Tactics for the contemporary museum
Gosselin, V. (2019). Small Wins: Tactics for the contemporary museum. In S. Knell (Ed.), The
Contemporary Museum: Shaping Museums for the Global Now (pp.201-214). London, UK:
Tactics for the contemporary museum
A museum’s social relevance is increasingly measured by its capacity to address social
The sheer scale of societal problems, such as systemic discrimination, social
isolation and climate change, however, is daunting and can inhibit a museum’s efforts
to contribute to the conversation and propose innovative solutions.
In his ground-breaking paper, ‘Small wins: redefining the scale of social problems’,
organisational theorist Karl E. Weick argues that reframing social problems as a series
of smaller, more manageable challenges, creates conditions for micro-innovations or
This chapter considers the nature and logic of small wins as a means of
furthering the social work of museums and applies this lens to consider the impact of
projects at the Museum of Vancouver, where I work as curator and director of
exhibitions and collections. More specifically, the chapter looks at curatorial and
programming strategies aimed at fostering environmental literacy, promoting social
justice, and embarking on meaningful collaborations with Indigenous communities.
My reflection is inspired by conversations on frugal innovation (achieving more with
and social innovation, an umbrella term for thinking and practices
that help individuals and organisations deploy effective solutions to challenging social
and environment issues in the service of social progress.
Small wins at work
Weick’s ‘Small wins’ is worth revisiting in today’s climate of museums’ doing ‘social
work’, because his ideas have methodological implications for practice. The term is
frequently used in the cultural sector to describe modest goals and outcomes, the only
kind we tend to consider viable given our institutions’ finite resources. Weick’s
comprehensive examination helps us appreciate the potency of small wins.
According to Weick, the greatest strength of the social sciences lies not in resolving
social problems, but in redefining them. His paper is a case in point. The author offers
solid examples of small wins; his greatest contribution, however, is his ability to
theorise the characteristics and functions of small wins, and the conditions that produce
When presented with the magnitude of social problems, most people feel
overwhelmed, a situation that, as Weick observes, hinders innovative action. He argues
that emphasising the massive scale and gravity of problems such as crime, social
exclusion or poverty is counterproductive: the quality of thought and action required to
solve the problem declines as people’s frustration, level of arousal, and sense of
helplessness increase. Weick uses the term ‘arousal’ to refer to a person’s ability or
inability to deal with demanding situations the higher their level of arousal, and the
more agitated and tired they are. He sees a direct correlation between heightened
arousal and the inability to problem-solve, and argues that a reduction of arousal or
stress levels is paramount when attempting to resolve social problems. This can be
achieved by reframing and scaling down big problems into more modest ones, thus
improving the affective and cognitive abilities of working teams and making them more
optimal problem solvers. There is room for high-level discussion, but change takes
place on the ground. And on the ground, transformative changes are, in most cases,
Weick’s argument points to an illuminating paradox: people can’t solve problems
unless they think they can. Breaking down big challenges into smaller, resolvable
chunks – what he calls ‘mere problems’ – improves our ability to brainstorm,
concentrate, resist old categories, and respond in novel and complex ways. In other
words, simply to succeed, people have to aim for small wins.
The reformulation of social issues as a set of solvable problems creates an intellectual
and emotional space that motivates people to act and generate solutions. An example
provided by Weick of a small win is the Task Force of Gay Liberation’s success in
persuading the Library of Congress to reclassify books on homosexuality. Prior to 1972,
books on that topic had been assigned the same catalogue numbers as entries on
abnormal sexuality, sexual crimes, and perversion. Since 1972, books on homosexuality
have been catalogued under ‘varieties of sexual life’ instead. Weick highlights the
power of what appears to be a small adjustment: ‘The mundane work of cataloguers
had become the terms on which claims are staked; wins are frequent and seemingly
small changes attract attention, recruit allies, and give opponents second thoughts.’
this example, victory formed part of a constellation of efforts to reframe sexual
differences within a discourse of sexual emancipation and social justice. Small wins can
be precedent setting in and outside the institution.
Weick defines a small win as ‘a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of
It is the opposite of a larger, open-ended solution that
expresses a problem more broadly. Small wins, he writes, are ‘brief, specific and
localised’. They are also ‘tangible, upbeat and non-controversial’. The latter quality is
particularly potent; it means opponents – proponents of the status quo – are likely to
disregard small wins. Small wins also have a much better chance of being introduced
into organisational programmes: ‘Since small wins are of a size that lets them
supplement rather than dominate policy, they are more likely to be incorporated than
are other conspicuous solutions.’
