State authority and the public sphere: Ideas on the changing role of museums as a Canadian social institution

Susan Ashley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Citations (Scopus)


This chapter considers the nature of the public sphere in which museums operate, and investigates museum authority as a contested issue inherent in its simultaneous roles as voice of the state articulating identity and nationalism, and as a public space for opinion and meaning-making. It looks at how the museum’s power to determine the national narrative, and limit voices, has changed over the years in Canada. It focuses attention on Canadian federal policies that have influenced the authority of museums, in particular, theoretical implications of the current policy drive for ‘social cohesion’. It describes how Canadian museums are gradually moving away from acting for and about diverse communities, and are instead offering their expert voice as one among many. An exhibit on the Underground Railroad at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is examined to consider how museums as instruments of the state can be re-tuned as sites of public identity discourse and social inclusion. Through this exhibit, Canada’s National Historic Sites reworks its traditional approach to exhibition planning and design in order to open up the process of national identity-building and to focus instead on the social process of citizenship. A product of a collaborative process that encouraged networking among African-Canadians and openness by heritage professionals, the exhibit paved the way for both formal and substantive changes in designating and commemorating Canadian heritage sites.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMuseums and Their Communities
EditorsSheila Watson
Place of PublicationAbington, UK
PublisherTaylor & Francis
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780415402590
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jul 2007

Publication series

NameLeicester Readers in Museum Studies


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