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



Ames, Michael M. 1990. “Biculturalism in Exhibitions.” Museum 15(2).

———. 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.


Recognition and Respect

ss100-frontCanada, like most of the world, has a generally dismal record in public commemoration.  Whatever the makeup of the individual country, women and indeed human diversity largely disappear.  Just check out the public spaces and buildings, the designated historic sites and monuments, the stamps, the entries in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography/Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, and, of course, national currencies everywhere. Absence is far from unimportant.  As McGill philosopher Charles Taylor has reminded us, recognition reflects respect and inclusion in the national imaginary.

In channeling the spirit of contemporary scholarship and popular interest, the website,, reminds us we can do much better. Canadians can also take heart from the recent much-heralded addition of Jane Austen to the face of the pound sterling.  British Columbia’s Merna Foster’s determined lobbying for women on currency of the Bank of Canada, the very operation headed by Mark Carney before he headed off to England to announce Austen’s elevation, now has an on-line petition as part of her arsenal (

Thoughtful Canadians can look west for inspiration. More than a decade ago the Sustainable Salt Spring Island Coalition led the way ( Thanks to its determination, the 2001 Farmer’s Institute Fair introduced the island’s own 100% redeemable dollars. In 2007 a silver coin joined the treasury. Today there are $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100 bills and a $50 silver coin. Community projects have been the beneficiary.

Still more extraordinary, however, is the visibility of otherwise disregarded Canadians. While the dollar bill conventionally singles out a top-hatted, bearded white patriarch from England (Henry Wright Bullock, 1856-1946), the next in line celebrates Matilda Naukana Harris, 1886-1953, whose Hawaiian heritage distinguished the early history of the province.  In fact, the two buck bill scores three for three: the reverse side features a sculpture of a woman by artist Kathy Venter. But that is not all. For five dollars, you get a portrait of Sylvia Stark, 1839-1944, the Island’s Black pioneer. Next in line on the ten comes Jane Mouat, 1895-1935, a community-minded immigrant from the Shetlands.  Only on the twenty do we return to a familiar bearded male, John P. Booth, 1839-1902, one time Speaker of the provincial legislature. By the time we get to the $50 note, G.E. “Ted” Akerman, 1873-1953 and Ellen Akerman née Gyves, 1871-1955, suggest marital, gender, and racial partnership:  his origins were English while hers were Irish and Cowichan First Nation. And on its reverse, a little girl feeds ducks, swans, and geese.  If all these initiatives didn’t warm the heart, we have only to turn to the $100 where Japanese pioneer and internment camp survivor, Kimiko Okano Murakami, 1904-1997, stands for the value of redress and recognition.

Canada’s largest Gulf Island appears delighted to recognize diversity. Indeed, in scoring better than 50% women, it offers compensatory action. Currency, like other forms of public recognition, from museums and art galleries to the names of streets and mountains, offers one measure of democracy’s foothold in communities. By that standard, Salt Spring points the way.





Ashley, Susan. “State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution.” Museums and their Communities. Ed. Sheila Watson (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2007): 485-500.

Coombes Annie E. History After Apartheid: Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

McBurnie, Johanna. “Investigating the Role of Money: The Case of Salt Spring Dollars”. BA Thesis. Economics. University of Victoria. 2012.

Macdonald, George F. and Stephen Alsford. “Canadian Museums and the Representation of Culture in a Multicultural Nation.”  In Museums and their Communities. Ed. Sheila Watson (Milton Park, UK: Routledge, 2007): 276-291.

Phillips, Ruth. “Commemoration/(de)celebration: Super-shows and the Decolonization of Canadian Museums, 1867-92.”  In Postmodernism and the Ethical Subject, Eds. Barbara Gabriel and Suzan Ilcan (Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004):  99-123.

Strong-Boag, Veronica. “Experts on Our Own Lives: Commemorating Canada at the Beginning of the 21st Century”.  The Public Historian. V. 31:1 (Winter 2009): 46-68.

Taylor, Charles and Amy Gutman, et al. Multiculturalism and ‘The politics of recognition’. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Youth and Hope

youth and hopeIt’s almost a truism to suggest that today’s youth disappoint.  Indeed elders in every age are notorious for complaints. In fact, youngsters have commonly at least equal reason to protest the world handed down to them. But that is another story. The argument here considers contemporary concern about youth apathy as a key component of the democratic deficit and then turns to evidence of a generation who give their elders plenty of reason for hope.

‘Habitual non-voting’, what Canadian political scientist Paul Howe describes in Citizens Adrift, has been strongly correlated with youth. Since the 2000 federal election when turnout slipped to about 60% (the decline had been especially noticeable since 1988), Canadians have been urged to confront special disaffection among those in their twenties and younger. Ultimately failed referenda in Prince Edward Island, Ontario, and British Columbia on electoral reform (whether proportional representation or the single-transferable vote) of the existing ‘first past the post’ political system signaled a desire in particular to counter the supposed disengagement of the under-30s.

