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Archives & Museum Informatics

Learning History

Nicole Vallières, McCord Museum of Canadian History, Canada


The problems of access to and distribution of museum materials are at the heart of a number of initiatives undertaken by museum staff or agencies to draw on new technology to achieve a wider diffusion of museum and archival resources. For example, 13 Montreal history museums have joined together to provide teachers from greater Montreal and Quebec with an internet site containing information on educational activities designed for students at the primary, secondary and collegial levels. Within a broader context, CHINÝs Gateway to Canadian learning Materials project is another initiative.

The school-museum partnership is being renewed through the development of innovative technology-based initiatives to use museum objects and research directly in the classroom. Some ambitious projects, especially within the science museum world, have led the way. Technology might well prove a vehicle to bring museum resources into the classroom through the development of highly interactive multimedia databases linked directly to the curriculum.

The McCord Museum of Canadian History, in partnership with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, the Faculty of Education and Department of History from both McGill University and Université du Québec à Montréal, and the Quebec Ministry of Education, is working to create new material history-based resources for Canadian teachers. This project will focus on the development of curriculum-linked teaching resources, drawn from the collections of the partner museum. At the same time, the partner organizations will examine the delivery of such resources to the classroom. The project thus has two major areas of interest. The first is the integration of the museum model of learning using objects and images into the more traditional text-based curriculum materials of the primary and secondary schools. The second is the evaluation of the Internet as a medium for the diffusion of multimedia databases with age-specific interfaces, and its efficacy as a support for teaching and learning.

This paper will discuss the McCord Museum involvement in those 3 projects.

Learning History

For this workshop, "Finding Educational Sites," I was asked to present the museum point of view. First, I would like to point out that collection and information management, not education, is my area of expertise, and my approach is that of a content provider. With no special training in educational or learning theories, my view is in many respects somewhat naive. However, given that the Internet is a recent innovation, not yet highly exploited, and calls for new methods, ideas and rules, I believe that this lack of expertise has at least one advantage in a teamwork environment ˝ I have no preconceived ideas about how to teach or about how people learn.

Thus, as a content supplier, I would first like to point out a relatively recent reality, one more specific to museums ˝ the presence of a profound change in not only how information is processed, but also in how it is disseminated. With the advent of networking, information is no longer created, disseminated and used in the same way. The museum, a cultural institution and repository of collective memory and history, faces a new reality that is profoundly destabilising traditional museum methods, leading museums to review all of their practices.

Closely related to the presence of the Internet, this change obviously arises from a new awareness of the value of and potential for exploiting information via this new medium. Mindsets have gradually changed (in fact, evolved) in such a way that from now on, information relating to collections, and to all related activities, will be handled in a more dynamic way. Based on the awareness of this "new" strategic capital, attempts are underway to establish a true synergy among the various stakeholders to ensure that they operate in "open" communication mode, rather than in a vacuum. Stages in the production process are reviewed from a perspective of versatility and, as a result, cost-effectiveness.

Just as a quick review of this very specific area, institutional priorities have gradually shifted over the last 15 years, moving from inventory and data management toward operations and information management and now focussing on access and dissemination of information to the public. The information on an object, from multiple contexts, benefits from optimised handling. Information on donors, fundraising, exhibitions, publication projects, restoration and other areas are amalgamated with descriptive and administrative information on the objects in the collection. The data can be queried in numerous contexts and ways, and in many cases, in Űa naturalÝ language. From the technical aspect, largely defined by the limitations of the computer systems used, data has migrated from systems that compartmentalised information to a much more integrated approach, where technical imperatives have given way to transparent access. We have moved from concave to convex, internal to external, specifically via the Internet.

At the same time, it is interesting to note that the concept of network is changing and gradually expanding. It no longer refers exclusively to communication, i.e., links among elements of a single family or a single interest (in this case, museum collections), but more broadly to decompartmentalization and openness. Within that context, most of the data currently found in large centralised databases or even institutional databases, although important and used by researchers and managers, are currently, in most cases, of limited interest. However, imperfect or incomplete does not in any way mean useless, and information on collections is not static ˝ indeed, just the opposite ˝ it is part of a constantly evolving reality. We must ensure however, that the work done over the last 25 years - a substantial investment - goes beyond the immediate framework of the museum institution. To evolve in this new context and exploit its potential in a meaningful and productive manner, we have to look at joint projects, network projects, and partnerships. Cultural heritage - as instrument of knowledge for the benefit of a group - does not belong only to the museum, but to the community as a whole. Thus, the only limit is the amount of resources the community wants to devote to cultural heritage.