Another reason for adopting a small-win approach is its robustness: several small wins
are structurally more sound than one large win because, like building blocks, they are
compact and complete and, as such, cannot be undone as easily. Each small win
requires less coordination to execute than does a larger win. This means that
disruptions, like changes in political leadership, for example, have limited effects.
Conversely, when setbacks occur in the pursuit of a small win, they amount to small
flops; they are specific and limited in scope and, therefore, more manageable. Smaller
wins, Weick points out, involve smaller stakes.
A small museum tackling big issues
The Museum of Vancouver (MOV) may be Canada’s largest civic museum, but with a
staff of just 25 people, it is by no means a big organisation. Like any dynamic cultural
institution, MOV periodically sheds its skin in response to socio-cultural shifts and
pressures and makes a new one. In 2009, rebranding involved a subtle name change
but a dramatic departure from traditional programming, resulting in a renewed focus
on Vancouver, urbanity as a critical concept, and a commitment to interpret the city in
collaboration with a wide range of individuals and organisations around the city.
2016, realignment more than a radical makeover saw the museum adopt a mandate to
‘inspire a more socially connected and civically engaged city’. While generating fresh
understandings of Vancouver remains a priority, MOV wished to use the breadth of its
collections from across the world to activate conversations and networks about the
exchange and movement of people, ideas and ‘things’ that connect Vancouver with
the rest of the world. The museum continues to invite input from the public; in fact, half
of its exhibition programming is initiated and developed from proposals submitted by
members of the public. MOV has been recognised nationally and internationally for its
leadership, its ability to reinvent itself, and the quality of its curatorial work,
programming, and marketing initiatives.
Inspiring work and publications have contributed greatly to our thinking on the
museum’s ability to do social and advocacy work. The challenge is always how to
adapt, rejig, and further push these ideas in the context of our own institution. At MOV,
we are working at this issue from various angles: staffing, programming, collecting and
exhibit planning. What follows is a brief incursion into a series of interconnected
museum initiatives designed to tackle large and pressing social issues. The small-win
framework helps tease out the impact of these projects.
Make it personal: fostering environmental literacy
A growing body of literature urges museums to direct their resources toward stopping
the destruction of the planet.
The 2014 exhibition Rewilding Vancouver was the
MOV’s first attempt to tackle this challenge. The museum’s aim was to draw attention
to the recent dramatic loss of biodiversity in the city. The project was a playful
examination of the dynamic relationship between city dwellers and their natural
environment that focused on the role of memory in mediating this relationship.
emergent discipline of historical ecology, or the history of nature, provided a
theoretical framework which was used in the exhibition to demonstrate the extent to
which nature has been diminished and transformed by human activity – and our own
obliviousness to these changes. With the tagline, ‘Remember, Reconnect, Rewild’,
Rewilding Vancouver became the first major exhibition in Canada to explore the
anthropogenic degradation of a city’s natural environment through the lens of historical
ecology. The exhibition narrative underscored the role of collective remembering and
forgetting in shaping our understanding of what constitutes nature.
The exhibition incorporated key concepts from historical ecology such as double
disappearance – we lose something and then forget what we have lost
– and shifting
This latter term refers to the way people tend to consider the
environment they knew as children to be the ‘normal’ state of nature and to measure
change against that baseline. With each passing generation, what is ‘normal’ is reset,
so change or depletion goes largely unnoticed over long time spans.
In these ways, Rewilding Vancouver aimed to defamiliarise the urban landscape by
highlighting Vancouver’s transformed nature and subsequent loss of biodiversity:
paved-over streams, drained lakes, extirpated predators, and introduced plant and
animal species. Stories of loss were staged in a series of installations, or tableaux,
riffing on the aesthetic of classic museum dioramas. For instance, the concept of
shifting baseline syndrome was illustrated using a full-sized Vancouver bus shelter, the
name of the street intersection clearly visible. Instead of the usual advertising that
plasters the inside of such shelters, a large city map showed the location of hundreds
of creeks filled in over time by urban expansion, creeks where salmon would have once
spawned. Projected on the floor were gorgeous film loops of salmon swimming to their
spawning ground. Excerpts from the diary of a boy who lived in that neighbourhood in
the 1940s described fishing for salmon in the creek that ran through what is now a busy
intersection. Exit surveys confirmed that local and non-local visitors were struck by the
transformation of the environment and the invisibility of this not-so-distant past.
