Brenda Trofanenko – “Interrupting the Gaze.”

Citation: Trofanenko, Brenda. “Interrupting the Gaze: on Reconsidering Authority in the Museum.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 38-1 (2006): 49-65.

Argument This chapter is based on a year-long study at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. Trofanenko suggests that the museum provides a space for examining and questioning “the relationship between the museum’s history as an educational institution, its power to construct displays, and the cultural politics of its pedagogical intent” (50).

She’s particularly attentive to how the museum constructs Indigenous identity as it attempts to move “beyond an imperial legacy that has not yet been vanquished so that its educational imperative will be strengthened.”

Scope/Organization/Main Points:  

Context: A current tendency amongst museums to shed its role as “protector of […] Eurocentric heritage to its current role as a broker of identity” (49).

First, Trofanenko charts the historical role of the museum, particularly the public museum, writing that it grew “out of a desire to engage individuals with a pride in civic and nation character,” and thereby has played a “pivotal role in formulating a national identity, primarily through categorizing and classifying knowledge through displaying objects” (51). As the objects were ordered in the museum setting, so were “the public that inspected them. […] Conceived as a pedagogical tool for the masses, the public museum became an instrument for advancing national character through educational means” (51). Hence, like Carol Duncan’s book Civilizing Rituals, “Interrupting” characterizes the museum as a disciplinary device.  She states that objects become copies of themselves “under the authority of the museum.” They are meant to represent culture, meaning that they project an idea of culture (52). Museum objects are meant to have clear semiotic value. There persists an idea of a “direct and transparent relationship between the world and its representation, or the viewing public and an object” (52).  

An expansion of museum criticism has accompanied Vergo’s (1989) theories surrounding “new museology,” in which museums take on the task of considering how their practices and techniques influence the public (52), such as the museum’s implication in the “noble savage” stereotype (53).  In attempting to understand Indigeneity, the Glenbow, “the only institution devoted exclusively to the collecting and exhibiting of indigenous objects from the High Plains nations” (53), has worked “to search for alternative (e.g. oral story-telling, personal narratives, life-histories) to the traditional museum didactics” (53). Its “educational mission” (54) has included community outreach and collaboration, but also conflict and controversy (53-4).  Rather than invoke reverence, museums must present students “with a language of politics and pedagogy that allows for them to speak about naming and identity, not as something to be tolerated but as essential to expanding the practice of democratic education” (61).

Trofanenko follows groups of students and reports what they discuss while taking classes at the Glenbow, suggesting that new museology approaches can invite participation and push-back – not so different from (but maybe not quite the same as )Pauline Wakeham’s mention of the meta-museum in Taxidermic Signs. Some students seem to realize that placing objects in museums “provides opportunity for an interpretation of the object without knowing the social, political, or economic context from which it came” (58). This ties in with her argument that “an education in the museum needs to be an education about the museum” (61).

The museum is struggling with what it (partly) sees as its mandate. Despite collaborating with local Indigenous people and seeking to transform its orientation towards nation and public, “it continues to support the essential features that define it as a museum” (59). She notes that students “are embedded in the authority of the museum that directs their learning while encouraged by the Glenbow to question its very authority” (60), which has a certain appeal to individualist social organization: blame for the failure of museums to transcend the troubles of museumization are transferred to the public as a failure to properly understand or interrogate the material.

 Points of Importance/Interest: Questions Raised:·         Museums as educative devices that can also offer an education about themselves as institutions. What about the problems and possibilities of including Indigenous folks in the transformation and critique of the museum? What is the source and consequence of the normative / conservative urge to preserve the museum rather than ‘blow it up’?


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