Thus, moving away from a "data base" to what I could call here a "knowledge base", meaning a resource developed on a given subject, involves an approach that goes beyond simply expanding multi-source access facilitated by a relatively user-friendly access interface. In addition to descriptive databases linked specifically to artefacts, the "RubikÝs cube" approach (independent or directed) must be supported by the availability of one or more interpretations that will reinforce the learning process.

Within the Internet context, where we can virtually tour sites, look at virtual exhibitions or "search" in on-line databases (which sometimes offer users the option of creating and saving their own files and thus exploiting a little further the InternetÝs interactive capability), there is a real need for specific content, that meets specific educational needs, for example the history sector. Quite simply, the need for Internet content in this area is urgent, particularly given that history museums have been identified as the most reliable source of knowledge of our collective past. According to a study among adults conducted by American researchers Rosenzweig and Thelen (The Presence of the Past ˝ Popular Uses of History in American Life, 1998) funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, museums appear to be at the top of the list, ahead of high-school and university teachers, books, television programs and even parents. Paradoxically, another study conducted by Quebec researcher Tamara Lemerise (1999) shows that history museums are, for young people, the least popular in a field dominated by science and technology museums. I would like to extrapolate slightly here, and compare those two North American studies, which while they share neither the same methodologies nor the same objectives, lead me to believe that although young people may see history museums as dusty or uninteresting in the short term, the fact remains that, in the long term, they are the ultimate "historical" reference. As a repository of our collective heritage, and, in a certain way, an interpretation of that heritage, we are de facto in a decisive position that requires immediate and significant and meaningful action, and thus entails considerable responsibility. Within that context, information on the Internet cannot - can no longer? - be absent or simply available in a summary format: it must be more complete and varied, interesting to a variety of audiences, useful and most of all, used (I will come back to this later).

Fortunately, the Internet is evolving quickly, to say the least, and its generations are short and promising. Thus, within a context that extends beyond history museums, there are numerous programs to initiate partnerships among museums ˝ educational institutions, private organisations, government. Obviously, a frequent trend is that when millions are available, billions are needed. However, the reality is an increasing number of partnerships. Although some emphasise content (I will come to this below), the purpose of others is to perfect the tool. The problem of material access and dissemination is at the centre of numerous projects initiated by institutions or agencies to develop a tool for disseminating museum resources to a wider audience.

As a local example, MontrealÝs 13 history museums, including the McCord Museum, joined together in 1999 to provide a single point from which history teachers can access a variety of information on educational activities for primary and secondary students. Obviously, this is only a showcase of activities available at the museum, and at the present time, is not a place for accessing resources directly or exclusively available on the Internet. The interface is simple and uses five research headings: museums, school grades and cycles, subjects, themes and schedule ( However, due to pressure from Quebec teachers during the current school year (boycotting field trips), we were unable to determine the actual impact of this tool on the organisation of school activities.

Within a broader context, CHINÝs project to create a centralised location for various Canadian museums resources available for primary and secondary teachers is without a doubt a great example of a tool made necessary by the growing number of products, thus meeting the needs of the community. Obviously, increasingly effective search engines provide access to those resources to a certain point. However, the catalogue of resources prepared as part of the Gateway to Educational Materials Project optimises on a broader scale those resources or projects developed locally or individually. Thus, it is good to know that the museums exist; but accessing all the educational resources in a given sector and on a given theme, and determining whom specifically that resource is for, is better still. The benefits will no doubt be immediate. One has only to speak to teachers to get an idea of their distress over this new Űspace.Ý And it is within this perspective that the McCord Museum worked with the CHIN by supervising an intern who helped at various stages of the project, notably, cataloguing museum resources. At the same time, in the museum community, there have been related benefits from similar partnership projects. Access to and better knowledge of existing products in oneÝs own area stimulates research and subsequent developments. Without calling it "competition," there is no doubt that the desire to stand out from the crowd is contributing in large part to the establishment of new standards, gaining in maturity and, obviously, quality and relevance.

Museums as content providers and resource centres

Access has become a priority for many governments, and there are many examples. In general terms however, against the technical backdrop of connectivity and hardware emerges a more crucial area ˝ training, learning and content.

