A History of Nova Scotia Museums

For many Atlantic Canadian communities, heritage sites such as museums are vital to cultural identity and a key source of revenue, both of which are paramount for community survival.  Perhaps a less conventional, though arguably interesting way of conceiving of museums is as knowledge organizations.  Indeed museums play a key role in the production and dissemination of knowledge of the past as well as the present.  For these reasons and many others, museums are of increasing interest for scholars in the field of Management & Organization Studies.

Recently, scholars in the field of Management & Organization Studies have called for an historicturn (Booth & Rowlinson, 2006; Kieser, 1994; Üsdiken & Kieser, 2004).   The latter has focused on engaging researchers in de-naturalizing, contextualizing and illustrating the socially constructed nature of businesses, business practices and management knowledge.  What has been cited as needed to answer this call are new methodologies that can be used to undertake histories of organizations. Through an empirical study on the history of a museum complex in Nova Scotia, Canada called Nova Scotia Museums, ANTi-History is being developed as an alternative methodology that answers the call for a historic turn.

Research Objectives

The current research has two objectives:

  1. Theoretical development of ANTi-History: ANTi-History is an alternative historiography that was developed in my previous research (Durepos, 2009; Durepos & Mills, 2009, 2012a, 2012b; Mills & Durepos, 2010).  Currently, ANTi-History remains in theoretical infancy due to its sole use in an archival setting. The theoretical development of ANTi-History is dependent upon its use in a research setting involving human actors.  The proposed research will give M&OS scholars and others the needed tools to promote and engage in historical research. 
  2. Development of an organizational history of Nova Scotia Museums [NSM]:  NSM is a provincial museum complex involving 27 heritage sites located across Nova Scotia.  Heritage interpreters employed at the sites interact with the public to interpret history.  NSM offers an ideal context to develop ANTi-History in that humans perform history and heritage on a daily basis. In addition, the executive director of NSM, Mr. Bill Greenlaw, has expressed a need for, and support for, the research team to develop an organizational history of NSM. 
2011 Pilot Study

A pilot study undertaken during the summer of 2011 focused on the theoretical development of ANTi-History by analyzing NSM and revealed three main findings:  

  1. ANTi-History shows potential to understand the craft of constructing history as it is delivered by human actors; 
  2. NSM is an organization whose mandate it is to deliver history, but it does not have a documented organizational history and has expressed a desire for its development;
  3. A focus on NSM will provide an ideal context for the theoretical development of ANTi-History and the construction of an organizational history of NSM;

Two research grants from St Francis Xavier [StFX] University were used as seed money to fund the pilot study; one of the grants was awarded from the Centre for Regional Studies, a committee funded by the SSHRC Aid to Small Universities program. The other grant came from the University Council for Research at StFX.  Both grants were allocated through a peer review process. I am grateful to both of these agencies, which made the pilot study a possibility.

One undergraduate honours student was hired as a research assistant.  She used both her acquired research skills and data collected for her honours thesis which she defended in April of 2012.  Data were collected on eight NSM heritage sites through a combination of web searches, participant observation, interviews, and analyzed through actor-network theory.  A Summary of Results detailing the main findings of the pilot was communicated to relevant stakeholders in NSM (PDF available below).  Though the pilot was successful in identifying and refining the research objectives, more data are needed to achieve the research objectives.  As a result, the research is ongoing.

Research Context

Recent calls for an historic turn in M&OS (Keiser, 1994; Üsdiken & Kieser, 2004; Booth & Rowlinson, 2006; Jacques, 2006) have advocated a greater engagement of the field with history.  The stated benefits of illustrating the history of an organization include: showing how organizations represent and account for their past (Rowlinson & Hassard, 1993; Booth, Clark, Delahaye, Procter, & Rowlinson, 2007; Durepos, Mills, & Helms Mills, 2008), explaining how the past contributes to existing management knowledge (Weiss, 1983; Jacques, 1996; Wren, 2005; Weatherbee & Durepos, 2010), and doing management research in a way that renders transparent its historical roots. For example, Delahaye, Booth, Clark, Procter & Rowlinson (2009, 39) have noted that telling the history of “an organization is a powerful means to communicating or challenging its culture and identity.”  Suddaby, Foster & Trank (2010) have suggested that history provides the legitimacy for an organization. Kieser (1994) has offered that organizations assume their present constitution by virtue of their past.  The latter has been communicated well by Delahaye, et al., (2009, 39), who claim “organizations make histories, because they are historical.” Sadly, as noted by Jacques (2006, 44), “not only is historical perspective not required of organizational theorists, it is not expected.”  

