Women’s Educational Work in Ontario


A review of In Her Hands: Women’s Educational Work at the Royal  Ontario Museum, the Canadian National Exhibition and the Art Gallery of Toronto, 1900s-1950s, by Katherine Zankowicz.

This interesting dissertation examines the work of female museum and gallery educators at three inter-related cultural institutions in Ontario, Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. In it, the author, Katherine Zankowicz, describes the development of museum education in Canada, pays tribute to the work of pioneering women in the field, and makes a larger argument about the early (and enduring) gendering of professional roles within museum institutions.

The introduction of the dissertation introduces the three institutions that serve as case studies in the research: the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), the Art Gallery of Toronto (AGT; now known as the Art Gallery of Ontario) and the Canadian National Exhibtiion (CNE). Zankowicz points out their shared roots, and common ideologies, as well as the fact that staff moved between these institutions frequently. Zankowicz also emphasizes that focusing on women for this research is not a way of compensating for the systematic discrimination they faced, but a means of recognizing the unexpectedly destabilizing role they played in opening up the colonialist museum establishment to new, under-served audiences, reformulating the understanding of education at the same time.

A work of this nature necessarily responds to feminist literature as much as to studies on museum education or history. Zankowicz’s thorough footnotes demonstrate her careful balancing of historical terminology with contemporary understandings of feminism, and her unwillingness to label the subjects of her study in any ways that are not appropriate to their lived experience. She rejects, for example, the notion of “maternal feminism” as a motivator for women’s educational roles in museums, because her subjects did not discuss their work in these terms; instead, she concedes that the programming led by her study subjects may have been part of what she calls “a distinct ‘female consciousness’ … dependent as that was upon conceptualizations of femininity that stressed domesticity and social service and that was premised on gendered difference” (p. 19). This respect for diverse experiences is welcome in what might have been a sweeping historical study.

Chapter 1 of the dissertation places female educators in the context of museum education in North America, and particularly, in Ontario, Canada. Zankowicz traces the involvement of women in object-based teaching and learning as far back as 1855, and suggests that although the history of museums has primarily prioritized male contributions, female educators were long considered appropriate for teaching in arts and cultural fields. She points out that as classroom collections faded in popularity, museums and other institutions of informal learning were established to continue the pedagogical practice of “object lessons”.

Chapter 2 moves on to specific examples; it is divided into two parts, and the first part examines museum education at the Royal Ontario Museum in the interwar period. The focus is primarily on the work of two educators, Margaret MacLean and Ruth Home, who pioneered methods of integrating museum visits and ROM collections in elementary and adult education. Moreover, the author argues that these individuals also strove to integrate differently-abled and immigrant audiences into the museum (and therefore, wider Canadian culture) and drew attention to less-prestigious categories of museum objects, such as furniture and textiles – items of social history and the feminine crafts – that were not previously as valued by the museum administration or the general public. The first part of the chapter examines the effects of curricular reform from 1937 to the 1960s on the museum’s programming. Education became thematic and project-based, with museum objects continuing to serve an illustrative purpose to inspire multisensory activities. The work of these women, and their assistants and successors was, however, fraught with conflict with the museum’s male authorities, who viewed their expertise and initiatives with suspicion.

Chapter 3 discusses the educational programming in the Canadian National Exhibition’s Women’s Building, a descendant of an industrial exhibition held in 1879. The first half of the chapter discusses the work of the Ladies Committee, which first established exhibitions associated with “women’s work”. These displays showcased female enterprise and material productions, provided an opportunity for women to sell wares and display their work for judging, and also held demonstrations and classes. Pageants, fashion shows, and DIY demonstrations were envisioned as placing women into a historical trajectory of producers and consumers of particular gendered skills and ideologies. The second half of the chapter then specifically addresses the work of Kate Aitken as the director of Women’s Activities at the CNE from 1938 to 1952. It is argued that Aitken’s work sought to educate female heads of economically productive household, both in useful handicrafts, as well as the modern technologies and conveniences available to them. Aitken is also described as pioneering occupational therapy in teaching craft skills to veterans and disabled soldiers. The displays at the CNE are documented as having shifted as women’s roles and economic realities shifted.

Chapter 4 discusses the female educators who worked at the Art Gallery of Toronto from 1928 to 1938. Zankowicz attempts to define the contributions of these young women, and attributes their success to their working under an established male pioneer of arts education, Arthur Lismer. The chapter outlines the connections between the AGT and the other institutions previously described in the thesis, and described how arts-based learning here also extended beyond hegemonic audiences to women, children, immigrants, and disabled individuals. This chapter features testimony from the educators themselves, gathered from oral history interviews conducted by the author. The multisensory pedagogy practiced here was much more child-led than the more authoritarian methods used at the ROM and CNE; this is elaborated in the second part of the chapter, which describes programming at the Children’s Art Centre (an annex of the AGT) from 1933 to 1947. The activites held there were supervised by “experts,” including the psychology department at the University of Toronto, and were a means of researching the needs of learners categorized according to eugenicist norms prevalent at the time. It was believed that the study of art would prevent delinquency (and subsequent social exclusion) and be of therapeutic help for disabled children. The section also describes the professional identities of the female educators involved with the AGT and CAC, as well as the networks and connections to other institutions they established or were a part of. While it becomes clear that Arthur Lismer exploited the power imbalance of having very young female employees, whose personal lives and employment were often in conflict thereafter, Zankowicz also emphasizes the tremendous bravery, strength, and energy of the educators who created a professional field essentially from scratch, with few resources and little support from male administrators.

The dissertation’s conclusion updates the story of museum and gallery education through the end of the twentieth century, and underlines again the fact that the field of museum education contributed in large part to the increased accessibility of the museum institution. The author pays tribute to the work of these little-remembered pioneers, whose programming forms the basis of programming that continues at these and other institutions to this day. Inclusion in museums, therefore, is not only to do with audiences, but also with staffing policies, and the writing of institutional histories. Appendices include study ethics approval documents, the call for participation, consent letter, and interview questions used to gather the oral histories on which the author relies.

While the institutions studied in this research might, at first sight, seem to have limited geographical interest, the broader themes on which Zankowicz touches – gendered histories, social inclusion, arts education – will be of interest to more global audiences if the dissertation is published as a monograph or a series of articles. For example, many themes are familiar even to those working on female curatorship histories, where the struggle for recognition, professionalization, and resources mirrors much of what Zankowicz describes for her subjects. In addition, the broadening of institutional histories beyond a single entity or linear triumphal narrative is always needed. “Women’s work” is a rich field of study, to which this dissertation is a useful addition.

Julia Petrov, PhD
School of Critical and Creative Studies
Alberta College of Art + Design

Primary Sources
Canadian National Exhibition Archives
EP Taylor Library and Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario
Royal Ontario Museum Library and Archives

Dissertation Information
University of Toronto. 2014. 351pp. Primary advisor: Cecilia Morgan.

Image: Unnamed woman in the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1925. From the Archives of Ontario: I0001480 “Art gallery corridors, Toronto” [1925] F 1075-13 H1134.

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