite busy, re-immersing myself into heritage and museums in Calgary and beyond. And I really didn’t ease into it at all. I’ve been able to get involved with some very interesting and exciting organizations, working to preserve and promote history, culture, and built heritage in the city, and I am really excited about all of the work that’s happening in the City.

From tours at City Hall, to helping install exhibitions and man pop up galleries, to behind the scenes collections work (reviving my sewing skills!), and serving on boards and committees, I am really a bit all over the place (I think I’ve got 8 or 9 volunteer positions on the go?). But all over the place in the best ways. There are lots of great things happening in the city, and only more to come. I’ve also been doing a little bit of freelance writing, and looking for paid opportunities related to museums and heritage (research, interpretation, archives, museums, collections management… if you come across something, let me know!)

Hopefully soon I’ll be able to follow up this post with some more interesting ones. Just a few of my ideas:

  • Quirky museums and sites
  • Looking at fun vidoes and sites for museums and artifacts
  • Street Art
  • Pretty heritage- does it all have to be pretty to be worth saving?
  • Soane Museum in London, UK
  • A list of all the sites I visited in the UK (quite a bit undertaking!)
  • Authenticity
  • Photography and Copyright in Museums
  • Preserving your personal archives

And lots more!   If you have any other ideas, or want me to address something, let me know!


Alberta Museums Association Conference

It was great to be back and attending another AMA conference. The conference is always fantastic, and I know I always go away having reconnected with friends and colleagues, met new people, and learned tons. There are always so many great sessions, and its impossible to go away without new ideas or ways of thinking. 

This year’s conference was also perhaps particularly sobering, as there was a focus on the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and how museums can participate in reconciliation, as well as involving new immigrants in our sites and activities. It was hugely important stuff, and I’m glad we could all come together to start discussing these issues and adjustments that need to be made- even if they are not easy discussions to have. This has to start, of course, with facing the truth, and realizing that Canada is not perhaps the country we think it is. With everything that is great about Canada, we also need to face the truth about the terrible things that have happened. We need to realize that actions have consequences- and that these actions are not in the far distant past like we might think. The last residential school only closed in late 1996. The consequences are, of course, going to be ongoing. We also need to realize that there has been misinformation and silence, and we are all affected. We need to be willing to acknowledge what happened, and go forward in reconciliation, to figure out how to address the wrongdoings, let people tell their stories, and to make real change. It is our responsibility as individuals, and in our institutions, to facilitate discussions, placemaking, healing, cultural revitalization… This may be a long, and hard process, but it needs to happen. We started on this in a follow up to the keynote discussion session, where we were asked to respond to 4 questions:
1. What does reconciliation mean to you?
2. What does reconciliation mean for your work in museums?
3. What is the biggest challenge with reconciliation?
4. Going forward, and starting right now, what is one concrete action you can commit to right now?

A good place to start for everyone. 

There were, of course, lots of other sessions on a range of topics.

Also timely was one on increasing accessibility for new Canadians, and the challenges and benefits of doing so. Museums need to be welcoming and safe spaces for everyone in our communities, and that includes immigrants and refugees. Do we see our community reflected in our attendance? Is our community represented in our museum? Some takeaways: be inclusive, build on existing programs, partner with other organizations, give space, be patient and understanding, give intercultural awareness training to staff. Try new things, make intentional friendships, let it go , get rid of barriers, be open, form relationships, and celebrate cultures. Being flexible and open will allow us to be welcoming, vibrant spaces, where all community members feel welcome.

There were also sessions on collections, social media, collaboration,  and research, which all had great takeaways on strategies and goals.

I also loved the session on CSI: Curatorial Research- the RAM worked with forensic investigators from the police and fire department to apply new research techniques to artifacts. Really interesting, and another great example of collaborating with community partners, and thinking outside the box.

Of course, there was tons of great food throughout the conference, which is always a nice bonus!  (although it did make me wonder about sustainability, and where all those leftovers were going….)

Interpretation around YYC

Nothing too deep today, just wanted to post about some of the great interpretation I’ve been seeing around they city over the last couple of weeks. Some if it’s new, some of it’s old, but either way, it’s fantastic to be taking a walk around the city streets, in a park, or at larger attractions like the Zoo   (this could warrant a post on its own, I’m sure, but I’ll just leave it at some photos for now).

Prince’s Island Park (not Princess! The island is named after Peter Prince- you can learn about him at Heritage Park where his house was moved, or visit the 1886 cafe in Eau Claire- it used to be his office):

Shakespeare on the Bow, an art walk, and a wetland walk.

The Zoo- lots of good interpretation in the dino park!

Rotary Park, Cliff Bungalow and Mission. Great histories of the neighbourhoods they are in. The signs in Cliff Bungalow along the river are also a Poke Gym. The only thing for me is that the signs overlooking downtown at Rotary Park are a bit outdated- Calgary’s history just kind of ends. But I love all the archival photos. There are 4 signs total (I think it was 4?). Unfortunately the 1st one has been quite damaged.


A few other things: Bowness park, Little Free Library

I’ve already written about Bowness Park, but I still love all the archival photos around the park. And I was just happy to come across another Little Free Library- this one in Rotary Park. I love these!