The call for a greater engagement of M&OS with history, or what has come to be known as the historic turn, has emerged due to criticisms that the field is plagued with research that is ahistorical. This is due to the predominance of a positivist episteme, which privileges universalism (research that is assumed as applicable across all people and all times) and presentisim (research that is presented as if it exists in a decontextualized, extended present) (Kieser, 1994; Üsdiken & Kieser, 2004; Booth & Rowlinson, 2006; Jacques, 1996; 2006). Many researchers have made efforts to redress what is perceived as a problematic situation. Booth and Rowlinson (2006), for example, suggest the need for “more critical and more ethical reflection” (p.7), which can be provided in part by historical analyses, and for “alternative methods and diverse styles of writing appropriate for studying organization historically” (p.5).  

Answering the call for an historic turn has been frustrated due to the lack of suitable and available methods for the study of organizational history.  


ANTi-History is an alternative approach to historiography whose theoretical development and empirical application to craft organizational history of Pan American Airways was the focus of Gabrielle Durepos’ PhD dissertation (Durepos, 2009). ANTi-History draws on insights from three distinct literatures:  

  1. The sociology of knowledge (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Mannheim, 1969; 1985; Marx & Engels, 1996);
  2. Cultural theory historiography (Ermarth, 1992; Foucault, 1982, 1997, 2007; Iggers, 2005; Jenkins, 1991, 1995, 1997, 2003; Munslow, 2010; White, 1973, 1985, 2007; Gunn, 2006); 
  3. Actor-network theory (Latour, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2005; Law, 1992, 1994, 1999).  

ANTi-History is rooted in an amodern ontology (Latour, 1993, 2005), and a social constructionist epistemology (Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Crotty, 2005).  The method of ANTi-History draws largely on actor-network theory (ANT; see Methodology section for description).  Drawing on ANT, ANTi-History assumes a relational lens to understand the construction of history as a product of the politics of actor-networks who perform their past.  The task of the researcher becomes one of tracing the negotiations, politics, and acts of translation and enrollment of human and nonhuman actors as they form networks, whereby a unified understanding of what happened before-now comes into being.  Simply put, the task is to trace the performances of actors as they negotiate the past into written histories.  

Though ANTi-History has been developed and used fruitfully in the archive (Durepos, 2009; Durepos & Mills, 2012a), it has not been used with human actors in organizational sites.  This is significant because ANT has itself been criticized for its lack of specific methodological direction in terms of dealing with and understanding the motives of human actors.  To the degree that ANTi-History draws upon ANT, it can be subject to similar criticism.  Using ANTi-History for applied research that involves human actors (i.e., heritage interpreters) will offer an opportunity to address this criticism.

An Organizational History of Nova Scotia Museums

NSM is an ideal site for the development of an organizational history as well as a useful context for undertaking the theoretical development of ANTi-History. Furthermore, NSM has expressed a desire and support for the development of its history.  To achieve the latter, the following has been discussed with NSM:

  • The history will document and assess past practices, explore the economic role of NS heritage sites, and find strategies to ensure their sustainability in light of continual budget cuts.  The importance and necessity of the latter are evidenced in the recent closure of the Hector heritage ship in Pictou NS due to lack of funding.  The negative repercussions included the decline in tourism and related economic spinoffs, as well as the loss of up to 17 jobs (CBC, March 31 2010; Truro Daily News, March 30 2010). The significance of the job loss is notable due to the region’s high unemployment rate: 12.9% compared to a national average of 8.2%.  

  • Heritage interpreters and sites will have an opportunity to include their organizational history as part of the public history delivered at the site.  The goal is to encourage such sites to render their own history transparent and illustrate their role in shaping and constructing the history offered to the public.  The latter assumes importance because a prominent theme taken up at heritage sites in NS is the history of industry and business. In fact, 14 of 27 NSM are old businesses transformed into museums, which now commemorate an aspect of industry (fisheries, timber, mills) that once played a focal role in the NS economy.  Documenting and sharing the story of the transformation of factories into museums is noteworthy.  The transformation begs the question: instead of manufacturing goods, are we manufacturing heritage (Hewison, 1987; Urry, 1980; 1999)?  A theme that will be investigated as part of the organizational history of NSM will be the decline of traditional goods and service industries in NS in conjunction with the historical emergence of NS heritage sites that commemorate those industries.

