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Conversations on New Possibilities for the Future : A Virtual Interview with Viviane Gosselin, PhD.

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
10 December 2012 - 7:43pm

Last spring, I had the opportunity to engage in a “virtual chat” with the curator of contemporary issues at the Museum of Vancouver, Viviane Gosselin.  Viviane is also author of chapter 12 in New Possibilities for the Past: Shaping History Education in Canada (2011).

During the interview, Viviane chats about her current curatorial project, “Sex Talk in the City”, as well as the role of historical narratives in presenting alternative perspectives upon the present.  She provides great insight into the eclectic nature of museum work – rebounding between curatorial meetings, telephone conversations, conference presentations, and family commitments. Near the end of the interview, Viviane shifts her attention towards historical thinking in museums and writes of the necessity for “porous narratives” within museum exhibitions.

I began our e-mail conversation by discussing the THEN/HiER “unconference” that had just taken place at the Museum of Vancouver in conjunction with the America Education Research Association Conference:

We'll start by chatting about your busy schedule. How did the "unconference" go during the AERA Conference?

Bonjour Cynthia!

The Museum Unconference was incredible! I keep receiving emails from participants who raved about the format. The event was an integral part of a two-day meeting with several scholars who are contributing to The History Education Network’s fourth book project focussing on museums as sites of historical consciousness.

The first day was a full-on workshop, where contributors critiqued each other’s chapters and imagined ways to do some “chapter meshing”. The second day was the museum unconference. Book contributors were given three minutes to present one key idea related to their respective chapters. The audience was encouraged to respond to these three-minute presentations during small group discussions. At the end of morning and afternoon sessions, smaller groups shared the outcome of their conversations with the larger group.

The diversity of the group was phenomenal. We had museum educators, directors, curators, designers, graduate students – emergent and seasoned workers – from Vancouver and satellite cities. We also had representatives from eight THEN/HiER museum partners from all over Canada. I think it was a successful way to engage academics and professionals in meaningful exchanges.

Sounds fascinating Viviane... very much a collaborative initiative. When can we expect a publication coming out of this?

Yes, this meeting was the extension of the book contributors’ meeting. Phaedra Livingstone (U of Oregon) and I are co-editing a collection of essays that will become THEN/HiER’s fourth book, “Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness”  (working title). I think the chapters are raising very important questions, proposing alternative practices and offering Canadian perspectives on regional, national, international/ transnational museological trends (a sensibility brought into relief with our two international contributors). The theme of historical consciousness runs through all chapters.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own background? How did you come to be involved in museum education?

Easy one!

I studied design (many moons ago) which eventually led me to the museum field. As a junior designer I was doing the design of stores, coffee shops, restaurants and museum exhibitions. Working with museums and cultural institutions quickly became my favorite part of the job. I was seduced by the idea of using design to create environments that would inspire awe, curiosity and expose people to new concepts. I eventually pursued a masters in museology in Montreal in the early 90s. Upon graduating, I worked in a variety of museum institutions as an educator, curator, designer, operations and project manager. I recently completed a PhD with the UBC Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness. I was particularly interested in how exhibitions mobilized the historical thinking of exhibition makers and visitors. A year prior to completing my doctoral program I accepted a position as senior curator at the Museum of Vancouver.

Thanks Viviane. I understand that you also gave a presentation at the recent Canadian Museums Association conference in Ottawa. How was that? And what was your presentation topic?

The conference title was “On the Edge” – an expression that can be read in multiple ways and I think describe very well the current state of museums! Alongside two colleagues from Montreal and Halifax we looked at how our respective institutions (a science centre, a maritime history museum and a city museum) shared their experiences developing exhibitions touching on the topic of sexuality - we embraced the “edgy theme” quite literally!

Our presentation captured salient moments that shaped the planning, production and public reception of these projects. I talked about the “making of” Sex Talk in the City, an exhibition featuring the changing conversations about sexuality in Vancouver. The exhibition is opening in February of 2013 so I focussed on the consolidation of an advisory committee, and the elaboration of the exhibition concept as well as the integrative role of three core historical narratives located in each exhibition zone.

Very interesting. This certainly demonstrates that museums in Canada are not afraid to venture out into more edgy aspects of history.

Regarding the upcoming show Sex Talk in the City, what does the development team hope to achieve in mounting such an exhibition? Can you elaborate on the three core historical narratives that will be present?

I would like to tie our motivation for addressing the topic of sexuality with the Museum of Vancouver’s mission statement which is “to hold a mirror up to the city and lead provocative conversations about Vancouver’s past, present and future.” People in the city work, play, eat, sleep and . . . have sex. Examining how people think and talk (and don’t talk) about sex is one way, among others, for the Museum of Vancouver, to investigate and understand the city.

