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Negotiating the other: museum exhibition and the construction of heritage in marginalized groups

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posted on 2021-06-08, 10:52 authored by Susan L.T. Ashley
How heritage messages are conceived and presented at museums, and how people make sense of and debate these messages is an overarching concern of this paper. For the purposes of this report, heritage is defined as the cultural legacy, including tangible and intangible histories and practices, that is handed down from the past within a community, and which is an essential element of an individual's and a community's sense of identity. Museums operate as sites where people experience and learn about their heritage. But a central concern is how these public institutions encompass marginalized groups within this construction of heritage, identity and community. The focal point of those interactions between museums and people is their exhibitions. This essential communicative tool of museums, this media of production and consumption of meaning, is the point of interest for this paper. As the place where the interests of both sides of the communicative exchange converge, exhibitions reveal the tensions within the system, and the process by which changing ideas about heritage and community are negotiated. Exhibits can be seen as texts anchored in the contexts and processes of their production and reception. Or they can be seen as the dialogic space in which a political relationship unfolds. This paper offers insights into how the political nature of communicative practices underlying the production and consumption of museum exhibitions affects the heritage of marginalized groups. How exhibitions come into being - their modes of production - how they communicate as texts and how they are used or read is illuminated, using as a case study a particular museum exhibit about African-Canadians entitled The Underground Railroad: Next Stop Freedom. Developed by the Department of Canadian Heritage to be displayed in Toronto, the exhibit was installed at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2002 and is currently on view at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The research encompasses the circuit of communication as it relates to the conditions surrounding the conceptualizing and negotiation of this exhibition: what is presented, why it is presented, how it is presented, to whom, and how it is received.





Master of Arts


Communication and Culture

Granting Institution

Ryerson University Edward Slopek

LAC Thesis Type


Thesis Advisor

Edward Slopek