Blackfoot Community & Canadian Museums


A review of Unsettling Assumptions about Community Engagement: A New Perspective on Indigenous Blackfoot Participation in Museums and Heritage Sites in Alberta, Canada, by Bryony Annette Onciul.

The place of “community engagement” within museums and heritage sites has been the subject of much academic output. This is a concept that has also gathered strong policy visibility, evidenced, for example, by the recent independent review prepared for the IUCN World Heritage Programme, titled IUCN, World Heritage and Evaluation Processes Related to Communities and Rights (2012). Community engagement, then, is an area of research that has gained considerable currency: indeed, it is a phrase referenced not only in contemporary museology and heritage management practices, but also appears in wider debates about identity and cultural difference. Given this prominence, it is unsurprising that many recent publications in the field have adopted it and its associated relationships wholesale. Far fewer have sought to critically disrupt the phrase, yet it is precisely its assumed maturation that Bryony Onciul problematizes in her thesis, Unsettling Assumptions about Community Engagement: A New Perspective on Indigenous Blackfoot Participation in Museums and Heritage Sites in Alberta, Canada. Drawing primarily from the experiences of Indigenous Blackfoot communities in post-colonial Canada, Onciul troubles the overly comfortable position of “community engagement” within museum theory and practice and inserts instead what she terms the “engagement zone.”

Onciul begins her thesis with a clear articulation of the research field, which revolves around a comparative, cross-disciplinary analysis of four museums and visitor centers located in southern Alberta: the Glenbow Museum, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park and Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretation Centre. These provide clear examples of the different forms community engagement might take, ranging from the First Nation owned and operated Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park to the Government owned and managed Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretation Centre. Her purpose with these museums is to interrogate James Clifford’s notion of the “contact zone” – itself borrowed from Mary Louise Pratt (Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 33–40) – by examining the aims, processes and outcomes of community engagement at all four institutions. Onciul closes this introductory chapter by asserting her intention to bring the views and voices of Indigenous communities to a literature traditionally dominated by curatorial, policy and academic perspectives.

Onciul’s second chapter contextualizes the research field by identifying the specific limits of the museology literature in relation to her study. This is a thorough review of the literature, not only in terms of wider theoretical approaches to the notion of engagement, but with regards to each of the individual case study museums incorporated into the research. In concert with a number of well-regarded publications in the field, her review highlights an acknowledged tendency to draw from expert perspectives rather than community and otherwise subaltern voices. This situates her project comfortably alongside the influential work of prominent scholars such as Elizabeth Crooke, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Sharon Macdonald, Rhiannon Mason, Richard Sandell, Sheila Watson and Andrea Witcomb.

In her third chapter, Onciul introduces the suite of methods utilized to complete the research, all of which are associated with post-structuralist modes of enquiry. Given this underpinning, it is entirely unsurprising to see the textual analysis of exhibition scripts, participant observations and semi-structured interviewing as prominent amongst the core data gathering techniques employed. While there are no methodological innovations at play here, these choices nonetheless make good sense, providing an analytically robust approach that is reminiscent of the ethnographic bent adopted by Sharon Macdonald and Rhiannon Mason. It is also an approach wholly cognizant with the research questions asked, giving rise to a rich variety of observations and insights into museum practice. During the course of her fieldwork, Onciul was able to capitalize upon a variety of participant observation opportunities at various exhibitions, museum and community events, guided tours, festivals, workshops and annual events associated with the four included museums. These observations are supplemented by 48 semi-structured interviews undertaken with curatorial staff and community groups associated with all four case study museums.

After laying out the rationale for her research alongside a detailed overview of her methods, Onciul moves on to present her overarching conceptual framework, which revolves around theorizations of power, identity, plurality, dissonance, agency and censorship in the context of the museum. The fourth chapter thus begins with an assessment of conventional ways of thinking about museums and their role in society. Onciul also provides a succinct history of museums in this chapter, drawing especially on the work of key scholars such as Tony Bennett and Richard Sandell in the process. It is here that the thesis really begins to gain ground; using the work of Stuart Hall and Ben Dibley, Onciul is able to problematize the traditional roles of museum practice along with its associated claims to power. The chapter then offers a consideration of the emergence of Indigenous agitation, examining in the process the inequitable relations of power that have been exposed between Indigenous communities and those associated with a range of professional interest groups such as archeology, heritage studies, anthropology, and museums. Onciul draws the chapter to a close by exploring subaltern presence, particularly in terms of the resources and social spaces that afford marginalized groups the right to speak and, moreover, be heard. These are issues that are returned to with great determination in the closing chapters of the thesis.