Explanations for disinterest regularly focus on shifts in values and lack of political knowledge among young people.  The origins of this malaise are diverse but as another Canadian political scientist, Elizabeth Gidengil, suggests “there is a strong association between structural inequalities in society and lack of engagement with democratic politics”(172).  Women, Aboriginal people, and the poor in general have typically been less well-served by political institutions but the young among them have special reason to feel mis- and un-represented. Unsurprisingly, such communities are less likely to view voting as a potential source of power and change. In response to British research suggesting a political knowledge gap (Curran and Iyengar), some commentators in summer 2013 nonetheless confessed ‘shock’ about women’s relative disinterest in politics (Daugherty). That response seems disconcertingly similar to the disappointment expressed by many first wave feminists when asked to reflect on the next generation (see the interviews in Appendix A in Cleverdon).

Remedies for apparent disengagement are not easy.  As Gidengil and Howe conclude, they need to be systemic multiple, diverse and persistent. Addressing the “information gap”, just the aim of is only one part of a complex set of possible solutions.

For all the bad news, investigators have also found cause for optimism.  In Citizens Elisabeth Gidengil also stresses widespread involvement in voluntary associations and protest. Since that important volume’s publication in 2004, evidence of activism’s diverse channels has mounted even as environmental and economic collapse everywhere demonstrated the inadequacy of existing politics. Young people often stand at the centre of dissent. In particular, has directed attention to Canadian Parliamentary intern Brigitte DePape and Pakistan’s Malala Yousafrzai, both of whom embody young women’s courage and determination in contesting the status quo.  Much the same message emerges in our site’s posts on Idle No More, created by four female champions of indigenous rights. Elsewhere on the ground and in the air, multiple initiatives confirm the appearance of what is being increasingly termed ‘fourth wave feminism’. Associated commonly with the Occupy and Idle No More movements, it goes well beyond them to include growing global campaigns to end violence (support for Mahala Yousafzai and Canada’s missing and murdered women), win symbolic recognition (the campaign that secured Jane Austen on the UK’s 10£ note and the inauguration of a similar effort to educate the Bank of Canada by Merna Forster of Victoria, BC), infiltrate and direct the new media (The Vagenda from the UK, Feministing from the US, Shit Harper Did from Canada), and to demand equality as a national commitment (Russia’s Pussy Riot and Egypt’s protesters in Tahrir Square in 2012 and 2013) .  In June 2013 BBC’s venerable radio programme and podcast, Woman’s Hour, packaged recurring evidence of feminism’s vitality in a special production, ‘Modern Feminism’, which highlighted global ‘New Generation Feminists’.

What can we make of such evidence? Detractors prefer to see a flash in the pan or little more than a variant on the traditional feminism that they readily dismiss as elitist or irrelevant.  While only time will ultimately tell, the omens augur quite the contrary. In particular, women’s rising educational and paid employment levels around the world, their unprecedented access to media, and common commitment to partnerships (across class, race, ability, nation, religion, and ability, among other divisions) so often inspired by the hard lessons in diversity and oppression taught to second wave feminism by extraordinary activist intellectuals such as Canada’s Patricia Monture-Angus, India’s Vandana Shiva, and the U.S.’s bell hooks, token a long over-due sea-change in this sorely tried world.  Nor is mobilization restricted to women.  Young men everywhere have been far readier than previous generations to listen, to cooperate, and envision a cooperative politics. Feminist mothers have reason to be proud.

The evident resolve of so many of the world’s young women and men throws democracy the life-line that so many old-line politicians in every nation have so far frequently denied the next generation. Today the ‘second chance’ (the suggestive title of her 1910 novel with its themes of resistance and resilience) envisioned by Canadian first wave Nellie L. McClung is within the grasp of young people.




Cleverdon, Catherine L. The Woman Suffrage Movement in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950, 1974).

Curran, James and Shanto Iyengar. Media System, Political Context and Informed Citizenship: A Comparative Study (Swindon: ESCR, 2012)

Daugherty, Amber. “Women knew less about politics than men, study finds (that goes for Canada, too), Globe & Mail, 3 July 2013.


Gidengil, Elisabeth. Citizens. (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004).

Henn, Matt, Mark Weinstein and Dominic Wring. “A Generation Apart? Youth and Political Participation in Britain.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations. 4:2 (2002): 167-92.

Howe, Paul.  Electoral Participation of Young Canadians. Ottawa: Elections Canada, 2007.

—-Citizens Adrift: The Democratic Disengagement of Young Canadians. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010.

MacKinnon, Mary Pat and Judith Maxwell. “Youth Do Get the Bug for Democracy.” Commentary for Canadian Policy Research Networks (18 January 2006).

McClung, Nellie L. The Second Chance (Toronto: William Briggs, 1910).

“Modern Feminism,” Woman’s Hour, BBC, 27 June 2013,

O’Toole, Therese, David Marsh and Su Jones. “Political Literacy Cuts Both Ways: The Politics of Non-participation among Young People.” The Political Quarterly 74:3 (2003): 349-60.

Plutzer, Eric. “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood.” American Political Science Review 96:1 (2002): 41-56.

Shit Harper Did,

The Vagenda,

Wattenberg, Martin P.  Is Voting for Young People? (NY: Pearson Longman 2007).