The Role of the Museum in Creating Multi-Cultural Identities: Lessons from Canada

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The resolution of conflict caused through the failure to recognise the legitimacy of reasonable differences of view is one of the key challenges for all those who prefer to see political processes in train in search of solutions to the conflict caused by illegitimate intolerance. The authors draw on theoretical developments in cultural studies and in the theory and practice of ICT in order to explore the contribution that the museum might make to the reconciliation of seemingly incommensurate viewpoints. They draw on empirical work on the ‘Legends of our Times’ exhibition in Canada where they apply a novel research methodology to explore the impact of the exhibition on young people’s learning.

Anyone concerned with clarifying their thinking concerning the meaning and significance of the inter-relationships between culture, heritage and identity should find the unique approach offered here stimulating and controversial. For people directly involved in the museum and heritage business, for the first time, the role of the museum as a ‘sacred space,’ built on the creation of exhibits through a theory and practice of ‘constructed neutrality,’ is fully developed. The authors tackle the crucial question of how we encourage people to develop a deeper sense of belonging, or community, without that process in itself leading to more formal or rigid exclusions of those who do not belong; the museum, they argue, can and should promote toleration in an increasingly intolerant world.


“Globalisation has resulted in the movement of people and information in larger quantities and at a more rapid speed than ever before. It is a paradox that at a time when more and more people are moving great distances and meeting others who are very different from themselves, tolerance, let alone appreciation of the cultures of others, cannot be taken for granted. At the same time, in order to truly understand oneself and one’s own culture, it is necessary to have an opportunity to compare through exposure to the cultures of others ... if positive intercultural relationships are to be promoted and ultimately achieved, then there is a role for ‘sacred spaces’ in which the experiences of different peoples can be shared in a context of mutual respect and where peoples are able to tell their own stories to those who will listen. The authors suggest museums can be such places ... where those who have been previously disempowered can potentially meet with others to tell their stories as different but equal partners, not as exhibits to be explained but as lives to be shared, understood and celebrated.” (from the Preface) – Dr. Geoffrey Wall, Associate Dean, Graduate Studies and Research, Faculty of Environmental Studies, University of Waterloo

“‘Pluralising the past’ is an increasingly pressing issue in contemporary multicultural societies, in their quest for understanding, respect and constructive relations between their constituent elements. This book makes a seminal contribution by demonstrating the potential role of museums as neutral arenas for the renegotiation of heritage meanings in culturally plural societies. Its direct concern is with indigenous peoples who have suffered centuries of marginalisation ... It will stimulate further research in this field, which is of critical importance not only to the ‘New World’ settler societies but to a Europe in identity crisis between unification and global immigration.” – John Tunbridge, Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, Carleton University

“Museums can be seminal institutions in modern nation building, used either to include or exclude and thus have a remarkable impact on ethnic and cultural differences and problems. The idea of a sacred space in which to help define national being is very important, given the religious nature of nationalism and its power to impel irrational and emotive ideals. To make the rational holy by consecrating the past as part of a shared heritage based on objective principles alone can unite disparate groups and point to a common future.” – James Dingley, Lecturer on Terrorism and Political Violence, University of Ulster

Table of Contents

List of Tables
Preface by Dr. Geoffrey Wall
A Guide to Commonly Used Terms in the Text
1. Strangers to Culture
2. From ‘Public Space’ to ‘Sacred Place’ – One Large Leap for Humankind?
3. Culture as Ideology
4. Learning to be [Canadian]
5. Museums of Meaning
6. Museums as Learning Organisations
7. Cultural Policy and Practice
8. Sacred Spaces – The Role of Museums in Negotiating Cultural Difference in Late Modernity
9. Going over Old [Sacred] Ground

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