Following closely the arguments advanced in chapter four, chapter five begins with an examination of the history of museums and community relations within the specifics of the Canadian context. To do so, Onciul first confronts the museum industry’s links to the project of colonialism and related practices of denying Indigenous agency. This is a review that naturally draws on the contact experiences of Indigenous peoples living in Australia and the United States, both of which have been extensively debated in the scholarly literature; Onciul’s emphasis, however, falls on the Canadian context and this is particularly welcome. So important here is Oncuil’s sensitive detailing of the wider social and political context – as well as the implications of this timeframe –, which allows her to draw acute attention to the subsequent and lingering social injustices that form part of the lived experiences of Indigenous people today – including continued low socio-economic status, a shortened life-expectancy and curtailed educational opportunities.

Although much of what is covered in the first five chapters of this thesis will be familiar to researchers engaged with the fields of museum and heritage studies, few will have pieced together the relations between museums and community groups in quite the same way. In Chapter Six, Onciul begins to weave together the lynchpin of her thesis: the museum “engagement zone.” It is around this that much of what follows revolves, and thus it is entirely deserving of the careful and sophisticated attention Onciul grants it. Building on the work of Sherry Arnstein, James Clifford, Tony Bennett and particularly Viv Golding’s concept of the “learning zone,” this chapter presents the engagement zone as “the spectrum of engagement approaches from tokenism to community control. It emphasizes the agency of participants and potential for power fluctuations, despite common inequalities of power relations, and allows for consideration and exploration of culture and heritage prior to and beyond the experiences of colonialism” (pp. 102–103). To flesh this out, Onciul carefully maps the experiences of her four case study museums against this definition, teasing apart both the successful and restricted approaches to engagement encountered therein.

The complexity of community engagement processes reflected in chapter six is further developed in chapter seven, which examines more acutely the specifics of Blackfoot engagement as a resource for implementing change in broader museum practice. Crucially, Onciul uses this chapter to recognize the limits placed on the spaces of change available: essentially, she reminds us that museums are themselves part of the larger assemblage of social life. As such, they too are subject to relations of power, habit, residual practices, policy parameters, personalities, traditions and acts of resistance, which operate alongside other restrictions to change such as funding, time, deadlines, space and the individual characters of the people involved. As with chapter six, detailed analyses of materials gathered at all four case study museums are used to interrogate the spaces for change allowed for within the museum context. Glenbow Museum, in particular, provides for an illuminating example.

Chapter eight pushes the boundaries of debate even further by examining “the limits of what can be said and heard within exhibits, and how these messages are framed through the museum as a cultural form” (p. 165). In this chapter, Onciul examines the affordances for true negotiation within the museum context, in which assumptions about the audience’s knowledge and reception are taken into account. This is an argument seldom explored in the museum literature and thus represents exemplary strides towards originality. At the center of the chapter are the notions of “sharing” and “withholding,” both of which emerge out of considered debate about what to present and what not to present to the public. Of particular interest here are what Onciul terms “strategic essentialisms” and “displayed withholding.” The former might be used, for example, to present united stories of survival which in turn could serve to create a secure platform from which to speak, while the latter points to the acknowledgement that there is often more to a story to tell, but choices are made not to divulge that fuller story for sacred, cultural or political reasons. Both of these strategies hint at the depth and complexity of Indigenous cultures, but do so in ways that limit the risks often inherent in revealing precise details.

The final chapter in the thesis, “View from the Other Side,” provides an extensive articulation of the ways in which the Indigenous community groups associated with the four case study museums have reflected on their experiences of engagement. Rather than simply troubling the notion of community engagement, Onciul closes her thesis with clear illustrations of how the problem of engagement might be resolved. She splits this analysis into two parts: “Community on Display” and “Costs and Consequences of Engagement for Communities.” Subtly woven across both is an acknowledgement that the cost of engaging spills far further than the confines of the museum itself. Indeed, there are personal costs involved, costs that carry the potential to be far from empowering and might instead devastate the lives of individuals involved if not handled and negotiated with sensitivity and respect.

This thesis sits amongst good company. “Community Engagement” is a topic that has a secure place within museum and heritage literature; and there is no indication that this focus will fade anytime soon. Two observations can be made about this longevity: first, there is clearly something about the notion of “engagement” that speaks insistently to museum and heritage scholars; second, there is still a great deal about this relationship yet to be adequately understood. Onciul’s efforts in this thesis have the potential to reinvigorate these important debates and move them forward exponentially.

Emma Waterton
Institute for Culture and Society
University of Western Sydney

Primary Sources

Fieldwork conducted over a 24 month period which included the textual analysis of exhibition scripts associated with four case studies museums: Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, Glenbow Museum, Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum and the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park.
48 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with 46 informants associated with Blackfoot communities and the four case study museums.

Dissertation Information

Newcastle University. 2011. 290 pp., including illustrations. Primary Advisors: Rhiannon Mason and Gerard Corsane.

Image: Blackfoot Crossing Historic Site Plaque. Wikimedia Commons.

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