How museums help cities realize their 'soft power'

By Carla Lucchetta - Published on Aug 05, 2016
Nam Kiwanuka interviews cultural consultant Gail Lord on The Agenda in the Summer.

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Gail Lord and her husband, Barry, founded their cultural consulting company in 1981, operating out of their log cabin just outside Hamilton. “We were two kids with a crazy idea, a crazy dream … we believed the world needed to be planning culture a lot better,” she tells Nam Kiwanuka on The Agenda in the Summer. They wrote museum planning and management manuals and consulted on cultural plans for cities, galleries and museums all over the world, including Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights. For her work, Lord has been appointed officer of the Order of Arts and Letters in France and appointed a member of the Order of Canada.

Lord co-wrote and co-edited Cities, Museums and Soft Power (with Ngaire Blankenberg, a consultant at Lord Cultural Resources), a book of essays by prominent culture experts on the influence of museums and arts institutions on cities and citizens. While hard power is exerted by countries through weapons, war, sanctions and money, soft power creates influence through persuasion, agenda-setting and culture, Lord says.

“The soft power these days are cities,” she says. “Fifty per cent of the world’s people live in cities, but cities produce 80 per cent of the world’s GDP. So cities have tremendous influence.” That is why, in her opinion and experience, cultural institutions should be as inviting as possible to the public: they should offer free admission, reach out more through publicity and partnerships, reflect the makeup of the city in their staffing, boards of directors and content, and stay relevant and current. One example she offers is a new pavilion at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts dedicated to mental health. “They’ve identified that museums can work with all kinds of mental health organizations and deliver very powerful services to the community. Now that’s inviting people in.”

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Museums have a deep history in hard power, she explains. “Historically they are places of study, learning, research” that house trophies of war such as relics and sculptures. Today, she says they are trending toward presenting human stories, as the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which opened in 2014 and whose focus she thinks “is important for a country as diverse as Canada.”

This excerpt is from the introduction to Cities, Museums and Soft Power:

My trip to Winnipeg this time is different. It is neither 25 degrees below zero, nor 30 degrees above, as on so many occasions over the past 14 years. It is a drizzling autumn day at The Forks, for thousands of years a historic meeting place for indigenous people on the banks of the Assiniboine and Red Rivers. Now it is a popular mixed-use leisure and cultural park with theatres, retail shops and space for festivals, concerts, skateboarding and pow-wows. Today is different because I’m not here just for meetings. I’m her to visit the world’s first national museum dedicated to human rights, on its first day open to the public.

Today will change this city for decades to come. As home to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg has decided to rebrand itself as the City of Human Rights Education. Even before it opened, the museum operated a successful summer school in human rights education for teachers from across Canada, broadcast a lecture series called Fragile Freedoms, featuring some of the world’s most famous human rights experts, and trained a remarkable 350 volunteers. The nearby University of Manitoba maintains the archives of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the official inquiry into 200 years of abuse suffered by Canada’s indigenous people as governments colluded with churches to forcibly remove children from their families and place them in faraway residential schools with the stated purpose “to kill the Indian in the child.” Becoming the Human Rights Education City is a bold move and a challenging one: Winnipeg is also home to a large population of marginalized aboriginal people.

The museum looks as if a giant space ship has landed. As I enter with hundreds of proud and excited people, we are dazzled by the architecture, which takes us on a one-kilometre human rights journey along alabaster ramps. At each exhibition zone, friendly docents explain the history of human rights, indigenous perspectives, the Holocaust and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People here assume I’m another visitor from Winnipeg, not the consultant from Toronto who for the past 14 years helped plan this museum.

I reflect on my Aunt Millie, who lived in Winnipeg. She was the founder of the Nellie McClung Theatre Group, named for a famous suffragette. I remember my father’s stories of how cold he felt selling newspapers at the corner of Portage and Main, the crossroads of two economies – bootlegging liquor to the U.S. during Prohibition and the Winnipeg Grain Exchange.

After many decades in decline, Winnipeg has transformed itself into a regional centre for the knowledge economy, with universities, insurance firms, medical research, and a thriving arts and theatre scene. Now it’s part of an international network of cities that feature museums of conscience, collecting the stories behind human rights. Winnipeg and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights are now ready to exercise their soft power.

Excerpted with permission by Gail Lord C.M., LL.D. from Cities, Museums and Soft Power, published by The AAM Press, American Alliance of Museums in 2015.

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