Cultural Geography: Toronto, Ontario

Woo Canada!

In the summer of 2011, I was lucky enough to get a MTSU Study Abroad Scholarship to study all the way in… Canada! Through a bit of coordination I was able to create an Advanced Projects in Public History course to get PhD level credits for the trip by doing additional work with the professor who led the trip to the Great White North.

For the main part of the trip I and the other students journeyed all around Toronto. It was a blasty-blast, and we learned so much! Toronto is extremely culturally diverse, so this was the perfect way to learn more about Cultural Geography, heritage tourism, history, and of course history. The undergraduates were required to explore several ethnic neighborhoods and complete a scavenger hunt for various things such as national colors, ethnic food, signs in another language, and other things. I joined in on this and was able to learn a lot from the neighborhoods, have some great Greek (lamb), Italian (gelato), Asian (fried rice) and other foods and drinks (bubble tea – blech), while at the same time working on my own advanced project.

Click for better image of Walking Tour

Street Car

My extra assignment was to create a walking tour of downtown Toronto. This is a huge assignment, but we walked approximately ten hours a day for two days so I had plenty of content to contribute. The best way to experience a place (and stay healthy at the same time) is by walking and observing the various areas you encounter that you wouldn’t see from a car, cab, train, or subway. We did have to take the subway a few times to make the most of our time. The student group that I was with did not specifically plan a route for our exploration but instead wandered to various districts. This was a great way to see the city and the different historic and cultural districts. However, perhaps time could be better used with a loose plan of action. Therefore I created a walking tour brochure for future students.

Here it is!

This guide serves as a guide to several culturally and historically interesting places but also encourages students to make their own route. I chose places for this walking tour that would appeal to a variety of students. The sites visited include government buildings, universities, ethnic and cultural neighborhoods, a museum, a historic house, and city parks. The brochure also includes official links for the sites that are included so that when the guide is distributed online students and others can learn more about the places they will visit on the tour. The distance and time that it would take to visit these sites may seem excessive, but the group of six that I was a part of managed this and more in our time in Toronto. Public transportation is also an option for students who may not want to experience the entire city via foot.

Click for PDF

My favorite places that I visited were the University of Toronto, Kensington Market, The riverfront and boat tour, and most of all, the Riverdale Farm.

...and they had the cutest baby goat I've ever seen...

Riverdale is a part of the Toronto Parks and Rec department, and is a fully functional farm open to the public.  They had all kinds of farm animals, trails, outbuildings, produce, and flowers.  We were lucky enough to be there on a warm day, and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to walk through Cabbagetown into a farm in the middle of a huge metropolitan area.  Visitors can buy produce from the farm, and there is also a cafe on site.  While we were there, we accidentally walked into a barn classroom where young students were attending a camp.  Admission to the farm is free, and the site has a farmers market, public programs, and various events.

We estimated that over 2 days we walked approximately 30 miles. In that time we saw trees growing in cars, innumerable Tim Horton’s-es, and countless pleasant, helpful, and kind Canadians.  In the future I will most likely post more about our trip to Canada and the things we encountered.

Toronto is an amazing place to visit for cultural, historical, environmental, and healthy activities. I didn’t get to see even half of what I wanted to see, and I look forward to going back again soon to walk another 30 miles in two days.

Click here to watch the video of students talking about eating PB&J in Niagara, Poolside

During our northern excursion, we also visited Niagara Falls where we ate PB&J poolside, saw the Falls at night in lights, and saw the rest of the Gatlinburg of the north, the Niagara countryside where we took our group band photo, and we had a myriad of adventures in the van including writing a song about our fearless leader, Doug.

All in all, it was a great time, and I would recommend the trip to anyone interested in cultures, geography, history, or any combination of the above.

Doug and the Dougie-Doug-Dougs

Organization and Flexibility in Museum Education

There is something to be said about planning.  However, there is also a whole lot to say about rainstorms, middle-schoolers, and outside educational events.

When one is involved in a museum or public education role, one must always remember that while groundwork and orderliness are important to the planning process, flexibility and improvisation are also essential attributes.

This past week, the Museum of Biblical History’s Archaeology was an excellent example of organization gone out the window for uncontrollable reasons.

I have always been a planner and an organizer.  I run off prioritized lists and goals.  I probably spend more time preparing for things than actually doing things.  This event was no exception.  The detailed daily schedules, worksheets, and activities, attest to fact that our camp was set to run like a well-oiled machine.