The twelve tableaux made more salient the shifts in our understandings and
perceptions of the natural world over time. They also pointed to how these perceptual
shifts directly impacted local nature: if we don’t know what was once wilderness, how
can we long for it? The aim was to prompt visitors to reconsider their ideas about
nature, making the case that reconnecting with the natural world and re-introducing
plants, animals and entire natural habitats (and in some cases culling exotic species)
would make for more sustainable and richer urban living (Plate 10).
Several small wins were attached to this project, some carefully crafted, others
unplanned. The exhibition not only raised public awareness about the field of historical
ecology by making disciplinary concepts accessible to the public, it championed the
act of rewilding the city. The geographical specificity of the stories referenced in
Rewilding Vancouver presented an opportunity to verify the application of several
historical ecology concepts within a delineated geographic area, thus advancing
discourses in historical ecology and environmental education. The project also became
a source of inspiration for a Vancouver Parks Board task force initiated as part of its
strategic plan to make Vancouver the greenest city in the world. The city’s
environmental education and stewardship action plan, also titled Rewilding Vancouver,
drew on the exhibition by using the lens of historical ecology to frame its
Collaborating with people invested in restoring and preserving biodiversity in the city
raised the ecological awareness of MOV staff and introduced them to a network of
thinkers and doers involved in reconsidering their own professional practice from the
perspective of environmental sustainability. Advocating for a greener city, the
reduction of carbon emissions and the pursuit of environmental education would make
no sense if MOV was not ready to rethink its operations and, more specifically, its
building practices from the perspective of environmental sustainability. Anyone
involved in producing museum exhibitions knows how wasteful the process can be:
most display and print materials are discarded after exhibitions close. As filmmaker and
sustainability advocate Annie Leonard has remarked, ‘There is no “away” in throwing
In large part due to interactions and conversations that occurred during
Rewilding Vancouver, changing MOV’s exhibition building practices, so as to reduce
the museum’s carbon footprint, became imperative.
In 2016, MOV joined the Vancouver Design Upcycle programme, a municipal
experiment spearheaded by the Vancouver Economic Commission that aims to create
a no-waste city, or circular economy.
In a circular economy, products and materials
are reused and production chains are rethought to minimise waste and maximise the
value of resources. For our curatorial department and fabrication team, contributing to
this shift towards a circular economy has involved not only developing more and new
ways of sourcing exhibition material but also changes in the design, construction, and
use of display units in order to limit consumption of raw materials. Our design teams
are now connected to the deconstruction community – businesses and organisations
committed to sorting, cleaning up and reselling materials.
MOV’s follow on exhibition is Wild Things: The Power of Nature in Our Lives.
Things is the first MOV exhibition to physically embody the idea of sustainability: 80
per cent of the exhibition is built from reclaimed or recycled construction materials.
Building an exhibition within these parameters is the first step toward formalising a
policy that will insist on extensive use of recycled material in the fabrication of all MOV
Wild Things, like Rewilding Vancouver, examines the relationship between urbanites
and their natural surroundings, but this time the focus is on personal stories of
encounters with nature. These first-person narratives are told through the eyes of
nature lovers, city park workers, children, urban planners, and Indigenous knowledge
holders. The idea is to create an intimate and poetic space for thinking about personal
connections (and disconnections) with nature in the city by capitalising on the power of
storytelling to evoke the range of emotions associated with meeting nature face to
face. The exhibition also underlines the precariousness of this relationship in the
context of rapid environmental degradation. Interestingly, Wild Things’ narrative arc
shifted during the concept phase when Indigenous collaborators demanded a change
in focus and tone. From a gentle invitation to visitors to rethink their relationship with
nature, exhibition messaging morphed into something more incisive, challenging
individuals to take responsibility for their natural surroundings, highlighting the
relationship between environmental degradation and culturally-determined worldviews
of nature, and advocating for a closer and more holistic view of nature’s role in our
lives. As chair of the exhibition meetings where things started to shift, I remember
feeling initially that the process had been gently hijacked by our Indigenous
counterparts. I soon realised, however, that the exhibition had transformed into a more
meaningful collective endeavour that would convey the necessary sense of urgency
and calls for action.
