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) sector 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.


  • Silvia Forni, Curator, African Arts and Cultures, Royal Ontario Museum; Anthropology, UT
  • Cara Krmpotich, Museum Studies, Faculty of Information, UT
  • Ciraj Rassool, Director, African Program in Museum and Heritage Studies, UWC

Participants in Toronto meetings

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

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