Our Happy Diggers

And the first day, it did!  Gracious volunteers and a fabulous director prepped our freshly dug archaeological “excavation”, and the kids were eager to get in that dirt and dig.  After a lesson on the basics of archaeology, we headed out to our “site”, Rome, and got to it.  The kids were a bit hasty and sometimes did not use exactly the proper techniques of a “real” archaeologist, but at least they were getting some good information about how we learn new things without text documents, stratigraphy, and excavations.

Then came the Memphis Monsoon of July 26, 2010.  Monday night brought storms and rains the likes of which we had not seen in this part of town for weeks.  The wind blew away our tarp (which was not going to hold out too much rain anyway), and Tuesday morning we were left with a pit of mud and muddy water.

When the students arrived, we started work on invitations for the opening of our exhibit, “Rome at Home,” which exhibited the artifacts that the students found throughout their days of digging.  After delaying the trek out to the pit in hopes that it just might dry out some for the kids, we finally headed out to the trench with the children to assess the damage.

Jacob and the Mud Pit

Jacob, the director of the museum, is luckily a very good-natured and obliging man, and he jumped right in the middle of that pit to test it out.  After immediately sinking up to his ankles in mud, and becoming a little bit stuck, we decided that it wouldn’t be safe or really even a good idea at all to let the kids in the pit, or too close to it.

Luckily for me, I had a pair of rain boots stowed in my car, so after grabbing those, I jumped right in with Jacob.  To save the kids from potentially cutting themselves on glass or pottery sherds, Jacob and I sifted through the mud as efficiently, yet archaeologically-accurately, as we could.  We put the mud into buckets and let the kids more safely search for artifacts in those

Sortting through mud for artifacts

.  Some kids set to sifting through the mud or recording what had been found.

Overall, the students still had fun searching for artifacts and essentially playing in the mud.  I believe they did still learn something, even if that lesson was simply that archaeology isn’t always fun, and that life doesn’t always go exactly as you had planned.

Once they all made their ways home, Jacob and I returned to the pit to dig through Layer 3 to uncover all of the artifacts that were meant for Thursday.  The trench was so muddy and so wet that we had no hopes of it drying in the night, especially with the threat of more rain and storms clouds overhead.

Wednesday morning, we built a small new dig area with topsoil, and reburied the artifacts so at least the students would have a chance to get in there with their tools one last time before the dig was completed.  After a morning of recording artifacts, using archaeological tools correctly, and cleaning up our dig site, we all returned to the air-conditioning to finish our exhibit for our visiting families.

Building the exhibit "Rome at Home"

The exhibit was, I believe, a success for several reasons.  Students learned how a museum works and deciding what information about an object is important for the visitor to know.  In addition, they had to analyze the objects they chose from their grid-square and decide which are important, and what stories those objects tell.  Teamwork was also an important lesson of this activity, and throughout the whole camp, because of the need to work as a group to figure out what exactly was going on.

As is usually the case with groups of 9-15 year olds, crazy Tennessee weather, and just life in general, our plans and schedules went out the window for the most part.  Fortunately, just about everyone involved in this process was flexible and understanding and willing to simply go with the flow to make sure everything we set out to accomplish was completed.  The students still seemed to learn a lot about Rome, archaeological methods, teamwork, and museum exhibits.

I am by no means saying that the scheduling and planning are unimportant or unnecessary, because without that structure we would have been even more lost than we already were.  However, if you are in this business or hoping to get into it someday, you should be prepared for the unexpected, because Murphy’s Law is inevitable.

When working with the public, especially in an educational role, keep up the planning and organizing, but always make sure to stay flexible!

The happy, muddy archaeology team after a hard day's work

Beginning the process…

Well, the time has come for me to launch my very own professional blog and website!

I realized that once I am no longer a temporary employee of the University of Memphis (next month), I won’t have the ability to host my portfolio on their network anymore.  Additionally, I have a lot to say about museums, public history, informal learning, and so many other topics that having a blog where I can express my ideas was the next logical step.

On this website, you will find information about my work in museums, historical organizations, the museum studies program at the University of Memphis as well as samples of my work from these institutions.

Please feel free to comment on my blogs or pages, and if you have any questions, you can email me at mkatestringer@gmail.com or through this webpage.

I plan to update regularly as my portfolio grows and as I learn more about public history as a PhD student at Middle Tennessee State University beginning this fall!

Happy Reading!