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Deconstructing Museums at the Berks

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
18 May 2014 - 2:26pm

It’s the first time that the Big Berks are in Canada! The Berkshire Conference on the History of Women will be hosted by the University of Toronto, as well as various institutions, on May 22-25, 2014.

I’m particularly thrilled to be part of a roundtable at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in the company of fabulous scholars whose work focuses on challenging gender in museums, exhibitions and archives. It’s been a great opportunity for me to trot out my oral history project that I began in 2011, with 50 museum educator participants. Individual museum educator agency is woefully understudied, and there is very little out there about Canadian museum educators and what they talk about and think about in our museums.

The Berks roundtable discussion has allowed me to think more deeply about how educators can ‘deconstruct’ museums. My own research has found that museum educators use exhibitions to talk about gender with students in ways that move beyond information in didactic panels and curatorial text. Traditional gender roles can be supported or challenged in museum spaces because of educators’ philosophical and pedagogical choices.

Educators use collections to teach about a broad range of ideas about gender: some actively subvert gender roles in their lessons, others interrogate heterosexist bias, and some celebrate "traditional" women's roles or particular famous women. Gendered hetero-normative understandings about the past persist within many exhibitions and in many cases women's history is embedded within objects and takes dedication to 'excavate.'

By examining on the floor practices of museum educators, I found that museum educators use their pedagogical positions to critique exhibitions as constructions. I was also struck by how museum educators operate from both within and from outside the boundaries of their institutions, as staff who work with material culture to teach, but not necessarily appropriate gallery narratives as their own.

Stay tuned this month for more blogs about the Berks!