Reports from New Directions in Active History: Art + History = In-site-full Collaborations

By Andrea Terry 

As a historian of Canadian Art, I hope that my research, teaching, and writing resonates with historians of all types. My most recent book Family Ties: Living History in Canadian House Museums (2015) explores how house museums anchor and transmit mythic histories. It connects the artefact to the performance of history at three “living history” house museums – Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ontario; the Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada in Montreal, Quebec; and the William Lyon Mackenzie House in Toronto, Ontario. The material culture in situ or, more precisely, what I call the “artefactual accuracy” endorses the institutionalized interpretation offered at each site. The primary organizing idea for the study draws on the tenets of disciplinary art history, approaching the house museum as a representational object used as a civic instrument in the practice and performance of history.

In such analyses, it is imperative to consider the sites’ practical function: their operation as tourist destinations.  The purpose of historic sites arguably depends upon their ability to generate sufficient visitation to validate their continuing operations. With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media, the need to re-invigorate historic sites has intensified, as evidenced by Parks Canada 2012 budget cuts and the subsequent development of guided tour applications. Such needs also take into account citizens’ expectations, particularly those attached to their “smart” devices, mesmerized by cyber games and seemingly dependent on social media for interaction. In the twenty-first century, American curator Lowry Stokes Sims explains, historic museums are expected “to address an appetite for unique experiences, novel experiences, and authentic experiences.”[1] Contemporary art exhibitions installed within historical sites, projects referred to in related scholarship either as “museum interventions” or, more pointedly, “artist-history interventions,” certainly satisfy this expectation. What is more, they foster opportunities for dynamic collaborations between historians, art historians, public historians, curators, artists, visitors, and the like – collaborations that, I believe, have the potential to generate far-reaching benefits.

In the summer of 2001, the curatorial collaborative DisplayCult, formed by artists and scholars Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, curated Museopathy, a multi-site exhibition in museums and heritage sites throughout Kingston, Ontario.  Under the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, the project entailed artist installations of site-specific works in museums as well as an object-based exhibition culled from collections of the city’s museums displayed in the Art Centre.  In the accompanying catalogue, Fisher and Drobnick explain that the term “museum intervention” describes “the collaboration between artists and institutions to transform the museum from a container of cultural artifacts to a medium of contemporary work. In this practice, the museum context becomes the raw material or ‘cultural readymade’ for artistic analysis, commentary and reconfiguration.”[2] Artists’ museum interventions frequently implicate viewers’ subjectivities “tweaking” the expected conventions of period representations.[3] Some, such as curator/arts administrator Melissa Rachleff, suggest that historians tend to avoid analyses of such practices. Artist-history projects, she writes, “tend to be critically analyzed by the art press and art historians…. Academic and public historians may not grasp the significance of artist projects to their field because far less analysis has been published from their perspective.”[4] Now it’s not my intention to validate or debate the legitimacy of this statement.  Rather, I’d like to – albeit briefly – call attention to some seminal artist-history interventions that have occurred in Canada to help propel a more productive and sustained dialogue between art and public history.

Scholars frequently credit Fred Wilson’s 1992 installation Mining the Museum, presented in the third-floor temporary exhibition space of the Maryland Historical Society, as that which motivated the museum community to engage in critical dialogue and discourse.  Given the entire third floor of the Society Building, Wilson arranged objects so that they appeared to be within an extended installation of the Society’s permanent collection (located on the lower two floors). For example, in one section labelled “Metalwork 1793–1880,” Wilson placed shackles used to manacle slaves during the auctioning of human beings alongside silverwork done in the Baltimore Repoussé style, also dating – like the shackles – to the early nineteenth-century, making the point that a luxury economy was built on the system of slavery.[5] The installation not only provoked discussions about slavery’s legacy in the city and state, it also stimulated dialogue among African American employees at the Society, as the project stood on display for an eleven-month period.

Significantly, five years prior, Rebecca Belmore performed Rising to the Occasion (1987) in Thunder Bay, ON.  She wore a Victorian-style ball gown with a protrusive beaver-dam bustle in a silent protest parade, entitled Twelve Angry Crinolines, conceived and organized by Lynn Sharman as a response to the royal visit of Prince Andrew and Lady Sarah Ferguson’s 1987 visit to Thunder Bay, Canada, more specifically to Old Fort William Historical Park (now Fort William Historical Park), a reconstructed nineteenth-century fur trade fort.  As Belmore strode along the downtown Thunder Bay streets, she and her collaborators sought to in the representation offered in and by the “fake fort,” deliberately arranged to showcase the Canadian nation’s accomplishments in the context of a British Royal tour. While a host of established scholars, including Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Ruth Phillips, analyze this work as a performance and the occasion of the Royal visit, scant attention – if any – is paid to the Fort, a heritage and “living history” site offering guided tours designed to interpret 19th century fur trade history. Consideration of the site’s institutional history, layout and programming demonstrates the magnitude of Belmore’s intervention, making evident what performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson refers to as the “de-autonomizing of the artistic event,” “an artful gesture, more or less self-consciously creating an intermedial form that subtly challenges the lines that would demarcate where an object ends and the world begins.  It is to make art from, not despite, contingency.”[6]  Interrogating the site’s institutional history, programming and operation aims to expose the insidiousness of colonialist agendas embedded in the site, an exposure that underscores the need for the sustenance of creative measures – be they “hard” (uninvited) or “soft” (invited/commissioned), one that I plan to explore more fully in a collection of essays I’m currently co-editing along with Drs. Taryn Sirove and Anne Koval in the forthcoming publication, Revisiting Museopathy: Artist-History Interventions in Canada and Beyond (currently under review at McGill-Queen’s University Press), as well as in a multi-session panel at the Association of Critical Heritage Studies Biennial Conference in June, 2016, entitled “The Artistry of History” – co-chaired with Dr. Carla Taunton.  All of this is to say that artist-history interventions have a more extensive history than one might initially suspect, and ventures planned for 2017 demonstrate the traction achieved by such legacies.

For example, in 2017, Partners in Art (PIA) together with Parks Canada and the Canadian Association of Fine Arts Deans (CANFAD), will launch the nationwide art project ArtTracks150.  Five curators, along with art students, established artists and community members will work together creating art projects installed in and around national parks across the country, an admirable and exciting endeavour to be sure!  Historians, public historians, and history students can and (I anticipate) will play an invaluable role in such pursuits, providing insights into the various institutional histories of selected sites, programming decisions and deliberations, and venues.  It is my most profound hope that such forays will go a long way to dissolving disciplinary barriers and cultivate fruitful exchanges in perpetuity.

Andrea Terry is currently a Contract Instructor in the Department of Visual Arts at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. She completed her PhD in the Department of Art at Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, in 2010.  


[1] Lowery Stokes Sims, “Introduction – Fred Wilson: Musings on and Mining of Museums,” in Red Wilson: A Critical Reader, ed. Doro Globus (Ridinghouse, 2011), 12.

[2] Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher, Museopathy [exhibition catalogue] (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 2002), 15.

[3] Stokes Sims, 14.

[4] Melissa Rachleff, “Peering behind the curtain: Artists and questioning historical authority,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Left Coast Press, 2012), 208.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Shannon Jackson, Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics (Routledge, 2011), 28.

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