Sense of the past: historic house museums in Toronto, Canada, as forms of an urban heterotopia
thesisposted on 23.05.2021, 16:18 by Alevtina Naumova
Historic house museums allow for reconceptualization of the meaning of tangible objects around us. We establish this new relationship with materiality through our sensory bodies. We conceive of ourselves differently and allow ourselves to move and behave in ways that are not acceptable in the world outside of the museum. We perform our new selves with permission granted by the sense of place that cannot be understood other than through embodied experience–of things, of selves, of the environment that brings it all together. In the coming together of all these elements in the immediate, intimate present, the notion of the past is defined as cultural heritage as mediated through the historic house museum curatorial work and space. I approach historic house museums as socially created and lived kinds of spatiality and sites of social practices and focus on the experiences of people that spend considerable amounts of time there–the museum staff. As a researcher, I have inserted myself within the environment of a historic house museum and attempted to open it to social inquiry through various ways of being within it–observing, writing, interviewing, interacting, sensing, entering it and leaving it. I have carried out a form of phenomenological ethnography, which included a two-year autoethnographic study at the Mackenzie House Museum, in Toronto, Canada, where I volunteered in the position of an interpreter and a historic cook; 24 participant observation visits to other historic house museums in Toronto; and 13 in-depth unstructured interviews with museum staff from various historic house museum sites in the city. The three methods addressed the key conceptual clusters–emplacement, materiality, and performance, which form three analytical chapters of the dissertation. The dissertation positions historic house museums as forms of heterotopia that function as contestations of the accepted spatial, social, and temporal norms within an urban environment. These museums come forth as attempted reconstructions of anthropological places, in the form of domestic sites that assert significance of material manifestations of familial relations and historical heritage. These sites are immersive environments bridge the gap in the current experience of body, time, and space.