Labour, Heritage, and the Politics of Difference: Working Class History Museums in the Changing City

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DesRoches, Davina
Working Class Heritage , Museums , Commodification , Postindustrial Cities , Political Economy , Gentrification , Communication , New Museology
As a contemporary communications medium, the museum has undergone significant reinvention and reorientation of purpose within the past several decades. While the late twentieth century saw the rise of a fundamental reimagining of the museum as a visitor-oriented space where questions of representation, ownership, and voice were of paramount concern, the early twenty-first century has seen a repositioning of museums as market actors with a role to play in the economic aspects of social life. This dissertation probes the growing disconnect between the rhetoric and practices enacted under the auspices of new museology and the ascendancy of corporatized values, interests, and operational forms in museum praxis. It is specifically concerned with working class history museums located in postindustrial urban environments, and seeks to explore and consider some of the inherent tensions in representing labour struggles and working class heritage in gentrifying, capitalist cities. The dissertation reveals that working class history museums face immense challenges in trying to reconcile being socially progressive and class-oriented while also maintaining relevance and success in gentrifying areas. It argues that these museums are embedded within political economic structures of power, and thus face considerable limitations in their efforts to act as meaningful sites of political or ideological contestation. Furthermore, by subscribing to the supposition that heritage resources can be used to spur gentrification and economic development, museums may unwittingly reinforce elite reimaginings of the urban environment. Three case studies are examined: the People’s Palace, a public museum in Glasgow, Scotland; New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum; and finally, the Écomusée du Fier Monde, a small community museum located in the Centre-Sud neighbourhood of Montréal, Canada.
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