Canada is fortunate to have thousands of museums, small and large, that help us learn more about culture, history, science, nature, and our communities. They are an important resource for understanding our world and our place in it.
But just getting through the door can be a daunting prospect for many people.
“A lot of people with learning challenges won’t go near a museum,” says Janine Rogers, head of Mount Allison’s Department of English, noting that an OECD assessment in 2013 found 48 per cent of adult Canadians have literacy skills that fall below high school equivalency and affect their ability to function at work and in their personal lives. “We no longer talk about literacy or illiteracy, it is a spectrum, but museums tend to pull visitors from the higher end of the literacy spectrum.”
Rogers is currently working on a project in partnership with ABC Life Literacy Canada, a national literacy outreach organization, that she hopes will help open museums to a more diverse array of visitors.
The project, Cultural Literacy: Addressing Learning Barriers with Museum Literacy, is supported with nearly $25,000 in funding through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Partnership Engage Grants program.
“We’re coming at this from both sides,” Rogers says. “We want museums to think more critically about their own practice and we want literacy groups to think about museums as places for learning so learners get new resources and museums get new visitors.”
Working with the Canadian Museum of Nature, ABC developed a workbook for exploring the museum’s Canada Goose Arctic Gallery and sent it to five learner groups in Ottawa. Students were introduced to what a museum is, relevant terminology, and key information about the museum. The classes then visited the museum together.
Laurel McIvor, the project liaison at the Canadian Museum of Nature, says it was an opportunity for them to better understand the needs of people who don’t usually visit museums.
“We understand the needs of the audience who already come to the museum. For those who don’t, we are aware there are barriers to them visiting but we don’t have the resources and the capacity to learn more about those barriers in order to develop solutions to address them,” she says. “This project allowed us the opportunity to work with partners who have experience working with low literacy adults. Not only did they offer advice, they brought the audience to the museum so they could tell us themselves what we could change.”
McIvor says the best part is that the recommendations serve all visitors. In particular, the museum was counselled to find more visual ways to communicate information and to incorporate more interactive exhibitions — things all visitors enjoy.
Rogers says making sure everyone can access the learning museums offer is critically important.
“When you think of something like science literacy, climate change — a lot of information is getting to people through natural history museums. But if you don’t go to them, you don’t get the information that is supposed to change behaviour,” she says.
While this project has looked specifically at cultural literacy in museums, Rogers hopes to extend it to festivals and other cultural institutions. Over the next five years the plan is to create a national program of research, consultation, curriculum design, and learner-focused delivery to benefit museums, galleries, and interpretation centres across the country.
1) Mount Allison professor, Janine Rogers, centre, with New Brunswick Cultural Literacy Intern Noah Lubendo ('20), left, and Mount Allison ABC Life Literacy Intern Abigail Judges ('18)
2) Canadian Museum of Nature
3) The Beyond the Ice installation in the Canadian Museum of Nature's Canada Goose Arctic Gallery is a multi-media experience with animation, art, and live footage projected onto real ice slabs
4) A colourful mural by an Inuit artist guides visitors through the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature