Shelley Ruth Butler

srb by claudio
Photo by Claudio Calligaris

I teach, research, and write about museums and heritage sites that are situated in contexts of social and economic inequality, cultural diversity, and changing cultural politics.  I am fascinated by the challenges establishment museums face in reinventing themselves.  I am inspired by exhibitions and interventions shaped by social justice, multiple perspectives, and individual and social well-being.

Trained as a cultural  anthropologist, I have written extensively about museums in Canada and South Africa over a period of 25 years. My first book is an ethnography of the controversy surrounding Into the Heart of Africa, a landmark exhibition that showed at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto in 1990.

The book is widely taught in Canada, the US, and UK and I frequently do guest teaching on it. I particularly enjoy relating it to current issues, readings, exhibitions, and conversations that students are already engaged with.

My co-edited volume Curatorial Dreams: Critics Imagine Exhibitions challenges scholars to conceptualize exhibitions.  Included in the book is my own Curatorial Dream, titled Museum without Walls,  which is designed as a pedagogical and creative intervention in the African and Canadian galleries of the Royal Ontario Museum.  The project continues to evolve, now organized by a “curatorial collective” — a group of curators, artists, and educators —  called “Curators without Walls.”

One of the first places I experimented with Curatorial Dreaming was in South Africa where I researched township tours, which is an “alternative tourism” that promises to teach visitors about apartheid and its legacies.  Through ethnographic research and visual analysis of promotional materials and photos associated with the tours, I became keenly aware of problems associated with voyeurism, the invasion of privacy,  and the commodification and romanticization of poverty.  My Curatorial Dream tweaked the routes and narratives of the township tours, to heighten awareness of the power dynamics involved. It is published in this book.

I teach courses on Canadian cultures with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada at McGill University.  Here, I’ve experimented with Curatorial Dreaming as a pedagogical tool.  Students have designed exhibition displays in response to a “nostalgic” ad campaign by Yum Yum Potato Chips in Quebec, which traded on racist, stereotypic images of aboriginal Canadians. They have “played” in McGill’s Redpath Museum, creating interventions inspired by Stephen Greenblatt’s evocative terms describing exhibition logics: resonance and wonder.   Students have also collaboratively designed imagined monuments for McGill University.  In a time-sensitive, friendly competition, one team created a ludic fun zone for the roof of the main library, inspired by qualities of wonder and play that are often lacking in students’ everyday lives.  A second team created a critical, reflexive intervention that brought attention to marginalized local, aboriginal histories.

In each of these cases, students worked with self-awareness, historical conscience,  and a theoretical vocabulary about display, participation, the politics of representation, post-colonialism, and therapeutic and critical museology.

I have worked with a variety of community advocacy and service organizations, addressing issues related to immigrant and refugee women and work, literacy, disability rights, and support for breastfeeding. I was Acting Director for the Centre for Exhibition and Research  in the Aftermath of Violence (CEREV) at Concordia University, and am currently assisting in building a Curating and Public Scholarship Lab there.

See my current CV here .