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Case Study - Trailblazing

There is currently no national women’s history museum or long-term exhibit devoted to this topic in Canada. An opportunity arose for the Waterloo Region Museum to tackle this topic as a travelling exhibit.

The exhibit that resulted – Trailblazing: Women in Canada since 1867 – aimed to fill that void, by physically travelling the evidence of women’s efforts in Canada since Confederation

Trailblazing is an innovative exhibit that explores a highly charged national topic, of relevance to all Canadians, in a format inclusive to all.

The exhibit holds particular relevance for social groups and ethnic communities whose history and stories may not have been previously told in a museum setting. Indigenous and minority women’s stories are woven through the exhibit

The content of Trailblazing aims to raise awareness of violence against women and numerous other impactful women’s issues still found in Canadian society.  It serves as a vehicle to promote outreach within communities where organizations deal with these issues first hand.

Ontario Museum Association Award of Excellence in Exhibitions

Development Process


1. The Idea

In 2014, the Waterloo Region Museum was approached by leading professors of Canadian women’s history from the University of Waterloo with the idea to create an exhibit about women in Canada since 1867.  2017 was targeted for completion, marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the 100th anniversary of women obtaining the vote in Ontario, and the 100th anniversary of the partial enfranchisement of women at the federal level.


3. Participatory Design

Participatory and co-design idea generation techniques were used to shape the exhibit content and reconcile competing priorities among stakeholder groups.

This process ensured that challenging, contemporary topics of importance to younger women were highlighted, not solely a recounting of the past.


5. Interpretive Plan

An interpretive plan describing the exhibit's 'Big Idea,' objectives, and content was created. The exhibit is divided into five separate themes. Each themed section contains sub themes that look at certain issues in greater depth. A timeline located in each section highlights transformative events and individual women in Canadian history.


7.  Bilingual Graphics

As a nationally touring exhibit interpretive text needed to be in English and French.  This reduced by half the amount of text that might be used.


9.  Hands-on Experiences

Six interactives tied directly to the physical effort, dexterity, and concentration required of women’s work through to the 1960s, and perhaps unfamiliar to contemporary visitors, were developed:

  • An iron and ironing board activity

  • Fish packing and canning activity

  • Switchboard activity

  • Manual typewriter

  • Munitions assembly line work

  • Patient care


2. The Team

A multidisciplinary team was assembled to work on the project.  Exhibits, collections, education, programming, and marketing staff from the museum collaborated with the committee of professors to develop the exhibit concept and content. Indigenous advisors were part of the team from the very beginning.

It was a challenge to manage the expectations of the Committee  - entire book chapters had to be condensed into single paragraphs of interpretive text.


4. Content Organization

The results of the participatory design process were used to organize the content.  Diagrams showing connections and links between topics were created, providing final direction to the overall organization of the exhibit's conceptual model.


6. Exhibit Design

The museum’s in-house designer developed a graphic wall structure that metaphorically conveys the many different themes, subjects and timelines. 
Based on non-traditional architectural forms, inspired by weaving techniques, wampum belts and organic structures, it allowed graphic material to be woven together into a single flowing structure that formed the core of the exhibit.

Final_Bus Interior.jpg

8.  Immersive Media

A four screen “Political Activism Theatre,” was placed in a modified school bus, inspired by a bookmobile which toured rural Ontario in 1974. Visitors to the exhibit could virtually travel across the country, seeing the various types of collective action and political activism in which Canadian women have been involved. A connected display area welcomed viewers unable to mount the bus steps.


10.  Traveling Exhibit

As the exhibit is intended to travel, staff had to consider how exhibit items would be disassembled and packed for shipping.  The design and fabrication team met this challenge, developing a display system of metaphoric meaning and elegance, at the same time easily assembled and disassembled.


11.  Tour Logistics

The museum negotiated an agreement with Science North in Sudbury to tour Trailblazing, including:

  • Verifying financial feasibility

  • Identifying potential host institutions

  • Contracting

  • Transportation 

  • On-site assembly and take-down

The exhibit tour was disrupted by COVID-19, finally opening at the Museum of Surrey, in late June, 2021.

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