Why Study Museums?

Museums are currently of great interest to a range of scholars. Museums are important cultural institutions that participate in the production of cultural and social relationships, while sometimes engaging with political debates or controversial topics. Questions have been raised about the social function of museums: Do these institutions reinforce class distinctions? Do organized exhibition spaces guide the visitor through a narrative of national identity? Whose (hi)story is told in museums and who gets to tell it? Who benefits, financially or otherwise, from museum exhibits? Researchers participating in the field of critical museum studies have broached various topics, considering the historical roots of museums, the racialized displays in anthropological museums, the elitist nature of many art museums, and the shifting role of science museums. For more information about this burgeoning field, please consult the ground breaking work of Tony Bennett, Ruth Phillips, Kate Hill, and other scholars listed in the bibliography

Even as museums have been receiving an increasing amount of praise and criticism, the funding of institutions began to dry up during the 1990s, with governments and other sponsors demanding more accountability in the form of both quantitative and qualitative measures of success. Surveys designed to gauge the impact of museums began focusing on the experience of visitors to museums instead of analysing exhibition spaces or collections policies. Many museums began to shift attention away from collecting, cataloguing, and researching collections and toward increasing attendance numbers and pleasing patrons. Some critics have decried the decline of the curator – a professional who researches collections and creates exhibitions, among other things – while others have written about the rising status of curators, especially those who engage in the world of contemporary art. For more information about audience-oriented approaches to museums, and curatorship see work by Brian Young, David Balzer and others in the bibliography.

Our primary interest in the small town museums in Alberta contributes to the diverse field of critical museum studies by performing sustained analyses of the small, less central museums that tend to be overlooked by museum scholars. Critical museum theory usually highlights large, urban and national institutions, providing historical accounts and critical analyses of their social and cultural functions. In contrast, we insist that small town and rural museums are worth considering on their own terms, not as copies (or deficient versions) of larger museums, but as influential entities in their own right. Small town and rural museums are arguably just as or even more important than urban institutions because they typically engage directly with their communities and adapt to serve them, finding strategic ways to function with limited resources. We join researchers in the United Kingdom and Australia who have also begun to examine small, ethnic, minority and rural museums, including Fiona Candlin, Bridget Yates, and others in the bibliography.

To that end, we have selected a number of museums by theme, location, and representativeness. We focus on the meanings created and messages sent by the exhibitions in specific museums, exploring how those messages are produced in distinctive spaces and relate to established narratives about Alberta and its history. Our visits to many of the small town and rural museums in Alberta are distilled in an informative database created by Misa Nikolic, but our goals are not to produce quantitative data, compare the museums based on statistics, or decide whether or not the museums are successful. Instead, we want to consider how the different sites make meaning about Alberta, and have much to teach us about, among other things, regional identities and concerns, as well as the hard-working staff and volunteers who are committed to maintaining and expanding small town and rural museums.