Although Wild Things is not, at the time of writing, complete, the diversity and number
of partners contributing to its development is cause for optimism with committee
members including Indigenous cultural workers, forestry and medical researchers, city
staff monitoring climate change impact in the city and amateur naturalists. Perhaps too
diffuse to be considered a small win from Weick’s perspective, the eagerness of
community members speaks to the exhibition’s timeliness and to the museum’s ability
to bring people together, take collective action (building an exhibition and extensive
programming to build momentum) and lend visibility to pressing environmental issues.
The trajectory from Rewilding Vancouver to Wild Things is dotted with small wins: while
the first exhibition provided a framework for a city policy on environmental education,
it also connected the museum with a community of upcyclers – artists and businesses –
who have prompted the museum to rethink its exhibition design and building policy.
Small wins build on each other; they are not set in predictable sequences, Weick
reminds us. Achieving a small win sets in motion actions that favour another win
because when a solution is in place, the next solvable problem is easier to discern.
Committing to sustainable design practice, for instance, led to MOV joining a larger
citywide initiative to build a circular economy. New small wins become possible,
according to Weick, because new allies bring new solutions with them, and opponents
change their habits. Here is another illustration of the organic nature of small wins:
upon hearing about MOV’s Wild Things, two university professors, one associated with
the School of Interactive Arts and Technologies at Simon Fraser University and the
other, with the Department of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, built their
courses around the project. As a result, 75 university students, most of whom had
limited knowledge about environmental issues, became deeply involved in producing
short films and preparing social media campaigns to extend Wild Things’ reach. A
project whose instigators had hoped would foster basic environmental literacy has
ended up developing internal and external capacity for actions that promote
Leverage the museum’s cultural power: mainstreaming diversity
Many commentators in and outside the museum field have advocated harnessing the
museum’s resources and capabilities to create a more caring and just society.
know that museums confer legitimacy and are trusted by the public, even those
members of the public who do not visit them.
Leveraging the museum’s cultural
power to help ‘reconfigure normative moral codes and conventions at a local and
in ways that support a world that is more inclusive, compassionate, and
self-aware is, therefore, strategic. But how do we go about interpreting and enacting
on such tall order?
Like many other museums, MOV decided to revisit its core functions to embed
principles of accessibility, inclusion and diversity in our practice. As Richard Sandell and
Eithne Nightingale point out, such an enterprise requires taking into consideration the
multifaceted and shifting nature of identities.
Too often, achieving diversity in
museum work is reduced to our ability to attract an ethnically diverse workforce and
audience. The cultural makeup of museum conferences and visitors in North America
and Europe reveals the work involved in decentring whiteness and creating more
ethnically inclusive institutions. Other intersecting strands of diversity – socio-
economic, religious, disability, gender and sexual identity, to name a few - also need to
A few years ago, sitting around the table with our very diverse eighteen member
advisory committee for the exhibition project Sex Talk in the City, I remember thinking
I had more in common with the straight South Asian sexologist sitting next to me, than
with the white woman across the table who was a lesbian and former sex trade worker
– that’s if sexual orientation and occupation were used as the identity markers. When
the same group was asked to share their experience of learning about sex in and
outside school as teens, the big differentiating factors were age and ethnicity, not
sexual identity. Practising diversity means taking into account many strands of identify
in the way we hire staff and engage with the public but also in the way we collect,
classify collections, research, provide access, and share stories. What follows are a
series of small, interconnected, shifts and tactics developed at MOV to respond to the
problems of prejudice and discrimination.
In 2008, American-born Ken Brock initiated a collaboration with the City of Vancouver
Archives and MOV. Since the 1960s, he had been documenting his life as a gay man
and wanted to donate his collection incrementally to both institutions. MOV welcomed
this opportunity, as we had never recorded the lives and worldviews of openly gay
individuals residing in Vancouver. Brock’s collection was digitised and made accessible
online. Part of it was also displayed in Sex Talk in the City, a highly collaborative
exploration of how ideas about sexuality have shaped the city. The exhibition, which
opened in 2013, addressed sexual health, diversity and education. It featured a wide
range of perspectives while highlighting issues and concerns shared across age,
gender, ethnicity, able and disabled bodies, and sexual orientation and expression.
