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Museums and Public History

Museums and Public History

Traditional museums and galleries everywhere have reflected and perpetuated the core values of those who founded the state. They foster a sense of citizenship that focuses on celebratory narratives that often belie the complexity of past and present society. Museums have always practiced forms of exclusion: within art museums, value is predicated on a sense of rarity and distinction, which applies to both their collection and their publics. A simple example: European art is collected in art galleries, whereas African art is often collected in ethnographic museums. In the last three decades, however, following important paradigm shifts in the social sciences and the humanities, museums have become more aware of their histories and biases. South Africa, in particular, is a world leader in creating museums that engage public memory in commemorating traumatic events such as forced relocations and legalized segregation, and the resistance to them. As societies shaped by colonization, Canada and South Africa are meaningful vantage points from which to observe the relationship between museums and publics and to reflect on different modes of public engagement through collecting, art interventions, display, public events and programming.

Together, we are interested in understanding the life cycle of political activism in museums, cultural & heritage centres. We approach this topic through a range of questions: What processes and practices constitute activism in these settings? What is the difference between being a political organization and a politically active organization? How does activism change with institutionalization? What is the relationship between activism and the academy? Are there generations of activism - what do they look like? How does activism transfer and transform between generations? How do standards, best practices and accreditation processes intersect with an organization's capacity to be politically active?

We are interested in exploring how activists, artists and collectives contest mainstream artistic narratives and present alternative views of society, citizenship and belonging. We will pursue the use of “interventions” (curatorial, artistic, programmatic), understanding their influence and life cycle, and what they can afford in terms of lasting change. We are also interested in looking historically at the processes of assimilation of alternative movements into the mainstream, and the effects that such assimilation has in challenging or confirming the national narrative. These are important questions to explore in the Canadian and South African settings, characterized as they both are by complex forms of racial formation, histories involving complex and traumatic relationships with aboriginal or indigenous peoples, and legacies of imperialism and colonialism.


The Toronto members of the Museums and Public History (MPH) quadrant meet monthly. At each meeting, a member’s recent museological or heritage work is discussed either through the circulation of a published paper, or the presentation of a recent program or exhibition. From time to time, special guests are invited to present their research and museological work at a meeting.

2017-2018 Activities

  • 19 October 2017 -- Stephanie Schwartz (Researcher, Ontario Jewish Archives) Research talk on UJA Centennial Game creatied for the Ontario Jewish Archives.
  • Fall 2017 -- workshop with researchers from University of the Western Cape

In 2016-17, the Toronto MPH quadrant has organized the following activities:

  • Masterclass with Ciraj Rassool, who directs the University of the Western Cape's African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies. He co-convenes this quadrant for UWC.
  • Melissa Levin on Commemorative Practice, Reconciliation and Decolonization in South Africa based on a chapter in a book she recently co-edited: “Domains of Freedom: Justice, Citizenship and Social Change in South Africa”.
  • Akshaya Tankha presented a chapter on two community-run house museums from his thesis, “The Aesthetics of Belonging and Becoming in late-liberal Nagaland”.
  • Silvia Forni shared a paper on the apology offered by the Royal Ontario Museum in 2016 for the exhibition Into the Heart of Africa.
  • Cara Krmpotich shared an article on the Memory, Meaning-Making and Collections program she runs with Anishinaabe and Cree seniors in Toronto.
  • Julie Couture, responsible for international partnerships at Anne Frank House in Amsterdam came to discuss her work on memory, space and rights in Canada. [pictures]
  • Alexandra Robichaud discussed her recent photographic exhibition with us, “The Darkroom Project: Taloyoak, 1972-1973” http://www.ryerson.ca/ric/exhibitions/Darkroom/ raising questions about collecting, accessioning and exhibiting.
  • In February 2017, seven quadrant members travelled to Cape Town for an immersion in local museum culture, practices and scholarship, hosted by Ciraj Rassool, with faculty, museum colleagues and students at the University of the Western Cape’s Centre for Humanities Research and African Programme in Museum and Heritage Studies.
  • Culinaria presentation at UTSC in April 2017 with Irina Mihalache on "Food, Communism and Difficult History as Heritage.”


Silvia Forni     Silvia Forni (University of Toronto)

Elizabeth Harney     Elizabeth Harney (University of Toronto)

Ciraj Rassool     Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape)



A number of professors, students and museum practitioners participate regularly in discussions and planning for the quadrant:

  • Christine Shaw (Assistant Professor, Visual Studies; Director/Curator of the Blackwood Gallery, UTM)
  • Joan Simalchik (Associate Professor, Women & Gender Studies, UTM) 
  • Pamela Klassen (Professor, Department for the Study of Religion, FAS)
  • Irina Mihalache (Assistant Professor, Museum Studies, Faculty of Information) 
  • Savannah Sloat (MA Student, Department of Anthropology, FAS)
  • Njoki Wane (Professor, Social Justice Education, OISE)
  • Akshaya Tankha (PhD Candidate, Department of Art, FAS)
  • Alexandra Robichaud (MMSt Student, Museum Studies, Faculty of Information) 
  • Anja Hamilton (MMSt student, Museum Studies, Faculty of Information) 
  • Camille-Mary Sharp (PhD student, Faculty of Information, Faculty of Information) 
  • Cecilia Morgan (Professor, OISE)  
  • Elizabeth Harney (Associate Professor, Arts, Culture and Media, UTSC) 
  • Elka Weinstein (Museum and Heritage Programs Advisor (East, Northeast) Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport) 
  • Gracia Dyer Jalea (Co-founder and Executive Director, Toronto Ward Museum)  
  • Heini Davies  (MA, Anthropology, FAS)  
  • Jennifer Orange (SJD candidate, Faculty of Law) 
  • Katie Kilroy-Marac (Assistant Professor, Anthropology, UTSC) 
  • Lindsay Small (PhD student, Faculty of Information)  
  • Melissa Levin (PhD, Political Science, FAS; Lecturer African Studies, New College; Project Co-ordinator: Aesthetic Education)
  • Lena Mortensen (Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, FAS)
  • Stephanie Schwartz (PhD, Ontario Jewish Archives, Canadian Jewish Studies)
  • Annissa Malvoisin (PhD Student, Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, FAS)
  • Deborah Fenichel (independent scholar; Royal Ontario Museum Anthropology section volunteer)
  • Silvia Forni (Curator, African Arts and Cultures, Royal Ontario Museum; Associate Professor, Anthropology, FAS; co-convener)
  • Cara Krmpotich (Associate Professor, Museum Studies, Faculty of Information; co-convener)

If you are interested in participating in these on-going conversations, please contact Silvia Forni and Elizabeth Harney.


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