Questioning the role of museums

Mythmaking,” the theme for this year’s Indian Summer Festival will focus on storytelling, the human imagination, and how both of those affect how people and society function. How sharing stories and memories – and which ones are chosen to be shared – are crucial, and one of the keys to how people shape their histories is through collections of the past: museums.

As part of the events planned for this year the Tiffin Talks, a lunchtime ideas series, will present New Museology on July 11.

“I think museums play a very important role,” says Shaheen Nanji, director of International Community Engagement at SFU. “They have the privilege of housing artifacts, and they help immortalize culture. They have a responsibility to share the materials they hold through education and access.”

The Indian Summer Festival brings together artists, writers, speakers and community members and will run July 5–15.

Carriers of the past

Shaheen Nanji, director of International Community Engagement at SFU. | Photo courtesy of ICC/Geoff Howe.

Nanji will be one of three presenters at New Museology, alongside Ammar Mahimwalla and Marika Echachis Swan, one of a five-part series of talks that aim to inform and provoke discussion amongst participants. Much of Nanji’s work revolves around creating welcoming communities for refugees and newcomers to Canada, and she has worked with the Museum of Vancouver to help make it a more accessible – and a more inclusive – environment.

“I immigrated to Canada in the 1980s [from Kenya,]” she says, “but it was only in the last five or ten years that I realized in all my efforts to fit into Canada, there’s always been this layer of feeling like an outsider. I’ve missed understanding the history of this land.”

Nanji and the Museum of Vancouver have looked to connect and collaborate with local Indigenous communities, and have worked to share underrepresented stories and history with all Canadians, both old and new. This discussion of how these histories and stories are captured – or should be captured – is what Nanji will bring to PAUSE Pavilion for the Tiffin Talk, and the fact that the pavilion is located at the site of an Indigenous village only adds a powerful natural element to the panel.

“I think this will be a great opportunity to be in this beautiful space that holds a history many of us aren’t aware of,” says Nanji. “It will be an opportunity to unpack that history and the role museums play in the different ways we understand what spaces like these hold.”

A unique presentation

Admission to the Tiffin Talks is by donation, with the goal to include all those who wish to attend. No one will be turned away, and that fits with what Nanji sees as one of the Indian Summer Festival’s strongest aspects.

“The festival is about engaging different cultures, and I think it’s really exciting,” she says. “We often talk about diversity and multiculturalism, but we sometimes forget to include those aspects in everyday life.”

Nanji hopes she and her fellow presenters of New Museology will be engaging and informative in their panel, but she sees a lot of added value in the lunch that will take place following the presentations.

“Often when there’s a panel there might be an audience Q&A,” she says, “but then you go away and discuss [what you’ve heard] only within your small group. At this event there will be time for people to interact with what they’re hearing, and continue the conversation.”

It is that opportunity to continue conversations that attracts Nanji. The topics that will be discussed are not simple or black and white, so being able to relax and converse with others over a delicious meal will hopefully lend itself to a more nuanced and engaging dialogue.

“I think it’s really important to discuss deep issues together,” says Nanji. “I’m hopeful this will spark another level of conversation and understanding.”

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