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DONNER PRIZE FINALIST: Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums

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Does the prime minister wield too much power? Is our skilled immigration policy in need of major reform? What role do museums play in Canadian society? Could Healthy Living Vouchers help in the battle against obesity? These are the questions posed by the four finalists competing for the $50,000 2011/2012 Donner Prize, the award for best public policy book by a Canadian. The winner will be announced on Tuesday, May 1. We will post excerpts from each of the finalists in advance of the prize, exclusively for Huffpost readers. Today's excerpt is from Ruth Phillips' Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums.

CANADA'S COLLABORATIVE MODELS of museum practice has arisen as organically from its history as the canoe or the snowmobile. In recent decades these innovative practices have become a major export, carried abroad by Canadian consultants, lecturers and expatriate Canadian-trained curators and studied on site by visitors from other countries. Yet the impact of Canadian museology is more widely recognized abroad than at home. Most Canadians have become more accustomed to hearing about the activities of their museums when the latest protest or demonstration hits the national media. The furor of the moment might surround a demand to remove a familiar piece of art whose colonial content has come to seem offensive, an exhibition accused of misrepresenting a particular constituency, or the spending of public funds on a new museum or work of art that, some feel, does not adequately serve the nation as a whole.

Not surprisingly, given Canada's long struggle to define its own image, what such controversies have in common is that they revolve around issues of identity, diversity and public representation. Should we boycott an exhibition sponsored by a company that is drilling for oil on land claimed by a First Nation (1988)?

Is an exhibition that explores Canadian involvement in the colonization of Africa demeaning to African Canadians (1989)?

Why did the National Gallery spend a large sum of Canadian taxpayers' money on a painting by an American artist (1990)?

Would the inclusion of a Holocaust gallery in the new Canadian War Museum overshadow the history of Canada's military and the genocidal experiences of other diasporic communities (1997-98)?

Should the Indian scout kneeling at the feet of Samuel de Champlain on an early 20-century Ottawa monument be removed because it suggests Aboriginal complicity in colonial conquest (1997)?

Was the Canadian Museum of Civilization wrong to have tried to postpone an exhibition of art by Arab Canadians scheduled to open right after the bombing of the World Trade Center (2001)?

Does the National Gallery of Canada's definition of artistic excellence unfairly exclude artists from diasporic communities (2010)?

Whose injustices should be represented in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights (2011)?

Where, if at all, should the government build a new national portrait gallery (ongoing)?

Although I cannot support the statement with statistics, I would be willing to wager that Canada has seen a disproportionately large number of such museum-based contestations and that they receive an exceptional amount of coverage in the national media. Museums and public monuments, it seems, have come to serve as primary barometers of the manner in which public institutions -- and, by association, their governmental sponsors -- interpret laws and policies related to cultural diversity.

Since the 1980s, the development of new ways to work with both the Indigenous and diasporic "originating communities" from whom museums have acquired their collections has been a positive result of the volatile atmosphere in which Canadian museums have been operating. This book exploreS this history of contestation, innovation and change, as well as the structural relationships that link processes of decolonization, inclusivity and reform at the micro-level of the museum with those that have been unfolding at the macro-level of Canadian society and politics.

In light of these goals it will be important, especially for the non-Canadian reader, to provide a summary, however brief, of key late 20-century trends and events that define these larger patterns of change. Because I have been a participant in a number of the episodes of museum change I discuss, it will also be helpful for me to position myself in the story. In this prefatory chapter I thus find myself deviating from the advice I give to students writing theses.

"Tell your readers how you came to the project in the preface," I suggest, "and put the intellectual framing into the introduction." Instead, I offer here a preface by way of an introduction -- or perhaps an introduction by way of a preface. My excuse for the inconsistency is that the trajectory of my professional career has been so closely interwoven with the story of change in Canadian museums that an account which combines analysis with a personal documentation of events as I experienced them seems both more honest and more useful.

Contingencies of biography enter, of course, into every scholarly and critical project, and personal experience always determines the angles of reflection that both open up and limit the resulting narratives. Yet the four decades of change in Canadian museums since the mid-1960s that are discussed in these chapters seem to me to have a particularly tight connection to the events that shaped the political and social consciousness of my generation. I came of age in the United States during the 1960s, and my academic formation was inevitably influenced by the upheavals and activist movements that marked that decade -- the civil-rights movement, the anti-Vietnam war protests, and the women's movement.

The Vietnam war was the cause of my husband's and my immigration to Canada in 1968. Once arrived in Toronto to resume graduate studies, we encountered a new and unfamiliar set of social and political dynamics. The atmosphere of nationalist pride and the exhilaration generated by the previous year's centennial celebrations still lingered, but the residual euphoria mingled uneasily with the growing momentum of Quebec nationalism.

Indigenous resistance to colonial policies and territorial infringements had been renewed following World War ii and intensified during the 1960s. A further factor that complicated national and local politics was the increased pace of demographic diversification brought about by postwar immigration.

I vividly remember my first months in Canada, when the Ontario Ministry of Culture and Communication gave me a temporary job dispensing information about programs for new Canadians at its booth at the Canadian National Exhibition. Each day for nearly three weeks, in the space adjacent to our booth, a different group of young people came to demonstrate the music and dance of the ethnic group to which they belonged.

Accustomed to thinking of "immigrants" as largely elderly people who had arrived in North America in the early 20th century and whose children had long fled the inner-city neighbourhoods where their parents still resided for the assimilated life of the suburbs, I found the energy of these demonstrations amazing. Both their vitality and the official government sponsorship impressed me as evidence of a much more celebratory attitude toward cultural diversity.

As I argue in my book, the challenge posed to the traditional construct of Canada as a settler nation rooted in French and British colonial histories by increasingly effective Aboriginal activism and the growth of diasporic communities provided not just the backdrop to a history of museum change but, rather, its enabling conditions.