Igniting Culture
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Igniting Culture

Cultural and heritage professionals enlighten each other about their interests in rapid-fire presentations.

Emma Jenkin discusses a slide of lost Toronto buildings.

The challenge: assemble a dozen speakers engaged in a wide range of cultural and heritage activities, give each of them five minutes to discuss their interests or the projects they’re passionate about, and add PowerPoint presentations consisting of 20 slides that change every 15 seconds—regardless of whether the speaker or the audience is ready to move on.

While such a concept carries potential for disaster, the presenters at last night’s inaugural edition of Ignite Culture at the ING Café on Yonge Street carried it off, even if PowerPoint occasionally attempted to further speed up the speeches. While the event’s motto of “enlighten us, but make it quick” sounds like the intellectual equivalent of speed dating, the time constraints kept the presenters focused and engaged without causing the audience to fall asleep.

Marketed as a “geek event,” the first Ignite session was held in Seattle in 2006 and has since spread to over 100 cities around the globe. As organizer Jenn Nelson noted in her introduction, the evening was designed to allow professionals in the cultural sector to network and to share their knowledge with those also enthused about culture and heritage.

The range of presentation topics was diverse: an art project built around lost mittens, an amusing trip through the evolution of coffee culture, the preservation of Toronto’s architectural heritage, queer photo exhibitions, DJing, the types of people who attend Tweed Bike Rides, the influence or archaeological discoveries in the Middle East on 1920s culture, and the development of a multidisciplinary art space.

Karina Bergmans started the evening with "The Phenomenon of the Lost Mitten."

A recurring theme emerged from the eclectic series of lecture topics: how to make museum visits more compelling. The key is storytelling; as Alison Deplonty noted in her presentation, people learn better through stories—say, plaques that discuss the context of a displayed object—rather than through lists of dates and statistics. Julian Kingston expressed similar thoughts in his five minutes; he stressed that institutions need to figure out the stories they want to tell. Just because a museum may lack awe-inspiring objects that automatically draw sellout crowds, he said, doesn’t mean it can’t craft its own compelling interpretive exhibits. That information should be available to visitors on a wide variety of easily-navigable mobile platforms, Ryan Dodge stressed in his talk.

One of the best takeaways came from Michael Page’s presentation on “fail culture,” which praised the value of occasionally screwing up while working on innovative ideas. He quoted playwright Samuel Beckett: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” In a Type-A culture that prizes getting things done faster than ever, the license to make mistakes while striving for incremental, long-term improvement was a reassuring one.