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.


Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas

Sandra Lovelace Nicholas (April 15, 1948-)

By Kelsey Wrightson

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

Sandra Lovelace-Nicholas Photo from Government of Canada

The life and career of Sandra Lovelace Nicholas exemplifies how a single individual can transform democratic governance. Lovelace Nicholas worked within government institutions to tackle injustice and discrimination, especially against Indigenous women and children. In the 1970s and 1980s, she challenged the gendered discrimination of the Canadian Indian Act. Subsequently, she continued her battle for justice and equality as the second Aboriginal woman appointed to the Canadian Senate.

Lovelace Nicholas has had many different careers. She studied at Fredericton’s St. Thomas University for three years and later trained in residential construction. Prior to her Senate appointment she worked as a treaty researcher, adult care program director, training coordinator and carpenter. However, she is best known for her political activism for which she received membership to the Order of Canada (1990) and a Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case (1992).

Lovelace Nicholas’ objections to the Indian Act were rooted in personal experiences and observations. She was born in New Brunswick’s Tobique First Nation (Maliseet) in 1948, twelve years before First Nations men and women were allowed to legally vote federally (1960). Raised by a single mother, she grew up with two sisters, surrounded by aunts and cousins. On the Tobique First Nation she experienced the pervasive poverty and prejudice associated with the Indian Act.

In 1970 she married non-First Nations American Airman Bernie Lovelace and moved to California. With the end of that marriage, she returned to the reserve only to be denied housing, education, and health care under the Indian Act: marriage between an Aboriginal woman with Indian status and a non-status man entailed automatic loss of status and rights for her and her children. She could not regain status, even if she divorced her husband or was widowed. In contrast, Aboriginal men marrying outside their community paid no such penalty. Unable to access band services or housing, she was forced to live with her young son in a tent. In 1977 she joined a group of women who non-violently occupied the Tobique band office for four months, demanding an end to discrimination.

The New Brunswickers were not alone. Many Aboriginal women’s groups and their allies opposed the Indian Act. In the early 1970s, supported by the Report of the federal Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1970), Indian Rights for Indian Women and the Native Women’s Association of Canada campaigned to change the law. They found themselves opposing both the federal government and many men in their own communities. In 1971, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell (b 1942), an Ontario Anishnabe and member of the Wikwemikonge First Nation, initiated legal action against Canada (Lavell v Attorney General of Canada 1971). She was followed by Six Nations Mohawk Yvonne Bedard (Bedard v Isaac 1971). Lavell won on appeal and Bedard’s victory depended on this precedent. However, in 1973, when Ottawa appealed the cases to the Supreme Court of Canada, discrimination against women was upheld.

Lovelace Nicholas nevertheless took her own case to the Supreme Court in  Sandra Lovelace v Canada (1977-1981). Encouraged by the women in her community, she followed earlier Indigenous precedent to take advantage of the reputation and authority of the United Nations, petitioning its Human Rights Committee in 1979. Two years later, the Committee found Canada in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this condemnation, the UN lacked the substantive power to change Canadian law and Lovelace Nicholas was denied remedy.

In addition to legal intervention, Lovelace Nicholas joined activists in mobilizing public campaigns to raise the consciousness and consciences of Canadians. In July 1979, she joined 50 women and children from Tobique in a 100 mile march to Ottawa. The Canadian government found it increasingly difficult to defend the status quo. In 1982 the Constitution, newly repatriated from the United Kingdom, was amended to include the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 15, hard fought for by feminists, asserted the equality of every individual under the law (Kome). Finally, in 1985, despite the opposition of many male-dominated reserves, Bill C-31 revised the Indian Act to reduce (although not eliminate) gender discrimination.

In 2005, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was trying to improve relations with First Nations, appointed Lovelace Nicholas as a Liberal Senator for New Brunswick. She followed the Saskatchewan pioneer, Cree-Chinese Lillian Dyck by only a few months. In 2013, Lovelace Nicholas sat on the Senate Standing Committees on Aboriginal Peoples, and Agriculture and Forestry. Her speeches regularly address education, Idle No More, and gender-based violence. On 14 February 2013 she called for a national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered women, and reprimanded the Conservative government of Stephen Harper for leaving resolutions to violence against Indigenous women to the police:  “in light of all the problems and horrifying accounts of the deteriorating relationships between RCMP and Aboriginal women, how can their approach to dealing with these cases be effective at all?”(Lovelace-Nicholas,14 February 2013). Lovelace Nicholas was also outspoken in her criticism of Bill C-27, the First Nations’ Financial Transparency Act, first introduced in 2011. Like many Indigenous activists, she condemned the failure to consult with affected communities.

Over the course of more than thirty years, Lovelace Nicholas has simultaneously challenged the Canadian government and male-dominated Indigenous leadership. She worked within the democratic system, using its tools to bring about reform. In the second decade of the 21st century, another generation of Indigenous activists, often women, returned to the Canadian streets in the Idle No More movement. Lovelace Nicholas, like Dyck, proved sympathetic to this shift in tactics.  Both called for an alliance of elders, youth and women in a renewed quest for equality. The result suggests continuity rather than disruption in the long history of Indigenous women’s protest in Canada.




