Thoughts on the Objects Matter: Making History in Museums Conference

Last Monday, I (Rose) made my way up to Vancouver, B.C. for a wonderful conference put on by THEN/HIER:  History Education Network at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) on the UBC campus. This was the network’s fourth regional conference and this year’s title was “Objects Matter: Making History in Museums.” Throughout the day, themes explored included historical consciousness in museums, indigenous historical perspectives, and inclusive, community-based museology. In this blog post, I will discuss the main points and questions I took away from the conference.


A. Sex Talk in the City at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV)

Viviane Gosselin, Curator of Contemporary Issues at MOV spoke of the provocative exhibition she coordinated, Sex Talk in the City. As described on the exhibition’s website:

Sex Talk in the City is a multifaceted exhibition that teases out how people in Vancouver learn about sexuality, define pleasure, and respond to particular politics. Sex Talk in the City addresses issues of sexual expression, diversity, politics, and education in a fun, approachable, and thought-provoking manner. Sex isn’t only biological, it’s cultural.

Viviane’s presentation blew me away as the project appears to have rigorously and beautifully applied theory (Critical Museology and Historical Thinking Pedagogy) to practice. I will try to briefly tease out a few specific points that impacted me:

  1. The exhibition was developed over the course of 2 years with the participation of a group of diverse community advisors. The process started with a core set of advisors that spread to a larger group of collaborators via a snowball recruitment strategy (i.e. initial advisors recruit others to join or participate). Advisors included educators, activists, sexologists, artists, and historians. Project partners included Options for Sexual Health, the Vancouver School Board, and the Queer Film Festival. Wow!
  2. The advisory committee decided to transparently display the ambiguity that was inherent in their collaborative endeavor. As such, exhibition labels and text provided different and sometimes divergent perspectives, explaining that this diversity of opinions naturally occurs, especially when dealing with such a hot topic as sex (pun intended). I was inspired by the decision to make tensions that had emerged during the exhibition development process visible. The presence of contention reflects a more accurate version of reality than is typically seen in polished exhibitions. Further, this approach might empower visitors to think that, among this sea of voices, their individual voice and experience is valid and of import.
  3. Multi-vocality was visible in other ways throughout the exhibit and facilitated by the use of multi-media tools (phone booths, photos, videos, objects, etc.), which created multiple access points to diverse sexual discourse.

B. Collaboration with Indigenous community groups

Disclaimer: the points I present below were triggered by certain talks, but in no way are they critical of the speakers. I’m grateful they provided me with a context to let my mind wander and ponder the following points.

Jennifer Kramer, Curator of Pacific Northwest collections at MOA shared insights gained from working with Indigenous community members on several collaborative exhibition projects. While she explained that, in her view, curation is more about people and igniting relationships than it is purely about objects, she acknowledged the challenges that stem from multi-vocality. She specifically mentioned two:

  1. The more voices are brought in to a project, the more there will be disagreement
  2. The lack of a single, authoritative voice can confuse visitors used to a more traditional curatorial style.

While these two points were framed as challenges, I view them as specific considerations inherent in collaborative work. The idea that the process of curation should be devoid of disagreement and debate stems from an oppressive tradition in which a subject expert would construct a univocal narrative for the masses (or a select few) to consume. The fact that we have habituated our visitors to a Banking Education Model (Freire, 2000) is unfortunate to say the least. Why we cannot seem to fully free ourselves from this tradition often stumps me. I am reminded of Elaine Gurian who astutely said: “(…) museums will soon need to shift from being a singular authority to a participant and encourager of intellectual and social engagement among its visitors.” I wonder if being more transparent about the collaborative process and its tensions, as seen in Sex Talk, might help visitors assess information and feel more comfortable in forming their opinions on the exhibit’s content.

Jill Baird, Curator of Education/Public Programs at MOA shared her work on Voices of the Canoe, a THEN/HiER sponsored web-based project that focuses on canoes as a doorway to understand indigenous ways of knowing. I was interested in this project’s use of technology as an educational tool and thought the collaborators did a great job using different forms of media (audio, maps, photos, text, etc.) to bring the topic to life and show its depth.

Jill, along with other presenters who spoke of collaboration got me thinking about the complexity of collaboration and the overall positive assumptions it carries. Specifically, I wondered about the “collaboration vector;” does it matter who initiates collaboration (i.e., the museum or the community)? Additionally, what is the impact of unclear or unspecified outcomes (i.e., who gets what out of the project)? Does a lack of clarity tend to accentuate a pre-existing asymmetry of power? As Bryony Onciul (2013) states: “(…) structural inequalities weight interaction between museums and Indigenous communities” because “museums generally hold the majority of the power as cultural authorities and the host of the ‘invited spaces’ of engagement.” How can we, as museum professionals, carry out our work with an anti-oppression lens that both acknowledges structural inequalities and tries to redress the situation? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Finally, I often wonder about the extent to which collaboration truly changes the ethos of an institution rather than giving it a good conscious for having checked a box. Based on my experience working in museums and with the Incluseum, it seems that issues of access and inclusion are treated as special initiatives that take place at the periphery of the institution with little to no impact at the core. I’ve illustrated this point below (I need help with visualizing ideas and concepts, so disregard if not helpful to you). To cite Bryony Onciul again, “it appears that adaptations that affect the institution as a whole, rather than individual employees or departments, are more strongly resisted.”  What are your thoughts?

Inclusive initiatives existing at the periphery of the Museum's core. Ideally, these initiatives would overlap dynamically with the core and would be a two-way relationship in which both parties are positively transformed.

Inclusive initiatives existing at the periphery of the Museum’s core. Ideally, these initiatives would overlap dynamically with the core and would be two-way, transformative relationships.

I am very happy to have made the trip up to Vancouver and feel energized from my participation in the conference. Thank you to the organizers for putting this conference together and for giving participants a chance to network, think critically, and be inspired! I look forward to next year!

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Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Gurian, Elaine. (2010). Curator: From Soloist to Impresario. In F. Cameron and L. Kelly (Eds.), Hot Topics, Public Culture, Museums (pp. 95-111)

Onciul, B. (2013). Community Engagement, Curatorial Practice, and Museum Ethos in Alberta, Canada. In V. Golding and W. Modest (Eds.), Museums and Communities (pp. 79-97). New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

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Rose Paquet Kinsley is the co-creator and co-coordinator of the Incluseum. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Washington’s Information School. 

One comment

  1. […] (Rose) had the pleasure of meeting Kate Zankowicz in October at the Object Matter: Making History in Museums Conference. We enthusiastically conversed about our respective research interests and I got to hear about the […]

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