State Authority and the Public Sphere: Ideas on the Changing Role of the Museum as a Canadian Social Institution

Susan Ashley

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Museums are important public sites for the authentication and presentation of
heritage in Western cultures. The authority of museums is derived from their
long history as repositories of material culture and as agents of identity
formation, nationalism, and most recently, social inclusion. But in a country
such as Canada where global economics and popular culture combine with
an unprecedented influx of immigrants, how society imagines itself and how
the nation articulates its community and its heritage is changing radically.
Issues of power, meaning, authenticity and citizenship have threatened the
museum’s representational authority. How are Canadian museums responding
to these changes, and is their authority now up for debate? Or is the need to
assert authority a problem in itself and can museums evolve a new type of
discourse about heritage? This paper investigates museum authority inherent
in its simultaneous roles as voice of the state and as a public space for opinion
and meaning making. It focuses attention on Canadian museums and
government policies that have influenced their authority, in particular, theoretical
implications of the current drive for ‘social cohesion’. An exhibit on the
Underground Railroad and African-Canadian history 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
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-17
Number of pages13
JournalMuseum and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2005


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