Centre for Canadian Studies, Mount Allison University, “Sandra Lovelace- Native Activist” 2001

Holmes, Joan. Bill C-31, equality or disparity? The effects of the new Indian Act on native women. Ottawa: Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1987.

Jamieson, Kathleen. Indian Women and the Law in Canada: Citizens Minus. Ottawa: Advisory Council on the Status of Women, 1978.

Kome, Penney.  The Taking of Twenty-Eight: Women Challenge the Constitution. Toronto: Women’s Press, 1983.

Lawrence, Bonita. “Real” Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Lovelace, Sandra “Questions to the Senate Thursday, February 14th 2013,” 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 138

Lovelace, Sandra, “Questions to the Senate Monday March 25, 2013″ 1st Session, 41st Parliament, Volume 148, Issue 148,

New Federation House, Native Leaders of Canada, New Federation House, 2009

Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, “Indian Act: Indian Women,” in Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, vol. 1, Looking Forward Looking Back. Ottawa: The Commission, 1996. 300-302.

Lillian Dyck

copyright Canadian Senate

copyright Canadian Senate


Lillian Dyck (b 24 Aug 1945-)

Lillian Dyck is a Canadian Senator from Saskatchewan, appointed by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005. As one of the first Aboriginal women in Canada to pursue an academic career in the natural sciences, Dyck has been recognized as both a scholar and a leader for Aboriginal women. Reflecting the complexities of Canadian multiculturalism, she was both the first female Indigenous senator and the first Canadian-born senator of Chinese origin.

Dyck was born in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, to a China-born father, Yook Chun Quan, and a Saskatchewan-born Cree mother, Eva Muriel McNab, who was a member of the Gordon First Nation. Her family moved frequently through small towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan while Dyck and her brother worked in her father’s Chinese cafe, a common institution in mid-20th century Canada (Choi).  Her mother died when Dyck was eleven and her father as she finished high school. Before her death, her mother told Dyck not to tell anyone she was Indian as “life would be too difficult.” Dyck later reflected that she believed her mother, a former residential school pupil, had used marriage as a “survival strategy” to escape an abusive home life (“Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese”). She personally also found that there was “more discrimination against Indians than against Chinese” (ibid). Only as an adult did she feel sufficiently confident to present herself publicly as both Chinese and Indian.

Dyck holds a Bachelor of Arts (1968) and a Master of Science in Biochemistry (1970). She earned a doctorate in Biological Psychiatry (1981), when her only child, a son, was aged seven. That same year, she decided that it was “time to come out of the closet” and acknowledge her Cree ancestry. Prior to entering the Senate, Dyck worked as a neuroscientist at the University of Saskatchewan. Initially she sought to represent the New Democratic Party but since it advocated the Senate’s dissolution, she identified as ‘Independent New Democratic Party.’ In 2009 she joined the Liberal Senate caucus.

Dyck’s Parliament of Canada website highlights advocacy for equity in the education and employment of women, Chinese Canadians and Aboriginal people.  Her Senate biography describes her as an activist, as well as university dean, neurochemist, and professor. Her awards include a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Science & Technology in 1999; A YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for Science, Technology & the Environment in 2003; and two eagle feathers in 2005. She has also been honoured by a play, Café Daughter, by Cree playwright Kenneth T. Williams, based on her life.  It premiered in 2011 in Whitehorse, Yukon (Nahwegahbow).

As protests against government policies escalated in the second decade of the 20th century, Dyck proved an unusual patronage appointment. In December 2012, she protested the Conservative government’s passage of controversial Bill C-45 (now known as the Jobs and Growth Act, 2012). She also highlighted Chinese Head Tax redress funding and the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women Inquiry. In January 2013, she identified with the Idle No More Movement, speaking at a rally in Saskatoon on 5 January alongside Indigenous historian Dr. Winona Wheeler, whose family also originated in the Gordon First Nation. On 6 February 2013, Dyck was one of three senators to walk out of a meeting of the Senate Aboriginal Affairs Committee meetings, dramatically indicating her opposition to a proposed Conservative ‘First Nations Accountability Act’.

Dyck’s determined activism and championship of democratic movements from the Canadian Senate, traditionally a symbol of male and white authority, like that of New Brunswick’s Sandra Lovelace Nicholas, suggests that the warning of poet Audre Lorde that ‘the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house’ may be worth at least somewhat reconsidering. In the meantime, she is a provocative reminder of the many identities that Canadians bring to the struggle for greater equality.


Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “Aboriginal Senators Walk Out on Aboriginal Affairs Minister.” February 7, 2013.

Canadian Senate, “Biography of Lillian Dyck,” Accessed April 5, 2012

Chinese Canadian Stories. “Lillian Dyck – Not Just Chinese.”  Film. July 14, 2011.

Cho, Lily. Eating Chinese: Culture on the Menu in Small Town Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.

Nahwegahbow, Barb. “Café Daughter reveals the secret and a dream,” Windspeaker, v. 20, iss. 11. 2013

Roy, Marc “Liberal Senators Taking Action in support of missing and murdered Aboriginal women,Liberal Senate Forum. December 5, 2012.