We are also acting on the premise that there is a strong correlation between open dialogue about sexuality, healthy lifestyle, and healthy city. MOV advocates for a more public dialogue about sexuality, which includes welcoming conversations about sexual diversity, sexual education and sexual health. Sex Talk in the City is not a historical exhibition in the traditional sense. We are not focussing on chronologies or periodization.

To understand the role of the core historical narratives in this project, I need to tell you about the exhibition concept. To tackle this huge topic we identified three interconnected themes that would help us address the complexity and multi-dimensionality of human sexuality: PLEASURE (how sex is good, fun, healthy), PEDAGOGY (the many ways people learn about sex and sexuality)and POLITICS (how groups in position of power make decisions that affect the way we express our sexuality publicly and privately). We called these themes the new 3Ps!

These themes correspond to three different spaces or zones in the exhibition space. For each zone, we selected one key historical narrative that would enrich our understanding of current issues associated with each theme. The selection of narratives was primarily based on the availability of material culture, research and/or historians willing to work with us, and great Vancouver connections. For the pleasure zone, we selected the history of sexual vibrators from 1890s to present-day; for the pedagogy zone, the history of sexual education in British Columbia from 1900s to present-day; and for the politics zone, the history of contraception from 1860s to present-day.

Three historians working in these different areas accepted our invitation to work with us on this project. Historian of technology Rachel Maines from Cornell, for instance, wrote a book on the invention of electric vibrators in the late 1800s (The Technology of Orgasm, 2001). With her support I was able to identify museums with collections of electric vibrators. I also located local private and institutional collections. Without going into great details, we tracrd the history of this object by displaying a series of historical and contemporary vibrators, and presenting them as valuable cultural artefacts worthy of study. In doing this, we demonstrate how objects (and the discussion they provoke) reveal cultural conceptions and understandings about sexuality i.e. androcentric views of sexuality (for earlier models), sexual empowerment of women, seniors, people with disabilities (for more recent models).

Thanks Viviane... Fascinating ! I Iook forward to reading more about this show when it opens in February 2013.

Is it accurate to summarise then, that with the exhibition Sex Talk in the City, the connection between past-present-future is established by injecting historical research into current themes (in this case the 3 Ps: Pleasure, Pedagogy and Politics) - thus providing a symbolic interaction with contemporary ideologies?

“Injecting historical research into current themes" is a great way to describe what we're doing in the Sex Talk in the City project. The 3 Ps are ahistorical in nature, that is, there is nothing intrinsically current about them, aside from the actual combination and intersection of the themes. But the stories within each theme tie to topical issues. We are trying to enrich the discussion and public understand by offering a historical perspective on these contemporary issues.

In the Politics section for instance, I selected the history of contraception in Canada and worked with Christabelle Sethna (U of Ottawa) who did some very interesting work studying the debates over contraception and legalization of abortion in Canada. I'm hoping to contrast these historical developments with the current situation in Vancouver (specifically, the staggering number of teen pregnancies in BC) and the ensuing proposal submitted by Options for Sexual Health to our provincial government requesting universal access to publicly funded contraception in BC. I'm not sure we could call this a "symbolic interaction" between historical research and contemporary ideologies. My use of historical narratives is a deliberate attempt to provide more context to current debates. Having said that, I'm not trying to bend or force interpretations to resolve current issues.

Whenever I see the words "past-present-future" I automatically think of historical consciousness...with this exhibition, however, is the intent to establish a disconnect (contrast) between past and present, or to demonstrate a line of continuity between the two?

Both, with an emphasis upon continuity. I think the exhibition will demonstrate that although Vancouverites are more open to talk about sexuality than they have ever been, they/we continue to have an ambiguous and paradoxical relationship with the theme of sexuality as a topic of public importance or public concern. The ongoing lack of comprehensive sexual education in schools is a case in point. The exhibition does however identify ruptures, or historical and cultural milestones within that backdrop that signal new ways of conceiving what is for instance, "normal"/healthy sexuality.

I understand the thesis of your chapter in New Possibilities for the Future (2011) to be: “The sharing of intellectual tools can provoke new ways of thinking across disciplines to re-imagine, in this case, aspects of the museum’s educational task.” Am I correct?

Yes absolutely. By sharing a “history-specific culture”, the designers, educators, curators, videographers in a team can apply the concepts underpinning a historical thinking pedagogy into their respective work i.e. how do we signal “the making of historical narratives” into design solutions? How do we make the editorial process apparent in a short historical video? How can we make reference to divergent historical interpretations in the exhibition text?

