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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Open to interpretation : mobilizing historical thinking in the museum Gosselin, Viviane


This study adopts an historical thinking pedagogy to examine how museums “make history”. An historical thinking pedagogy supports learners in shaping their own ideas about the past by simultaneously engaging them with substantive history (the facts, dates, events of history) and procedural history (the processes that go into constructing histories). I hypothesized that a greater understanding of visitors’ and exhibition makers’ historical thinking could help museum practitioners create new forms of public engagement with the past that resonate more significantly with contemporary audiences. The research design evaluated the usefulness of two frameworks related to historical meaning-making of exhibition makers and visitors. These frameworks were initially designed to examine the work of historians (in the case of Jörn Rüsen’s disciplinary matrix) and students (in the case of Peter Seixas’ historical thinking concepts). The investigation, informed by a phenomenographic methodology, consisted of a qualitative case study, which focused on a single exhibition, its makers (n=6) and its visitors (n=36). The selected exhibition, Being Irish O’Quebec, was presented at the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal in 2009–10. The exhibition proposed a complex notion of Quebecois identity by demonstrating the ubiquity of Irish culture in Quebec’s cultural and genetic makeup. The analysis demonstrated how both frameworks could help conceptualize the experience of exhibition makers and museum visitors, and describe their agency as historical interpreters. Historical thinking concepts were instrumental in pursuing their distinctive interpretive tasks. The frameworks provided two robust sets of interconnected questions that could promote reflexive practice among museum practitioners and inspire new museographic approaches. Having demonstrated the visitors’ interest in the processes of doing history, I propose the creation of porous narratives, exhibition environments where design and textual elements expose the construction of the historical narrative and explicitly invite visitors to take a more active role as interpreters. Such a strategy would firmly position the educational function of museums as promoters of historical consciousness, while contributing toward more democratic and reciprocal relationships between museums and their publics.

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