A Message from Acting Director Dr. Shelley Ruth Butler


It is a pleasure to steer CEREV in 2013/2014 while Erica Lehrer is on sabbatical.  I have been involved with CEREV for three years as a Research Affiliate, developing a comparative research program on curating difficult knowledge with colleagues Monica Eileen PattersonHeather Igloliorte and Erica Lehrer. I also co-lead an interdisciplinary university-wide curatorial theory and practice working group and facilitate and participate in workshops exploring curatorial technologies, strategies, and methodologies.

I am a cultural anthropologist and my research focuses on museums and public history in settings characterized by diversity, inequality, demographic change, and shifting power relations.  I teach interdisciplinary courses on Canadian cultures and museums at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada.


My first book, Contested Representations: Re-visiting Into the Heart of Africa (1999 & 2008), is an ethnographic examination of a famously controversial exhibition about colonialism and African history in an “establishment museum,” the Royal Ontario Museum of Toronto (ROM).  Among other issues, Contested Representations explores possibilities and pitfalls associated with reflexive and critical museology in relation to difficult histories.  This issue continues to engage me in both my research and curatorial projects.

I have conducted multi-sited research in South Africa, exploring the democratization of museums and township tours as alternative (albeit ethically problematic) heritage sites that address histories of forced removals and segregation. In my postdoctoral work, I expanded this project to compare heritage in the downtown eastside in Vancouver.  Known as Canada’s poorest postal code, this area is surrounded by urban gentrification and tourism.  Townships and the downtown eastside are both over- and misrepresented by media in their local context.   Residents in both settings, as well as community-based cultural and heritage projects, seek to demystify negative stereotypes about their communities, to educate visitors, and to valorize their histories of resistance and resilience.  But how to do this while avoiding the dangers of voyeurism and exploitation of impoverished communities?   Through ethnographic research, I study curatorial experiments and visitor/ citizen responses to them.

My current book project, Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibition, is co-edited with Erica Lehrer, and brings together an interdisciplinary, international group of scholars who conceptualize imagined exhibitions based on their academic research.  This act of translation challenges scholars who are used to working textually, to express ideas visually and orally, in relation to specific spaces, images, objects, and people. My own contribution is a curatorial intervention designed for the Royal Ontario Museum’s Canadian and African galleries.  It makes use of reflexive museology, but emphasizes the process and politics of exhibition creation through the work of a collaborative, “curatorial collective. ” Its goal is to create a participatory museum experience that engages all visitors in questions of black history and identity, and inclusion and exclusion, in Toronto, and Canada more broadly.  Look here to see my blog about a two-day workshop that was held at CEREV on this project.

I am embarking on a new curatorial project, “The Last Taboo: Breaking the Silence around Suicide” and plan to hold an exploratory workshop in 2014 at CEREV to explore intersections with the domain of difficult knowledge.  This project reflects my commitment to promoting socially engaged and personally meaningful museology in Canada.

During the coming year at CEREV, my goal is to support sustained and diverse conversations and research around curating as a methodology for public scholarship.  I look forward to developing synergies with other Concordia research units and faculty.  A number of events are in development with university and community partners, including:

a public lecture and workshop by anthropologist and curator George Marcus

a public lecture by James Clifford in conjunction with his new book  Returns: Being Indigenous in the 21st Century

a screening and public discussion of Two Sided Story (linked to The Parents Circle – Families Forum project serving bereaved Palestinians and Israelis)

a two-day research workshop on children’s drawings as historical and personal testimony with Banting Postdoctoral Fellow and CEREV Research Affiliate, Monica Eileen Patterson

participation in The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics conference and festival on “Choreographing Social Movements in the Americas

Please bookmark or subscribe to the CEREV  website to keep informed about our activities.   Feel free to contact me  to discuss projects or events that CEREV should consider supporting.

I can be reached at: Shelley.butler@mcgill.ca.  I look forward to hearing from you.


Selected Publications:

Forthcoming (2013): “Reflexive Museology: Lost and Found.” In The International Handbook of Museum Studies: Museum Theory: An Expanded Field, eds. K. Message and A. Witcomb. Blackwell.

Forthcoming (2013) Review of Ethnographic Terminalia: Field, Studio, Lab.  Museum and Curatorial Studies Review. 

2013 Review of Museums, Equality and Social Justice, ed. R. Sandell and E. Nightingale. Museum Worlds: Advances in Research. 1: 241-252.

2012  “Curatorial Interventions in Township Tours: Two Trajectories.”  In Slum Tourism:  Poverty, Power and Ethics, 215-231. Ed. F. Frenzel et al. Routledge: London.

2011   “Curatorial Dreams: A Critic Imagines an Exhibition.”  Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals. Special Issue: Translation, Intervention, and Innovation in Curatorial Practice, eds. L. Gomoll and L. Olivares. 7(4): 418-419.

2010 A Conversation with Silvia Forni, Curator of the Royal Ontario Museum’s First Permanent African Gallery. Anthropologica 52: 198-200.

2010  Review of the African Gallery at the ROM.  Anthropologica 52: 197-98.

2010 “Should I Stay of Should I Go? Negotiating Township Tours in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change (8): 1-2: 15-29.

2009 “Alternative Tourism in Disadvantaged Social Spaces: Reflections on the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, Canada and South African Townships”  In Critical Actions and Creative Vistas.  Conference Proceedings, Critical Tourism Studies Conference Eds. V. Richards and A. Raguz, 441-48.  Zadar: Croatia.

2008  Contested Representations: Revisiting Into the Heart of Africa. Peterborough: Broadview Press.

Center for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence