- Critical Museum Theory/Museum Studies in Canada:A Conversation
CANADIAN SCHOLARS HAVE BEEN CRUCIAL in shaping the active field of critical museum theory/museum studies, with anthropologists, sociologists, historians, art historians, and curators working to challenge and reimagine the educational function, social role, politics, and pedagogy of museums while expanding the very notion of what a "museum" has been in the past and could become in the future. The trajectory of this endeavour has been examined at length in university courses, essays, and handbooks, which all highlight arguments made since the 1960s about the powerful role of museums in reinforcing class distinctions, creating narratives of national identity, and glorifying colonial attempts to subjugate Indigenous peoples as well as more recent considerations of how museums foster the active contributions of visitors, promote varying modes of intercultural exchange, and enable affective encounters with memory.1 In an effort to reflect on the current state of this field in Canada and share some of its diversity, Lianne McTavish decided to pose questions to leading scholars and invite their response. Her goal was to highlight the issues of particular interest to Canadian museum scholars, which have developed alongside but also in distinction from the burgeoning literature on museums stemming from the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia – all centres of research on museums. In September of 2016, McTavish approached another specialist of Canadian museums, Andrea Terry, who helped create a group of participants able to address pressing concerns from a variety of backgrounds, including cultural studies, art history, and communications. What follows is the e-mail conversation that took place among the five co-authors, although some of them have also met in person to exchange ideas. This discussion moves far beyond a narrow, bricks and mortar conception of museums to include the effects on museum practices of government policies, shifting funding models, the 2015 report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and the celebration in 2017 of Canada's 150th "birthday."
Susan Ashley is a cultural studies scholar interested in the "democratization" of culture and heritage institutions, especially in relation to access and expression by minority groups. She has published numerous refereed articles on museum policy and practice, and edited the book Diverse Spaces: Identity, Heritage and Community [End Page 223] in Canadian Public Culture. Heather Igloliorte is an art historian of Inuit and other Native North American visual and material culture whose research centres on circumpolar art studies, the global exhibition of Indigenous arts and culture, and issues of colonization, sovereignty, resistance, and resurgence. In addition to her research and writing on these subjects, she has been an independent curator of Indigenous art for the last 12 years; her nationally touring exhibition, SakKijâjuk: Art and Craft from Nunatsiavut (2016-2019), is accompanied by a 188-page full-colour catalogue of the same name, produced in three volumes (English, French, and Inuktitut). Lianne McTavish has published widely on the history of museums in Canada including a monograph Defining the Modern Museum, which focuses on the history of material exchange, women's contributions to museology, and professionalization at the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John. Her current research project examines small town and rural museums in Alberta, and she regularly curates exhibitions of contemporary art. Kirsty Robertson has produced numerous publications on activism, visual culture, and changing economies, with a monograph, Tear Gas Epiphanies: Protest, Museums, and Culture in Canada, near completion. She is currently undertaking a large-scale project focused on small-scale collections that work against traditional museum formats. Andrea Terry specializes in contemporary, modern, and historic visual and material culture in Canada, as well as contemporary cultural theory, and gender issues. Among her many publications in these areas is a monograph, Family Ties: Living History in Canadian House Museums.2
What is the present trajectory of critical museum theory/museum studies in Canada? What would you consider the most important developments in the field?
There are two points that strike me. One comes from Ruth Phillip's 2015 essay on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which describes...