Museum of Contemporary Work (v1.0)

Artifacts of life & labour — a debrief

The weekend of June 17th–18th the concept of the Museum of Contemporary Work was quietly introduced to the world via a beautiful space hidden away in Toronto’s Liberty Village. Our “museum” was live for just under 12 hours over the two days, before being packed away and disappearing into Sunday evening’s sunset. A refresher:

The Museum of Contemporary Work is pop-up exhibit exploring the recent past, present and future of labour through physical objects. The artifacts displayed, both real and fictional, connect themes like identity, inequity, meaning and motivation. They tell stories of how our daily labours are changing; and how they are changing us.

Simply put, the thinking was to use physical objects to “explore the relationship between work and identity in an age of disruption”(more background in the linked interview).

(Photos, bottom row: Traven Benner)

All said, the exhibit was a success — coming to life even better than I’d imagined with a steady flow of curious visitors strolling through. Reflecting, I’m left with two resounding feelings. The first is I’m energized to explore the concept further. There’s been wonderful feedback — with a broad range of pieces resonating with different folks. The second is I’m incredibly grateful to the dozens who graciously offered time, labour, artifacts and ideas along the way. Specifically I’m humbled by the core team of Stephanie Wan, Derek Last and Julie Do who committed a huge amount of personal time to this fuzzy concept over the weeks and months leading up.

First Impressions

The promotion for the exhibit was intentionally limited as we viewed it as a pilot. The audience feedback helped confirm there’s something interesting to build on from here. Work is a theme that touches all of us, albeit in so many different ways. It was fascinating to observe how this unlikely collection seemed to surface personal experiences and helped people to consider the state of work on a larger scale: its societal impact, its hidden or overlooked designs, and its influence on who we are and have become.

Work is something we live, but don’t necessarily reflect on often. Highlighting souvenirs of the past — and positioning today’s work things as artifacts — has potential to help people view it from new angles. We’re not certain exactly where this goes yet. But we believe that gaining a better understanding of the various work experiences we engage with today is a crucial first step to improve upon these experiences in the future.

(Photos: Traven Benner)


On a lighter note, below are a random selection of things we were told directly or overheard during exhibit hours:

“I’m a millennial, I’ve never punched in before.”

“I have a recurring nightmare about forgetting to punch out.”

“It’s nice to meet people who are actually thinking”

“I’m not sure I get this.”

“Everybody needs to see this.”

“It’s true. If you’re not “busy” you’re a loser, right?”

“Can I grab a beer from the office fridge?” (Answer: yes)

“Why didn’t you include ______?”

“My parent/grandparent has a ______ you could include.”

“Why is nobody clapping for you?” (my 4 year old)

Top: artifacts from Elana Schlenker’s LessThan100 project; Bottom: GM employee artifacts (photos: Traven Benner)

What’s Next?

We’ll be focusing on a couple of things in the coming months. Primarily, we’ll be considering potential partners who could help support, evolve and grow the idea in its next iterations. This first test run was self-funded and produced independently, but we now believe we’re onto something and could stand to benefit from collaboration . Finding partners will be key to taking things a step further. Second, and related, we’ll be looking for ways to give the exhibit a digital presence that is representative of the live experience in some shape or form.

If you have ideas or are interested in connecting you can get me at the address below. Thanks for all the support. If you missed it, stay tuned for more.


Top left: Selections from Buxton/Microsoft Collection; Top right: Work portraits from Mike Palmer/Roaming Focus (photos: Traven Benner)

*Thanks to Derek Last for the input and insight contributed to this post