Addressing the notion of sexual diversity by locating differences within a framework of
shared experiences felt VERY good! The exhibitions deliberately ‘mixed things up’ by
bringing into the same physical space facets of sexuality that are typically considered
separately. In a space called the Bedroom, for instance, a man living with cerebral
palsy, a burlesque performer, and the archdeacon of an Anglican church shared their
views about sex. In the Classroom section, sex education props, sexting, and
pornography were linked in a discussion about the process of learning about sex and
sexuality. The Street section featured Vancouverites mobilising in the 1970s and 1980s
to demand decriminalisation of abortion, the sex trade and homosexuality. By
decompartmentalising these ideas, the curatorial team intended to encourage visitors
to revisit their own attitudes and beliefs about sexuality. Exit surveys indicated that
visitors were receptive to this approach. The project also attracted a broad array of
visiting groups – kink and burlesque practitioners, high school classes, agencies
working with youth at risk, public health workers, cultural studies and health sciences
students – demonstrating the exhibition’s capacity to resonate with a wide range of
concerns and with the interests of diverse communities. Accompanying public
programmes, such as walking tours of the city guided by sex trade workers or DIY
sexual vibrators workshops led by industrial designers, sex toys makers and historians
of technology, were sold out events that attracted eclectic crowds. The emphasis of
both the exhibition and its programmes on shared experience between heterosexual
and sexual minority groups had the effect of mainstreaming the latter.
A similar approach was adopted for the 2016 exhibition All Together Now: Vancouver
Collectors and their Worlds
– that is, centring conversations that usually take place in
the margins. All Together Now explored why and how people collect. It looked at the
relationship between private and public collections and discussed the organic and
dynamic nature of collections i.e. to grow, – not just in size but in quality – collections
must be shaped by thoughtful additions and subtractions.
The exhibition examined how the act of collecting engages with identity, history, and
community. Central to this discussion were twenty beautiful, rare and unconventional
collections from local collectors. The selection process, which included a call to submit
to local collectors, aimed at highlighting the diversity of the collecting community.
Featured collections ranged from pinball machines to circus mementos, fishing lures,
corsets, ethical taxidermy and pocket watches (Figure 12.1). Witty, funky, and serious
collections lived side by side in the gallery space, demonstrating that collections can
become catalysts for important conversations: on sexuality, disability, intercultural
encounters, and environmental diversity, among others. For instance, anthropologist
Imogene Lim’s Chinese-Canadian restaurant menus connected her to her family story
and offer glimpses into Chinese diasporic experiences in British Columbia; prosthetist
David Moe’s assortment of vintage artificial limbs lent insight into changing cultural
attitudes to disability; Harold Steves’ collection of living heirloom seeds spoke of the
importance of preserving biodiversity; journalist Willow Yamauchi’s collection of her
father’s drag queen costumes documents the history of his 1980s band, the Bovines,
highlighted its importance to the LGBT community of the time (Figure 12.2). The
Bovines’ success also spoke to the public fascination with drag culture and to its role as
bridge maker between Vancouver’s dominant and marginalised sexual communities in
the 1980s. To the museum’s great joy, this collector donated the Bovines’ costumes to
its permanent collection. The new acquisition has enriched MOV’s collection in
compelling ways in regard to the history of family, entertainment and sexuality in the
[Insert Figures 12.1 and 12.2 near here]
All Together Now was part of a larger reflection on MOV’s collecting practice. As it
embarked on developing its five-year strategic collecting plan, the curatorial team was
interested in investigating ways to make more transparent and inclusive the process of
shaping the museum’s collections. Mindful Collecting, a two-day symposium held early
in 2017, invited over 25 community members of historical societies and socio-cultural
organisations, including architects, urban planners, naturalists, Indigenous knowledge
holders, public and academic historians, anti-poverty activists, and LGBTQ advocates,
to provide input on MOV’s collecting directions and priorities.
This strategy aimed to
embed diverse perspectives in the very guiding principles that shape the museum’s
collections. Because a participatory museology approach to museum collecting is of
interest to the museum community as a whole, MOV invited 25 museum staff from
other institutions to act as observers for the one-day community consultation and to
debrief and critique on the second day, fostering simultaneously a community of
practice among regional institutions. Community participants (non-museum
professionals) identified themes such as complex and hybrid identities, intimate
moments and places, public events and spaces, innovation and advocacy. ‘Caring for
communities before caring for collections’, and ‘We are a majority of minorities’ were
two other powerful ideas expressed by participants that insisted on the primacy of
human relations and the need to take into account the specificities within broad
categorisations like ‘community’. Themes and ideas identified at the symposium have
informed MOV’s collecting plan, helping us to develop a collection that is more
mindful of the plurality of lived experiences, histories and identities in the city.
