A Museum in Public: Revisioning Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum, 1st Edition (Hardback) book cover

A Museum in Public

Revisioning Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum, 1st Edition

By Susan L.T. Ashley


136 pages

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Hardback: 9781138579262
pub: 2019-08-20
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Not satisfied with the assertion that museums have taken great strides in becoming representative, relevant and open in their preoccupations, A Museum in Public contends that the supposedly public nature of their institutional role continues to be a rhetorical one. This book critically examines museums as institutions of the public sphere, questioning what assumptions are made about the publicness of their operations.

Using as a case study the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Canada’s largest museum, the book interrogates the public nature and political dynamics of the ROM as it completed a multi-million dollar architectural project and adopted a new vision of the museum. Providing an engaged cultural analysis of how publicness is reflected in the attitudes and behaviours of management, staff and visitors, Ashley claims that museums often function as a boundary zone between the needs and concerns of the public and ideas of publicness that serve corporate and managerial interests and practices. Asking the reader to seriously consider whether the ideals of contact zone and engagement are practically possible within an administrative setting, the book offers insights into how museums might achieve political publicness through transparent, open and democratic communicative action.

A Museum in Public raises questions at the intersection of disciplines and, as a result, will appeal to academics, researchers and postgraduates in a number of fields, including: museum studies, heritage studies, cultural studies, cultural policy, public policy, political science, sociology, geography, architecture, art history, public history, tourism studies, and cultural management.


"By attending closely to the goings-on in a single, iconic institution, Susan Ashley’s rich and insightful analysis deftly reveals not only how cultural organisations are inevitably enmeshed in the wider world but also the exciting possibilities that new ways of conceiving of their publicness might hold for museums of all kinds as they seek to enhance their relevance and value in the twenty first century."

- Richard Sandell, University of Leicester, UK

"A Museum in Public is a compelling and critical portrait of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, circa 2008, at the moment of its multi-million dollar renaissance, which included a spectacular architectural facelift and the promise of a global meeting ground, an agora for all. Combing institutional analysis with ethnographic fieldwork, Ashley shows how lofty rhetoric outpaced action, and corporate cultural norms infiltrated most areas of public service. A Museum in Public demonstrates the layers of analysis needed to see through the emperor’s new clothes, and to understand the workings of privilege, even as it is democratized. The book also offers glimpses of ways in which publics (including museum employees) carve out spaces of sociability and freedom in the museum. This is a welcome contribution to museum studies, and to the ongoing study of Canada’s largest museum."

- Shelley Ruth Butler, McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, McGill University, Montreal, Canada

Table of Contents


1. Boundary Zone

2. Publicness, Public Institutions and the Public Interest

3. Renaissance and the ROM In Public


4. Structuring

5. Positioning

6. Exhibitioning

7. Interacting


8. Revisioning Publicness at the ROM


About the Author

Susan L.T. Ashley is Senior Lecturer in Creative and Cultural Industries Management and AHRC Leadership Fellow in (Multi)Cultural Heritage at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is a cultural studies scholar interested in what, how, and why heritage knowledge is created, shaped, communicated, and consumed in the public sphere. Dr Ashley has published widely, including Diverse Spaces: Identity, Heritage and Community in Canadian Public Culture (2013). She has 20 years of experience with culture and heritage sites across Canada.

About the Series

Museums in Focus

Committed to the articulation of big, even risky, ideas in short-format publications, Museums In Focus challenges authors and readers to experiment with, innovate, and press museums and the intellectual frameworks through which we view these. It offers a platform for approaches that radically rethink the relationships between cultural and intellectual dissent and crisis and debates about museums, politics and the broader public sphere.

Museums In Focus is motivated by the intellectual hypothesis that museums are not innately ‘useful’, safe’ or even ‘public’ places, and that recalibrating our thinking about them might benefit from adopting a more radical and oppositional form of logic and approach. Examining this problem requires a level of comfort with (or at least tolerance of) the idea of crisis, dissent, protest and radical thinking, and authors might benefit from considering how cultural and intellectual crisis, regeneration and anxiety have been dealt with in other disciplines and contexts.

Books published in the series are between 30,000 and 50,000 words in length and fully refereed.  If you would like to discuss submitting a proposal, please contact the series editor: [email protected]

Further information about Professor Message's work can be found here: https://www.routledge.com/authors/i14753-kylie-message.

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
ART / Museum Studies
LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Library & Information Science / General
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Archaeology