For example, like many other governments, the Quebec Ministry of Education a few years ago sponsored a socio-economic conference on information and communications technologies in education so as to determine specific objectives, particularly the development of a common vision, what measures to take and the resources required, and identifying partners. Some consensus was reached, particularly with respect to the knowledge and skills required, the active participation of teachers, the level of computer hardware and teaching materials required, and finally, the development of the network and linking schools to the network. (Curiously, no content providers were shown on the list of conference guests, and few representatives of the cultural community were on the list of observers). The conference gave rise to a wide range of initiatives. Outside the purely technical aspect of connectivity and hardware, large sums were subsequently devoted to train teaching staff and for pedagogical research, and for the production of content via the Information Highway Fund (IHF) in particular. In that specific area, various projects were initiated in the cultural sector, such as a project to help digitise collections for small museums. That project was initiated by QuebecÝs Infomuse network, a provincial network of some 100 Quebec museums. Initiatives of this type have given new impetus to the drive to broaden access to our cultural heritage and helped make a reality the desire of some Quebec museums to use the Internet. Obviously, in the case of the Infomuse network, the initial objectives were to provide institutions with a technological showcase. What we are seeing now is the progressive evolution of brochure sites to content sites offering, in many cases, access to a critical mass of information. Through these first steps, a bank of strategic information is being built that can be used to contribute to the subsequent development of new products. And gradually, from a simple data repackaging approach, we are moving toward a view of information as having a versatility that can be used to unleash its inherent potential when creating new resources.

Thus with the realisation of the importance of this "external" information that is increasingly accessible via the Internet, access and reference frameworks and resource cataloguing projects are being developed. But are those resources adequate? How can we be sure that they are useful and, above all, used in the curriculum?

The Internet has its own logic and presents some challenges, namely, the need to review communication methods and define new strategies appropriate to the medium used, redefine the interface to allow real knowledge acquisition and determine how to use and create ˝ within a knowledge dissemination network context ˝ a context favourable to learning. The InternetÝs interactive capability fosters a dynamic space in which users can be creative ˝ a key component. This is especially so when we consider that, according to some studies, including one by Professor Philippe Marton of Université Laval, we retain:

10% of what we read

20% of what we hear

30% of what we see

50% of what we hear and see

70% of what we say

90% of what we do.

A few months ago, I attended a talk given in New York by Dr. Robert Cavalier of Carnegie Mellon University. As part of his research into the use of technology in education, Dr. Cavalier conducted a quantitative analysis to determine the level of learning based on the tools used by the students, i.e., text, film and CD. The results of the survey showed a significant statistical difference, favouring use of the CD ˝ interactivity. This space thus has to be designed as a means to provide its own kind of experience, different from that of other mediums, making use of as many senses as possible. Within their Mission Statement, the firm Learn Technologies Interactive (Lyuen Chou) states, and I quote, that "the best entertainment is truly educational and the best learning is truly entertaining ˝ and that technology makes this possible". I believe that this "simple" statement is an interesting introduction, in that it summarises the objective of numerous initiatives implemented in recent years. Boundaries are disappearing, and these two realities can no longer be placed in opposition, or even in competition with each other.

Learning history

In the last few years, the science and technology museum sector has been at the centre of the development of a number of ambitious projects that have paved the way for renewed school-museum partnerships, and that have demonstrated that the use of technology could be a catalysing and relevant element in the learning process. We have moved from an answer-based approach to a question-based approach, thus giving the student part of the initiative for his/her learning. However, although history museums are, traditionally, places of memory and not experimentation, this does not prevent them from becoming dynamic stakeholders in the education process by facilitating the appropriation of knowledge and encouraging debate through the questioning process.

For example, the Village Prologue (, a Quebec on-line initiative composed of more than 13,000 pages on an 1852 community, was developed during the 1980s. On-line activities started in 1987, and the first interactive exchanges with "people of the past" began in 1991. In short, the Village Prologue is a micro-world representing a seigneury in Lower Canada in the 19th century, and experienced teachers, historians and programmers have been working on it for several years. Teachers and historians created fictional residents of the seigneury and the village following experiments done with teachers, students and parents. They imagined their daily lives, homes, the objects around them, the events that marked their lives and even their physiques and personalities. Several activities are available on the site: corresponding with the people, problem-solving activities, writing activities, discussions and exchanges and the animation of one or more characters for adults. With the annual support of more than 200 facilitators who correspond with students in Quebec, this project has for some years been supported by the federal government via the Grassroots Program, part of the Learning Resources of Schoolnet Canada. The McCord Museum is currently working in partnership with the people responsible for the Village Prologue project to ensure that real artefacts are used in the dissemination of information and learning of the history of Quebec at that time. We are incorporating the concept of object-based learning with traditional learning modes.

