- Exhibiting Nation (and Its Limits) in Canada's Museums by Caitlin Gordon-Walker
The premise of this book is that 'museum practice in Canada is shaped by a particular Canadian form of multicultural nationalism, and that museum practice both shapes and legitimizes this multicultural nationalism and the limits it implies within Canadian society' (p. xiv). It is difficult to disagree with this hypothesis and the best parts of this jargon-laden book are the chapters in which the author shows how the concept of [End Page 248] multicultural nationalism has been embodied in museum practice at the Royal British Columbia Museum, the Royal Alberta Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum.
What the author reveals in these case studies is how museum practice has evolved over time, from focusing on how immigrant groups like the Chinese were seen as forming an alien culture (as was the case in the Royal British Columbia Museum's original Chinatown exhibition) to focusing on interaction between the Chinese and the host community and the role the immigrants played in shaping the communities in which they lived (as was the case in the Royal Alberta Museum's exhibition on Chop Suey on the Prairies). The author also has some intelligent things to say about the danger of essentialising national cultures, of assuming that the Chinese or any other immigrant group share an identical set of values and cultural traditions. One only wishes that the author had extended this scepticism to his treatment of those he describes as belonging to the 'mainstream national culture' (p. 49). The author feels that multicultural nationalism must be challenged because the 'discourses' of tolerance, civility, and cultural diversity operate 'to legitimize more exclusionary nationalisms (both historical and contemporary) as well as the structures of inequality implied by a more insidious multicultural nationalism' (p. 9). Yet the examples he uses to defend this argument are not very convincing. Is it really wrong for multicultural nationalists to insist that all Canadians must be prepared to accept democratic values and the rule of law? Is it really fair to claim that 'discourses of tolerance and inclusion serve to uphold the power and privilege of a core White Canadian nation' (p. 24)?
Indeed, the author tends to treat this 'core White Canadian nation' in very essentialist terms. He approves the decision of a 1994 Conference on Writing Thru Race explicitly to exclude all the 'members of the dominant community' (p. 99). He insists that rules about 'how people are allowed to cook and consume food' are designed to 'reinforce typically "Canadian" definitions of appropriate behaviour, often legitimized through claims about health and sanitation' (p. 62). And is it really true that anyone who has come from a 'nation-state other than Canada' can never be accepted as a true Canadian by members of the 'core' community (p. 137)? This may have been true once, but thanks to Canada's multicultural nationalism it is hardly true any longer. Moreover, the author's argument that museums should challenge the notion that Canada has become 'increasingly diverse and increasingly united over time' seems particularly perverse since that is what has happened (p. 177).