In your chapter, you break your discussion down into two parts: (a) current developments in the museum field; and (b) how experimenting with concepts of historical thinking can help develop new practices in both museum productions and research.

In part 1 (a) you describe the current gaps in the field as follows:
1. Museum visitor studies have focused more upon science and children’s museums (rather than history museums); and
2. The absence of a discipline-based theoretical framework for examining how people construct historical meaning  in history museums (p.248).

What do you mean by this exactly?

I want to reiterate that I am focusing on studies examining the historical meaning-making of exhibition team members and visitors. No study that I am aware of has analysed how each team member’s unique contributions participate in the making of the exhibition-as-historical account. In other words how museum professionals’ understanding of what counts as history, along with their specific field of action in the museum, influence the making of historical exhibitions.

Similarly, few visitor studies are examining how the visitors’ understanding of history influences their interpretative work. We have little understanding of how visitors resort to the use of historical concepts when making sense of exhibitions or any kind of public programs. Several studies have demonstrated that visitor meaning-making is largely tied to “identity work” (i.e. visitors will engage with new material by connecting it to various dimensions of their identity and lived experience). These studies are not so concerned, however, with exploring the interrelation between identity building and historical thinking.

By (somewhat) of a contrast, Brenda Trofanenko (2006) has identified another “gap” that relates to “who” or “what” should be the focus of our discussions in the museum field:

“I suggest the need to move the discussion about learning in the museum well beyond debates about what knowledge is created through conversation in the museum (Leinhardt, Crowley, & Knutson, 2002), through object-centered learning (Paris, 2002), and through contextual models of learning (Falk & Dierking, 2000). Rather, social education should interrogate the specific processes of how museums marginalize various peoples in the production of identity in the museum and challenge these conventional theories of museum learning that are often captured in the field trip experience.” (Trofanenko, 2006, p. 109)

How would you respond to this statement?

I largely agree with it and believe that adhering to a historical thinking pedagogy in the museum would help move beyond the “what” of history and support visitors in reflecting on how they come to understand the world the way they do. That is, by emphasizing the presence of perspectives and biases in history, we encourage people to think about the partiality of knowledge. Museums today (the good ones- he! he! he!) are more self-conscious. They are aware of the possibilities and limitations of their role as “keeper of the collective memory”. This self-consciousness should be apparent in the way they stage historical knowledge for the public. In my view, encouraging people to think critically about historical accounts (in and outside the museum) is as important of a role for museums, as sharing a newly crafted historical narrative.

Thank you… In part 2 (b ) of your chapter, you describe how experimenting with concepts of historical thinking can help develop new practices in both museum productions and research. In the interest of inverting this argument… How might the nature of the exhibition disrupt historical thinking? (e.g. work against it?)

I guess I would have to think about what a disruption of historical thinking looks like! I could start by saying that we stop thinking historically when we consider a historical narrative as a mirror of reality. Because museum exhibitions are largely static, can “live” for many years (even temporary exhibitions can be on display for years), and are often written in an authoritative tone, they may give the impression that they provide an exact/ definite depiction of past events. If museums do not try to create entry points for people to think about the "defensibility" of their historical claim, they may encourage a passive engagement with history.

In light of this... what do you see as your own epistemological lens in history education?

I’m very interested in the pedagogical approach promoting historical thinking, and referred to in the education discourse as a discipline-based approach to teaching history. It is a pedagogy supporting learners in making sense of the past in ways that are inspired by the work of historians. The approach makes explicit the constructed nature of historical interpretations.

This perspective converges in many ways with some of the more innovative museum practices and theoretical discussions that seek to make more explicit the construction of knowledge, the polysemic nature of artefacts, and the presence of gaps involved in historical representations in museums. I see these ideas expressed on paper, and in exhibition text panels but have not seen a historical thinking pedagogy applied in exhibition making. The idea is for me to explore ways to create environments where people can learn about a particular historical narrative (the "what" of history) while also being exposed to the scaffolding of the exhibition-as-historical account (the "how" of history).

The museum is one of few public institutions mandated to promote lifelong learning about the past. We ought to ask ourselves what kind of historical learning opportunities we offer at the museum. I think it is important that visitors connect their stories with the larger collective narratives. We also need to create what I call porous narratives i.e. museum projects that highlight key decisions of exhibition makers and expose for instance, divergent historical interpretations.


Viviane Gosselin, PhD
Curator of Contemporary Issues
Museum of Vancouver

March 31 – June 4, 2012.