History museums are all too familiar with the evocative power of the object taking second place to written material. However, things change, and museum resources are now being used more extensively. It is no longer rare to see groups of students consulting our archives and Í objects, looking for answers or at the very least clues for further learning. This partnership has not always been a given, but does promise the expansion of knowledge.

To develop significant and meaningful content, like many other museums, the McCord Museum wants to make a more dynamic contribution. Encouraged by a government policy that puts history on the curriculum, the McCord Museum, close to one year ago, proposed a partnership of stakeholders from museums, universities, schools and the Quebec Ministry of Education to develop specific content that is directly related to the curriculum defined by the Ministry of Education. Submitted to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the project received one of 22 grants for all of Canada as part of the new Community-University Research Alliances (CURA) program. Launched in 1999, CURA is a pilot program to help organisations within communities and university institutions combine forces and tackle issues they have identified as being of common, priority concern. The very existence of this new program, which promotes partnerships and funds the McCord project, is eloquent proof of the need and willingness to support the development of museum-classroom projects.

It is within this context that the McCord Museum of Canadian History, in partnership with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, the Faculty of Education and Department of History from both McGill University and Université du Québec à Montréal, and the Quebec Ministry of Education, is working to create new material history-based resources for Canadian teachers. Not only will we be building on the traditional approaches of object-based learning in the development of curriculum-linked teaching resources, but we will be exploring the use of the technology, and specifically the internet, in delivering these resources to students and teachers in their classrooms and their homes.

The project summary, drafted under the direction of Dr. Victoria Dickenson, Director General of the McCord Museum, is as follows.

Project Laurier has two major areas of interest. The first is the integration of the museum model of learning using objects and images into the more traditional text-based curriculum materials of the primary and secondary schools. The second is the evaluation of the Internet as a medium for the diffusion of multimedia databases with age-specific interfaces, and its efficacy as a support for teaching and learning.

Project Laurier is a three-phase project over a three-year period. The first phase embodies primarily the research phase of the project. The team will conduct a literature review in the two study areas: object-based teaching and material history; and the role of new technologies in classroom teaching and learning. During this period, the team will also conduct on-site interviews with students and teachers at a minimum of eight sites in Quebec and Ontario as well as expert interviews with stakeholders at the Ministère de lÝÉducation, the Ontario Ministry of Education, and various provincial teachers association, as well appropriate resource persons among a group of expert advisors.

The second phase deals with prototype development, testing and evaluation. Based on research and information gathered in phase one, the team will begin to develop the prototype application. Information from stakeholder interviews, curriculum review, and assessment of museum collections, will allow the team to select two curriculum units, one primary and one secondary, for development in the prototype. The match between curriculum units and museum resources requires some care. Not all will be amenable to the addition of museum resources, and not all topics will be reflected in museum collections. And as the most crucial part of any web application is the interface design, the team will collect data on user group and analyse these according to their comments, and submit the application to selected peer reviewers as well. It is anticipated that design changes will be required at the level of interface, but that development of the database will be largely unaffected. Finally, during this phase, the team will begin the development of a business plan to ensure the ongoing support of the project.

The third and last phase focuses on completion of prototype, finalisation of business plan, and integration of material into the curriculum on a regional basis. The results of phase two evaluation will be integrated into application design, and the prototype expanded to include additional curriculum units for both primary and secondary levels. Curriculum units will be selected and museum resources prepared for the database. The addition of scholarly narratives created specifically for the project will be incorporated into the application. While the prototype application interface will be designed primarily for the Quebec environment, the bilingual multimedia database will be usable with a variety of interface designs.

This project is significant on a number of levels: one, it acknowledges the need for additional primary resources to enrich the curriculum in the teaching of Canadian history; two, it acknowledges the increasingly pervasive role of information technology in the Canadian community and in the schools; three, it acknowledges the importance of collaboration in incorporating technological change into traditional institutions; and four, it acknowledges the needs of the next generation for technology-mediated access to Canadian content. Children will continue to attend school, teachers will continue to teach, and classes will continue to come to museums on field trips; but museums and schools are working to prepare themselves for new modes of access to content and to curriculum. Project Laurier is part of that preparation.


Rosenzweig, R. & Thelen, D. (1998). The Presence of the Past. Popular Uses of History in American Life. New York: Columbia Uniersity Press.

Lemerise, Tamara (1999). Le point de vue des adolescents sur les musées : Second volet dÝune enquête sur la relation musée-adolescents. Revue Canadienne de lÝÉducation, août 1999.