The Local Spaces of National Museums

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by Carly Ciufo

Thomas is right: Community is a tricky concept.

I want to talk about finding community at the national level. It’s neither quite as small as a family unit nor as large as some broader cosmopolitan imagining of shared humanity, but it is nevertheless a crucial element of museum building in the twenty-first century. Community is an especially tricky thing if national museums are assumed to be too big to pay attention to the local surroundings where they are built.

My research has to do with human rights museums. I am currently studying three: the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, which was built under the nationalized umbrella of National Museums Liverpool; the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is a national museum mandated to talk about human rights with particular but not exclusive attention to Canada; and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia, which is a more privately-funded space where visitors learn about the city’s unique contributions to global human rights history through the 1950s and 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

None of these museums are located in London, Ottawa, or Washington, DC. They were all built outside of the expected cultural and heritage capital of their corresponding country. Although they are national heritage institutions similar to the ones found in their respective national capital cities, these museums have been required to take into account local communities differently. Sure, they still have a diverse array of national and global stakeholders to respond to as they would if they were built in capital cities. But they also have communities local to their geographic regions who are not used to living in tourist hubs with flagship museums that bring in troves of people from elsewhere.

National museums have rarely been expected or able to focus on the multiplicity of communities nationwide. Although museums are built in a local place, there are people who are members of communities specific to that region who are also linked to more global communities. Note, of course, that this isn’t just a big museum issue. Museums situated in small towns risk insulating their approach too narrowly and excluding people from their notions of community, too. The museums I am talking about here, however, exist in some sort of middle ground between the national capital museums and the more local ones that we think of when we think of community-built spaces.

But things have changed and museums as institutions have the technology and platform to reach further than ever before. This is the specific piece of communities that I want to think through here. Although the Canadians and Their Pasts study reports that while their participants attribute high values to family and local community-level understandings of the past, people trust museums more than their teachers, family stories, websites, books, and historic sites when it comes to finding out about the past.

This is a recurrent and familiar observation that similar studies carried out elsewhere in the world agree on. And I want to connect it to a core inquiry in my current research: Who is this museum for? The understanding that a given museum has of its social and geographic positionality vis-à-vis its local communities is not just about diversifying audiences; it is about acknowledging the space that it takes up. And I use takes up deliberately here: a national museum takes up the geographic space it is built on; it also takes up storytelling space regarding the national narratives that are told.

Experiences with arts, culture, and heritage are vital for everyone. This does not mean that every museum is for everyone in all places and at all times. Museums are neither universally-accepted nor universally-applied institutions. And they shouldn’t be. Approaching museums as such risks resuscitating elements of the institution’s broader colonial baggage that many conventional museums are still working through.

Operationalizing accessibility, representation, and collaboration by working with neighbouring communities, however, gives museums a more legitimate position in their locality. Unless everyone has an access point where they can enter into the institution, see themselves on the walls, and engage with existing research to create new content, the museum for everyone—which many human rights museums purport to be—becomes an empty place for no one, except maybe the people passing through for a conference or on holiday.

Looking to the local communities where these new museums are built and seeing how the institution and its surrounding communities engage with one another ought to be a fundamental element of defining what museums can be and what they can do.

Museums are capable of so much more than being institutions that possess artefacts— “the real thing” that the Canadians and Their Pasts study says helps make museums exist as the trusted institutions that they are. Museums have the capacity to repatriate stolen artefacts. They have the capacity to be representative of the visitors who walk through their doors by prioritizing local community members. And they have the capacity to employ their staff with secure jobs without exploiting local communities without giving them remuneration or reciprocal opportunities to share their own stories on their own terms.

If museums refuse to do these sorts of things, what kind of institution are we even holding onto?


Carly Ciufo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at McMaster University. She is an editor for and a member of the Center for Human Rights and Restorative Justice.

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2 thoughts on “The Local Spaces of National Museums

  1. Steven High

    I agree wholeheartedly. The problem extends to the public history and museum scholarship which treats these places like islands onto themselves. This is why your project is so important. In my own work on industrial or working-class heritage, there is the added problem of heritage recognition leading to the dispossession of nearby working-class communities whose history is being recognized (to some extent) as heritage furthers gentrification. We always have to ask – for whom is this heritage for and not just about. And does heritage primarily lay in the physical sites or in the people (or community) themselves? It sets up a struggle like the one here in Montreal where a condo developer wraps himself in the cloak of industrial heritage, saying his condo development will preserve the industrial aesthetic of a ruined industrial site, and community groups saying they just want social housing, with or without the ruins.

  2. Carly Ciufo Post author

    Thanks for engaging with this and adding further thoughts here, Steven! Absolutely.

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