Museums, Education, and Community: A Reflection on Theory and Practice
Buglas, Edward J
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The tectonic social upheavals of the 16th through the 18th centuries that produced the bourgeois state left Western society with a new set of social institutions, including the modem museum. With a raison d'etre simultaneously dependent on and at odds with the march of time, the modem museum enjoys a false air of permanence, for it is clearly an historically contingent institution and there is no guarantee as to its future. The Wunderkammer and the princely gallery-the modem museum's important predecessors-expose the institution's potential as a site for the expansion of knowledge that drives social change, as well as its potential as a site for the inculcation of traditional values and the status quo. The evolution of the educational functions of the modem museum traces the course of a complex and increasingly tense dialectic that highlights how much Western society has changed and how urgently its institutions need to renegotiate their relationship with "the public." This thesis argues that broad societal shifts of the past half-century require the museum to abandon its established theoretical and operational models and to embrace a community-based vision that draws on the best new museological theory. Theoretical ballast for the argument is provided by Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Jurgen Habermas, and Michel Foucault, and also by Maxine Greene, Henry Giroux, and Paulo Friere in their elaboration of social theory within a specifically pedagogical context. All these theories suggest the museum acts as some form of mediating institution between the realm of the state and the realm of the individual or citizen. The thesis juxtaposes two cases of museum practice from the early 1990s-the Royal Ontario Museum's disastrous Into the Heart of Africa exhibit, and the controversial deaccessioning of human skeletal remains from the Peterborough Centennial Museum and Archives. It analyzes the museological models and values behind each case, and suggests that the programming undertaken in the Peterborough case provides a rich concrete example of successful community-based museum with lessons that might be applied by much larger institutions despite their broader mandates, and their multiplex and far-flung audiences.