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Manitoba History: Book Review: Viviane Gosselin and Phaedra Livingstone, eds., Museums and the Past: Constructing Historical Consciousness.

by Cara Krmpotich
University of Toronto

Number 87, Summer 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Viviane Gosselin and Phaedra Livingstone, eds., Museums and the Past: Constructing Historical Consciousness. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016, 312 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-3062-1, $34.95 (paperback)

This edited volume explores the needs for, and capacities of, museums to develop historical consciousness—primarily amongst museum visitors, but also within the very running of museums as institutions. The editors take seriously Canada as a context for asking these questions, whether that is because the museums themselves are operating within the country, or be-cause the authors’ approach to historical consciousness and museum practice is shaped by intellectual traditions and socio-political contexts in the country.

The coverage of examples from across the country is a strength, with multiple provinces, with both urban and rural settings, and with history, art, science and anthropology museums all accounted for. The noticeable gap in what is otherwise a sound geographical representation is the absence of contributions that speak to the North.

For readers less familiar with “historical consciousness” as a concept, I recommend they read the editors’ epilogue (the final chapter in the book) first. It provides clear foundations for understanding how this idea has changed through time and space, and the ways it has been imagined with regards to museums more specifically. Indeed, the epilogue helps develop one’s historical consciousness about this concept in relationship to museum practice, museology, and Canadian events. In contrast, the definitions of historical consciousness offered in the editors’ preface have less specificity and less context. When read in order, it was not until Chapter Nine (Pierre-Luc Collin, Claire Cousson and Lucie Daignault’s “The Concept of Historical Consciousness Applied to Museums: A Cast Study of the Exhibition People of Québec ... Then and Now”) that I felt I had encountered a robust, deployable definition of historical consciousness. The preface is well suited for those readers who like a story to unfold as they read, but those readers who prefer a clearer road map might choose to make use of the epilogue to help them position the subsequent chapters.

A troubling omission from the volume as a whole is the almost near absence of reference to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was occurring throughout the time the collective of contributing authors were ‘workshopping’ and developing their papers (authors initially met in in 2012; the TRC undertook its work from 2008-2015). Given that the volume was released in 2016, publishing timelines may have contributed to this absence. However, the volume as a whole has an absence of First Nations, Inuit or Métis contributors. Damara Jacobs-Morris (Skwxwú7mesh) is the only author who self-identifies as such, and writes from the joint perspective of cultural sector employee and Indigenous person. The chapter by Lon Dubinsky and Del Muise (“Museums as In-Between Institutions: Can They be Trusted?”) provides compelling evidence that many Canadians do indeed trust museums, while also drawing attention to publics that do not inherently trust museums—or at least not as much as other historical sources. In their epilogue, Gosselin and Livingstone draw attention to the critical role that Indigenous peoples in Canada have played in shifting our sense, nationally, of representation in the museum. I found it surprising, then, that there were not more Indigenous authors, and no contributing voices whose experiences of museums have been as places of ‘untruths’—whose needs for historical consciousness have not been served by the museum.

Despite these criticisms, there is much of value and interest in the volume. Lianne McTavish’s chapter on the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum is an act of “micromuseology,” [1] i.e., taking a small museum seriously (even when its displays are tongue-in-cheek) as a site whose practices can be building blocks for interrogating and theorizing museums more broadly. McTavish treats the running of the museum as a kind of project of historical consciousness, asking questions about gender, class and urbanism in the production of historical knowledge. Brenda Trofanenko’s chapter (“Public Pedagogy and the Museum: The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, for example”) helpfully considers the role of permanent exhibitions versus temporary exhibitions, usefully positioning them as dialogic creators and contesters of myths. Her use of “public pedagogy” draws attention to the ways history-making in the museum is distinct from the discipline of history. Jill Baird and Damara Jacobs-Morris experiment with the structure of their writing in an effort to mirror their engagement with the concept and practice of historical consciousness. There is a productive overlap between their chapter and Marie-Claude Larouche’s, “Using Museum Resources and Mobile Technologies to Develop Teens’ Historical Thinking.” Larouche’s presentation of a quasi-failure of a prototype clearly illustrates the difference between acquiring historical facts and developing habits of mind that foster historical consciousness.

Robert Janes’ chapter deviates significantly from most of the other chapters in the book in that it asks museums to apply historical consciousness to themselves—to learn from economic, environmental, and social histories, and to respond by adopting operating strategies based in “no-growth economics.” He argues that given the overwhelming evidence of the damage caused by intensive capitalism, museums cannot remain committed to the status quo, but must act differently. His chapter encourages museum practitioners to look inward when it comes to consciousness, though the end result is a highly relational, outward, and future-looking museum practice.

The highlight of the volume for me was Simon Knell’s gem of a chapter, “The Gift of Historical Consciousness: Museums, Art, and Poverty.” The writing is evocative, and the manner in which Knell describes the act of creating an exhibition or program as a gift re-balances our sense of who and what museums are for. We come face-to-face with the truth that not all gifts are welcomed or useful; that gifts are culturally-informed; that gifts are most meaningful and most gift-like when exchanged between people who are already in relationship, and where reciprocity and acknowledgement is likely and possible. Reading the chapter in 2018, Knell’s sentiment that, “We can continue to have our myths but not at the cost of censoring truths” (p. 219) resonates with a relevance for society far beyond the sphere of the museum.

A true editorial strength of the volume is the explicit connections made in every chapter to at least one other chapter in the book. These are conceptual and thematic ties, not simply common exhibitions or museum sites. Released, as the volume was, after the opening of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (2014; contributing authors who write about the institution do so prior to its opening), on the cusp of the TRC’s Summary and Final Report (2015 & 2016), and just before a flurry of public history events and counter-events for Canada 150 (2017), for readers in 2018 there remain curious absences very immediate for the museum profession today. However, it will be interesting to see how this volume on historical consciousness within Canadian museology informs our thinking ten years, twenty years, and fifty years from now.


1. Fiona Candlin, Micromuseology: An Analysis of Small Independent Museums, London: Bloomsbury, 2015. Error processing SSI file

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 April 2021

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