Museums in the public sphere: dialogue and learning for democracy


By Kelsey Wrightson


Photo by Kelsey Wrightson

Numerous elements contribute to a properly functioning democracy. Some analysts have highlighted the importance of accountable institutions, while others have examined breaking down the barriers of participation and ensuring effective and diverse representation. Still others have linked effective democratic participation to fostering public learning and conversation among citizens. For example, political philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote extensively about the importance of the “public sphere” as a space for dialogue, learning and action. According to Arendt, effective engagement in this public sphere is important to the proper functioning of a participatory democracy (Arendt, The Human Condition). Although she didn’t specify the modern museum, this institution has a key role in the preparation of citizens for meaningful governance.

In the 18th century, museums were organized as private collections for elites to display their literal and figurative “conquests” of the uncivilized worlds (Ames, 1992; Phillips, 2006; Townsend-Gault, 2010). However, in the late 19th century, many museums experienced a public “turn.” Education for masses increasingly appeared in their mandate. Today, they continue to offer a platform for learning about the multiple tasks of citizenship, the nature of other citizens, and as a space for self-representation (Smallacombe, 2000; Warry, 1990; Cameron et. al, 2007)

In Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, renamed and re-opened in 1986, was organized to display two key histories of the nation. Upon entry, visitors would first encounter “The First Peoples Hall” (FPH), which directs their attention to human histories east of the Pacific Northwest. Here voices of “real Indians” speak about their role in Canadian society and how they continue to practice their distinct cultures.  The inclusion of modern, living and diverse Indigenous peoples is in sharp juxtaposition to the “backwards” historically driven orientation typical of older museums. The FPH was deliberately separated from the “Canada Hall”, which began with European contact and settlement. Unfolding as a “journey across the country from the east to the west coast,” it in contrast “evokes travel, modernity, and progress” (Phillips, 2011, 210).


Photo by Kelsey Wrightson


In the context of Canada’s struggle to create respectful relations among its diverse communities at the end of the 20th century, the function of the “Canada Hall” and the “First Peoples’ Hall” in democratic society was clear: it was to “tell a story structured around a grand political narrative… It should strengthen a sense of identity and combat the image of Canada as a harsh land in which the population only hewed wood and drew water” (Dean and Rider, 43). Above all, it centred on an imagined temporal and geographic “Canadian” narrative.

Anthropologist Ruth Phillips (2006) argues that the “multivocal” approach to the Canada and First Peoples Hall is intended to reflect the “equivalent authorities” of Indigenous and non-Indigenous ways of knowing (Phillips, 2006, 77). Encouraged by interactive displays and “self-representation” through the collaborative curation of the First Peoples Hall, citizens are effectively invited to engage in public dialogues about their own history alongside, and sometimes in contrast to, the histories of other citizens. This process is part of modern museums’ commitment to building active and informed citizenries in democracies.

Much like other institutions of democracy, including the executive and judicial branches of parliament, museums are fluid spaces. They are also creatures of particular historical moments and governance.  They have been accused of supplying “one of the major means by which that relationship of cultural perception is defined, and, for the most part, they do so wholly on the terms of the dominant culture” (Eaton & Gaskell, 2009, 243). They may, however, also subvert conservative intentions and communicate, whether intentionally or not, ruptures in master narratives that foster the responsible democratic spaces.

The 1989 “The Spirit Sings” Exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta offered an example of such a moment. It was widely critiqued and even boycotted when the museum accepted sponsorship from Shell Oil, which were engaged in controversial resource extraction practices in Lubicon Cree territory (Northern Alberta). In response to widespread public scepticism and condemnation, in 1992 a critical task force, made up of Indigenous and non-Indigenous curators and museum workers, was established to make recommendations for improving relations between museums and First Peoples. This set out guidelines that “require that when Aboriginal cultures are being represented, power must be shared through the establishment of partnerships between museums and representatives of First Nations” (Phillips 2006, 77). Given the rising tide of Indigenous rights protest from the 1970s onwards, this model of power-sharing with Indigenous communities has taken hold in many museums (and art galleries) across Canada (Ames, 1999). The task force aimed to encourage curatorial practices that would support communities and ensure public spaces were opened for Indigenous peoples to represent themselves. This bottom-up mandate explicitly sought out a diversity of voices in what has been termed a “democratization” of curatorial practice (Ames 1999, 148).

While ‘Spirit Sings’ encouraged significant institutional and professional transformation, museums remain complicated environments that dance to the multiple (and sometimes cacophonous) tunes of professional curators, local communities, and funders. Governments have been powerful players in determining priorities. In 2011, the Conservative administration of Stephen Harper initiated a sea-change. The Canadian Museum of Civilization, which had been in the front-front of complicating the national story, became the Canadian Museum of History. A “vision of Canada as a land of victorious armed forces” shoved aside the portrayal of “a cosmopolitan country engaged with the wider world, where citizens seek solutions through informed debate” (Butler, 2013). That shift symbolized a rejection of all that had been learned in the aftermath of the Glenbow catharsis. Rather than fostering a diverse conversation among citizens, the “top down” approach to museum content serves the prior interests of the conservative government.

If conversations among citizens are important to the effective functioning of a democracy, then public forums, including museums, have a key role in moderating and facilitating these discussions. Efforts at the (re-)imposition of a dominant perspective and the diminution of counter-narratives in these spaces undermine the opportunities for contestation and debate that are essential to democratic education. Unsurprisingly, the repurposing of Canada’s preeminent national museum has produced a massive outcry (Butler, 2013).  Various anniversaries—from the 200th year after the birth of Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada’s first prime minister) to the centenary of the Guns of August 1914 and the suffrage victories– are reminders that the way we remember histories informs our understanding of what matters in democracies today



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———. 1999. “How to Decorate a House: The Re-negotiation of Cultural Representations at the University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology 1.” Museum Anthropology 22(3): 41-51.

———. 2004. “Collecting Immortality : the Field Collectors who Contributed to the Pitt Rivers Museum , Oxford.” Journal of Museum Ethnography (16): 127-139.

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. 1998.

Butler, Don. “Museum of Civilization changes driven by clashing agenda, former CEO saysOttawa Citizen, November 26, 2013.

Butler, Shelley Ruth. “The Politics of Exhibiting Culture: Legacies and Possibilities.” Museum Anthropology 23, no. 3 (2000): 74-92.

Cameron, Fiona. “Moral Lessons and Reforming Agendas.” In Museum Revolutions: How museums change and are changed, by Simon J ed Knell. Routledge (2007).

Eaton, Anne Wescott, and Ivan Gaskell. “Do Subaltern Artifacts Belong in Art Museums?.” The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell (2009): 235-67.

Phillips, Ruth B. “Collecting and Display of Souvenir Arts.” In Anthropology of Art: A Reader, by Morgan Perkins and Howard Murphy. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006.

Phillips, Ruth B. “Disrupting Past Paradigms: The National Museum of the American Indian and the First Peoples Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization.” The Public Historian 28, no. 2 (2006): 75-80.

Smallacombe, S. 2000. “On Display for its Aesthetic Beauty: How Western Institutions Fabricate Knowledge about Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.” Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: 152–162.

Warry, W. 1990. “Doing unto others: applied anthropology, collaborative research and native self-determination.” Culture 10 (1): 61–73.