MOV is committed to incorporating into its work and workplace different worldviews
and different ways of being in the world as a way to reframe social norms. As the
forgoing examples illustrate, the process is non-linear and iterative, requires
institutional flexibility, and improves only by small increments. Crowd-sourced
acquisitions, interpretive strategies capitalising on shared experiences while embracing
differences, participatory approaches to collection management – they are all small
gains that have built on one another. Although each of these small wins constitutes its
own compact unit, they are also part of a chain of small innovations that make museum
practices more inclusive and help – given the museum’s power – normalise diversity in
the larger community.
Learn to listen: embedding and embracing Indigenous knowledge
For decades now, Indigenous leaders in Canada and elsewhere have called for and
contributed to the reformulation of relationships between their communities and
museums around the world.
In Canada, the need for deep collaboration with and self-
representation by Indigenous peoples in museums has come to the forefront with even
greater salience with the recent release of the final report by the Truth and
Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The commission was mandated to document the
experiences of Indigenous children who attended residential schools, to educate
Canadians about its devastating impact on Indigenous people and communities across
the country, and to make recommendations. The extensive school system, an
instrument of assimilationist federal policy administered by various Christian
denominations, saw as many as seven generations of Indigenous children pass through
it. Because the intent was to eradicate Indigenous culture and interrupt its transmission,
the TRC determined that the residential school system constituted cultural genocide.
As a way of redressing the residential school legacy and furthering reconciliation
between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, the TRC made several calls to
Call-to-action no. 67 recommended a national review of museum policies and
practices to ensure compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP),
which upholds the right of Aboriginal peoples to
maintain, protect, and develop their cultural heritage and traditional knowledge.
MOV’s response to the call to repair and renew relationships with First Nations
communities is on-going and multi-faceted. The museum’s significant artefact
collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous cultures must be reconsidered, in terms of
both its makeup and interpretation. MOV has been repatriating objects and human
remains since 2010 – some at the request of Indigenous communities, others
Although internal policy guides the process of repatriation, it
remains open and flexible to accommodate a variety of requests, often led by
community leaders and Elders and informed by community needs and protocols. Each
repatriation case is unique and the process is not seamless or without hurdles:
overlapping territorial claims and divergent stories of ownership between individuals
and groups, for example, make it at times challenging for the museum staff to decide
on the course of action.
Repatriations of cultural artefacts and human remains are an
emotional journey for all parties involved. When cultural objects are repatriated
regionally, museum staff members take part in the formal ceremony of return in the
community of origin. These events, well attended by community members, dignitaries,
and the media, have become an opportunity to communicate to the wider public the
changing nature of the relationship between Indigenous communities and public
institutions. The warm reception Indigenous communities have given MOV
representatives speaks to the healing potential of these concrete yet highly symbolic
The TRC’s call to action, paired with the experience and successes associated with
mainstreaming marginalised voices in exhibitions, such as Sex Talk in the City and All
Together Now, has prompted a new direction in MOV programming: the inclusion of
Indigenous perspectives in all exhibitions. This does not mean that museum
programming focuses only on exclusively Indigenous topics and collections. Rather,
local Indigenous knowledge and perspectives are integrated regardless of the topic.
Forthcoming exhibitions with topics as diverse as the changing experience of Chinese
settlers in the city, a whimsical look at the museum’s chair collections, and the
tumultuous story of local sports culture, all incorporate Indigenous perspectives. In the
recently opened City on Edge: A Century of Vancouver Activism
exhibition featuring over 650 images of Vancouver demonstrations, occupations, riots,
blockades and strikes), images of Indigenous activism are represented across themes
while also appearing as a dedicated subject in itself (Figure 12.3).
[Insert Figure 12.3 near here]
The museum looks for contributions by Indigenous individuals and communities that
complement and contrast with other ideas and themes discussed in our exhibitions and
inform their overarching arguments. As mentioned earlier in this chapter, all three ‘host
nations’ – the local Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh communities – have not
only been involved in fleshing out the content of Wild Things: The Power of Nature in
Our Lives, they have shifted the direction of the project. To ensure sustainability of this
approach, we have created a permanent Indigenous curator position, to help forge
relationships and facilitate participation and self-representation by, primarily, local
MOV continues to develop exhibitions and projects that focus in on Indigenous
knowledge and perspectives. The exhibition, Haida Now,
for example, examines the
museum’s significant Haida
collection and for the first time presents an interpretation
generated from a multitude of Haida perspectives, including Haida scholars, curators,
culinary chefs, politicians and artists. Their insights are documented and added to the
museum’s online database. The project discusses, among other things, the Haida’s
long-standing and at times conflicted relationship with the Coast Salish communities of
the Greater Vancouver area. The exhibition and related programmes have become a
launch pad for discussing the experience of urban Indigenous communities, as well as
diversity within Indigenous cultures and across individual experiences (Plate 11).
