Normal me on Valentine’s Day prefers to stay home, watch some sports or TV, and treat the day like any other (although I will bow to corporate pressure and buy some chocolate, of course). Museum me on Valentine’s Day…well that’s another story!
With all my energy these days being spent on my thesis, I’ve found very little inspiration for writing a new blog post about my work in museums. I’m most often found sat in front of my computer screen at home, struggling to keep my eyes focused on the latest article or with fingers flying to keep up with the latest interview I’m trying to transcribe. With all this going on, however, I did manage to sneak out of the house each Tuesday morning for the past month for a few hours of volunteering at the Royal BC Museum to help plan the 2016 Valentine’s Day Night Shift event.
I’ve helped out at two Night Shift events before: last year’s Valentine’s Day event had me running the pheromones activity and Halloween saw me dressed as Judge Begbie leading ‘Dark History’ tours through the Modern History galleries. But this year I wanted to do something a bit different, I wanted to help more with the planning of the event and learn more about what goes into putting on an event for 600 people.
Working with Kim G., the RBCM’s Adult Learning Team Lead and one of my mentors at the museum, and members of the Marketing department, we pieced together some ideas for activities guests could take part in during the night. Some ideas were borrowed from the previous event, including the scavenger hunt, Sex Talks With Scientists, and dance areas throughout the galleries. We also added some new event ideas, like the live model sketching, dance lessons and a missed connections activity for singles.
Because I could only help out on Tuesday mornings, I took on researching content for the activities. Originally, I started with ideas for a Dating Game-styled improv activity, but we put that aside when we were able to confirm Paper Street Theatre and their awesome improv for the event. I then went to work creating the scavenger hunt activity. The scavenger hunt is one of the big ways guests can interact directly with the exhibits in a more formal museum way. We decided on five stations across the two floors that would be far enough away from loud activities for volunteers to tell guests special information about whatever was on display.
Though we had 100 gift card prizes to give out for the first completed surveys, only about 90 sheets were returned. Looking back on the event, I can see a few reasons for this low number: drinks couldn’t be taken between floors meaning people would stop the scavenger hunt in favour of a drink, there were other activities with long line ups that people didn’t want to miss, answer stations were only marked by the volunteers wearing a red lanyard, and it’s really easy to get distracted by all the other cool events happening that night! While these are all valuable lessons to learn, I think the event was still a success as many people engaged with the volunteers regardless of if they had a scavenger hunt sheet or not.
Sadly, one of the activities we wanted on the schedule (a costume specialist undressing through the layers of clothing a bride would be wearing on her wedding night in Victorian times) had to be cancelled last-minute because our presenter got injured. One week before the event, Kim, myself and one of the museum’s educators named Adriana had to come up with a new activity! We decided on something to do with poetry, which morphed into romantic Mad Libs as an activity people could do on their own time or take home with them, and that we could ‘perform’ in between music sets. The activity was a blast, and Adriana was amazing in both compiling the Mad Lib sheets and coming up with the idea of ‘performing’ the Mad Libs improv style. Needless to say, they weren’t very poetic, and it would be a stretch to call many of them romantic, but they were lots of fun and the Train Station was full of laughter!
Lots of the activities were consistently packed throughout the night. 600 people attended the sold-out event and feedback has been positive in the evaluations so far. Night Shift is definitely becoming one of Victoria’s most popular cultural evenings!
One thing that the planning team really felt was important was to have some First Nations presence at the event. While the First Nations gallery was closed off out of respect for the Halloween Night Shift event, the First Peoples exhibits and Totem Gallery were open for exploration, relaxing house music, and a chocolate tasting activity by one of the event sponsors. It was great to have DJ Kwe, a First Nations musician, be able to come and perform in the Totem Gallery.
One of the new activities we tried this year was Objects of Desire, a missed connections-style activity where singles – or people wanting a little more fun – could wear a button and hope they were noticed by another guest. Singles are hard to plan for on Valentine’s Day when it is so much about couples and love and sex, so this was our attempt at something specifically tied to the romantic theme that anybody could take part in. As the museum tries not to exclude anybody based on orientation, but knowing there were so many categories we’d need to cover to be completely politically correct, we made three button options that would indicate interested in the opposite gender, interested in the same gender, and ‘anything goes’ and let people make their own distinction or decision to reply. People who found someone interesting and wearing the relevant button could go to our Objects of Desire wall to leave a message on the same-coloured sticky note. While it did take a little while to warm up, the event seemed popular by the end of the night, though I can’t say if any partnerships did come out of it!
The whole corporate Valentine’s concept gets a lot more fun when you can go to a museum and explore the collections in a whole new light, and I think that’s what makes events like Night Shift so popular. It takes some pressure off the holiday, bring about more fun and learning than a typical rose and chocolates gift. If you love me, bringing me to a museum is far more effective than a flower!
At the end of the night I did have a thought or question in my mind, though, about the programming of an event like this. Does (or how does) the message of the holiday change when presenting it to a mass audience? When I think of Valentine’s Day I think of love, not just the act of sex, but that can be a difficult subject to put across as love means many different things to many different people.
For example, when Valentine’s Day has for so long been presented in very heteronormative ways, and many museums don’t have a large amount of collection material or exhibits that could present all aspects of love, then it’s easiest to present a topic (usually) common to all. In a debrief meeting a few days later, the refrain “Valentine’s Day is sexy” kept being used when discussing the difference in feel between this event and the rowdy Halloween one. Having half the museum (and thus half the event) about natural history also makes it a lot easier to focus on sex as animals don’t often exhibit the same romantic notions of love as humans do (some animals bond for life or do courting rituals, but it’s usually described as ‘mating behaviour’).
If you work in a museum, how do you approach the topic? Do you struggle to find a balance between love and sex? I’d be interested to hear what other museums think of this, how they tackle the subject of inclusivity in large events, especially ones relating to sometimes-touchy or weighted subjects like love and romance, and also just if anyone else has thought about the presentation of love versus sex in museums on this holiday. Feel free to comment below or email me.
Being able to help plan Night Shift: Wild Romance was a great experience for me. It was…enlightening looking up all the animal sex facts (I’m so happy my computer didn’t get ‘red screened’), fun working with my friends in the museum, and educational to see how many people need to work together to make an event as big as this so successful. As someone wanting to work in museum programming, it was a great opportunity to get some experience in a big event too. I hope I can work on many more Night Shifts to come!