The small win lens has helped MOV assess its engagement in the process of repairing
relationships with Indigenous communities. Rather than expecting speedy systemic
change, it can take advantage of multiple opportunities for moments of reconciliation.
Each repatriation, for example, is seen as another step towards rebuilding trust. Each
experience further refines the process. Small wins, writes Weick, attract bolder ones
and can, at times, be precedent setting: MOV’s voluntary offer to return a monumental
carving to the Haida territory prompted at least one other museum to repatriate a pole
to Haida Gwaii.
Arising from collaborations like Haida Now, multiple visits with Indigenous knowledge
holders in the collection storage have encouraged MOV to start rehousing all its
Northwest Coast First Nations collections in ways that are more culturally appropriate.
The process will take years to complete, but it Indigenises the collection’s
configuration. Something similar is happening in the production of exhibitions where
Indigenous curators and knowledge holders are project drivers. The small-win study
posits that when the magnitude of a problem is scaled down, people’s attention
broadens, their reading of the situation improves, and they generate solutions that are
more complex. With Haida Now, we are not resolving the problem of transgenerational
trauma caused by the residential schools, but we are inviting an Indigenous curatorial
collective to co-create an exhibition with us. Behind the successful completion of
exhibitions and programs informed by Indigenous ways of knowing is a streamlined
organisational structure that is more responsive and agile. This ‘small organisational
win’ has created conditions for foregrounding Indigenous knowledge systems, oral
histories, protocols, and connections to the land.
This chapter has attempted to demonstrate that small wins are small adjustments that
can have a positive, transformative impact within and outside the museum. Museums
of all sizes should practise small wins, but smaller institutions need to know that they
are – by design, not by default – the most effective means of affecting social change.
Their small wins can inspire and help transform other institutions.
Emphasis here has been to focus on the ‘anatomy’ of a small win, but there are
occasionally ‘small flops’. These are unavoidable. In the recent past, for example,
Indigenous representatives retracted their community participation in our exhibitions.
We also had to cancel production of an exciting, multi-partner project on social
connections, because of lack of funding. Yet these losses taught us how to create the
conditions for some of the wins discussed in this chapter.
Museums have limited, if not declining, resources, and so need to become very
strategic about identifying opportunities for making a (social) difference.
Understanding the power and dynamic of small wins can help us achieve this goal.
Small wins are not paradigm shifting, but they help make positive social change
possible and sustainable. As museum scholar Ruth Phillips has written, museums are a
space for ‘the rehearsal of modes of social action not yet possible in wider political
The examples in this chapter show that because museums operate between
communities and formal political entities, the line between the institution and the
private and public sphere is more porous than it has ever been. In Cameron’s words,
the museum’s new work ‘is opening new spheres of influence and relevance’.
Focusing in on small wins provides an opportunity to observe this reality in action.
Elizabeth Merritt, Trendswatch 2017 Centre for the Future of Museums (Washington, D.C.: American
Alliance of Museums, 2017).
Karl E. Weick, ‘Small wins: redefining the scale of social problems’, American Psychologist 39(1) (1984):
For an introduction to this concept, see Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu, Frugal Innovation – How to
Do More with Less (New York: Public Affairs, 2015).
For examples of how to apply this concept, see Al Etmanski, Impact: Six Patterns to Spread Your Social
Innovation (Vancouver: Orwell Cove, 2015).
Viviane Gosselin, ‘Debunking, decentralizing and dissonance: cultural jamming at the Museum of
Vancouver’, in Iñaki Arrieta Urtizberea (ed.), El Desafio de Exponer (Bilbao: Universidad de País Vasco),
Sarah W. Sutton et al., ‘Museums and the future of a healthy world: “just, verdant and peaceful”’,
Curator: The Museum Journal 60(2) (2017): 151–74; Fiona Cameron, Bob Hodge, and Juan Francisco
Salazar, ‘Representing climate change in museum space and place’, WIREs Climate Change 4 (2013): 4–
10 Rewilding Vancouver, co-curated by environmental activist and writer James MacKinnon and MOV
curator Viviane Gosselin, was produced by and presented at the Museum of Vancouver from February to
James B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future World (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 145–
For an explanation of the term’s origin, see Allison Guy, ‘Daniel Pauly and George Monbiot in
conversation about “shifting baselines syndrome”’, http://oceana.org/blog/daniel-pauly-and-george-
monbiot-conversation-about-shifting-baselines-syndrome [accessed November 2017].
Museum of Vancouver, ‘Rewilding Vancouver – a qualitative visitor study report’ (internal document),
In The Story of Stuff, film (San Francisco and Washington: Free Range Studios, 2007),
https://storyofstuff.org/movies/story-of-stuff/ [accessed November 2017].
For more on this initiative, see Vancouver Economic Commission, Vancouver Upcycle Design Project
(Vancouver: Vancouver Economic Commission, March 2016), http://www.vancouvereconomic.com/wp-
content/uploads/2016/03/VUD-Action-Plan2.pdf [accessed November 2017].
This temporary exhibition opens at the Museum of Vancouver in June 2018.
Robert R. Janes, Museums Without Borders (Leicester, UK: Routledge, 2016), 2.
Margaret Conrad et al., Canadians and Their Pasts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 235.
Richard Sandell and Eithne Nightingale, Museums, Equality and Social Justice (Leicester, UK:
Routledge 2012), 7.
The exhibition curated by MOV curator Viviane Gosselin and designed by architect, Daniel Irvine, was
produced by and presented at the Museum of Vancouver from June 2016 to March 2017.
A two-day event held January 31 and February 1, 2017, at the Museum of Vancouver, co-organised by
MOV, Burnaby Village Museum, Richmond Museum, and Vancouver Maritime Museum. Report to be
released online in 2018.
See, for example, Task Force on Museums and First Peoples, Turning the Page: Forging New
Partnerships between Museums and First Peoples (Ottawa: Assembly of First Nations and Canadian
Museum Association, 1994). This report had significant influence on museum practice and cultural policy
Truth and Reconciliation Canada, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the
Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation
Commission of Canada, 2015),
[accessed November 2017].
Truth and Reconciliation Canada, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Calls to Action
(Winnipeg: Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015), http://www.trc.ca/ [accessed
The United Nations General Assembly, Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007),
http://www.un.org/ [accessed November 2017].
For details on specific repatriations from a museum staff standpoint, see Joan Seidl, Repatriations, a
series of blog posts by the former director of Collections and Exhibitions.
http://www.museumofvancouver.ca/programs/blog/tags/repatriation. For a detailed review of the return
of the Sasq’ets mask, see Bruce G. Miller, ‘An ethnographic view of legal entanglements on the Salish
Sea borderlands’, UBC Law Review, 47(3) (2014): 1016–23.
For a concise and critical history of repatriation at MOV, see Bruce G. Miller, ‘Repatriation in two acts:
The Museum of Vancouver’, BC Studies, Special Issue (2018): In press.
City on Edge: A Hundred Years of Activism, presented at MOV from September 2017 to February
2018, co-curated by retired Vancouver Sun librarian Kate Bird and MOV curator Viviane Gosselin.
Haida Now, guest curated by artist and independent Haida curator Kwiaahwah Jones, produced by
and presented at the Museum of Vancouver from March 2018 to June 2019.
10 Rewilding Vancouver, co-curated by environmental activist and writer James MacKinnon and MOV
curator Viviane Gosselin, was produced by and presented at the Museum of Vancouver from February to
The Haida have traditionally occupied the coastal bays and inlets of Haida Gwaii, an archipelago
located on the North Coast British Columbia.
For reference to this repatriation and Haida curators’ responses, see Marsha Lederman, ‘For Haida, this
wooden chest holds the promise of reunion with Indigenous treasures’, Globe and Mail, July 8, 2017,
[accessed November 2017].
Ruth Phillips, Museum Piece: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums (Montreal, Que: McGill
Queen’s University Press 2011), 157.
Fiona Cameron, Bob Hodge, and Juan Francisco Salazar, ‘Representing climate change in museum
space and place’, WIREs Climate Change 4 (2013): 15
The author would like to thank husband Werner Kaschel and colleagues Greg Fruno, Sue Griffin, and
Mike Mallen for their ongoing support.