In summary: the proposed research aims to provide an empirical application of ANTi-History to understand organizations whose business it is to produce, convey and sell history (Boje, 1995; Rowlinson, 2002) in Nova Scotia (Hewison, 1987), and ultimately provide an organizational history of NSM (Macdonald & Fyfe, 1996; Pannekoek, 2009; Dick, 2009; Conrad, Letourneau & Northrup, 2009; Bennett, 2004; 2007).

Data Collection Procedure

The research is informed through a postpositivist lens (Prasad, 2005).  Consistent with ANT studies, the researchers collect data by following actors and their politics (Latour, 1987).  As a result, the arguments concerning the topography of actors draw on multiple sources of evidence and data collection techniques. These include archival research, semi-structured interviews, participant observation and web-searches.  As noted, data collection for the project commenced with the 2011 pilot study and is ongoing.  Data is stored and analyzed with the aid of the endnote program in which the database was created.  

Archival Research:  

Research has and continues to be undertaken at three archives. To date:

  • 14 days have been spent at Nova Scotia Archives [NSA] focused on locating and analyzing documents related to the past of NSM.  Of focus were four distinct NSM newsletters (Nova Scotia Museum of Science Newsletter, The Latest Word from Nova Scotia Museum, The Occasional, News and Views) dating from 1955 to 1975, brochures and one-off programming publications, and annual reports dating from 1900 to 1940 and 1949 to 1992.  This combination of documents, for example, offered information on considerations involved in transforming properties into heritage sites and preliminary reports documenting the deliberation about the interpretation of heritage to be offered at sites. 

  • Five days were spent at the Nova Scotia Museums library archive where the content of two newsletters (The Occasional and News and Views) dating from 1976 to 1985 were analyzed in conjunction with two boxes each labeled Nova Scotia Museum Archival Materials and NSM Board of Governors Reports dating from 1948 to 2004.  

  • Finally, one day of archival research was undertaken at the Nova Scotia Province House [NSPH] focused on analyzing NSM annual reports dating from 1994 to 1997. 

Semi-Structured Interviews:

Semi-structured interviews (McCracken, 1988) were conducted with individuals from three groups of participants:  

  1. Current administrative employees at NSM headquarters in Halifax;
  2. Heritage interpreters and site managers, who participate in the interpretation of history and who are employed at the eight heritage sites that took part in participant observation; 
  3. Retired NSM employees.

Interviews were recorded with the consent of the participant and transcribed verbatim.  Transcriptions were analyzed for key themes, coded and stored in the endnote database. 

Participant Observation:

Participant observation involves observing, interacting and engaging with the subject of study.  It implies a complete submersion into the research site.  It provides the opportunity to get close to and follow the research participant around (Latour 1987) to foster an intimate understanding of their practices (Di Domenico & Phillips, 2010; Ehrenreich, 2008).  Eight NSM heritage sites were visited for one day each where an observation protocol was used to assist in directing the focus and delineating relevant observations. Notes were taken to document key observations, and these typed, coded and stored in the endnote database.

Web searches:

The name of each of the 27 museums that make up the NSM complex have been typed into the archives of national news sources (The Globe & Mail; CBC), respective local newspapers, and Google to understand and document any critical events in the past of such sites, media’s depiction of the sites (Gendreau, 2009), and to draw conclusions on the perceived importance of the sites to Nova Scotia and beyond.  Relevant articles were saved in PDF format and stored in the endnote database.


Actor-Network Theory:

ANT focuses on the political manner in which the social is constituted, or hangs together (Latour, 2005).  The social is understood as composed of heterogeneous (human and nonhuman) actors and networks who constantly engage in political tactics to enlist and translate the interests of other actors to form purposive networks (Callon, 1986).  Actor-network theorists focus their energy on understanding the in-between of actors and networks.  They look at the site of transformation whereby actors become networks and networks achieve extreme alignment of its actors and come to act as one, thus as actors (Law & Hassard, 1999).  ANT involves following key actors around (Latour, 1987) with special attention paid to sites whereby one actor’s actions, or intents is altered by virtue of an encounter with another actor.  Micro sites of change and social politics of actors become the focus of an actor-network theorist.  Insight is sought concerning how various actors’ interests are captured by others, translated and enrolled into making one’s own cause stronger or more certain (Callon & Law, 1982).  

In the current study, ANT is used in at least two ways: 

  1. To trace the socio-political tactics of various heritage interpreters (actors) and interest groups involved in the initial formation (or history) of the heritage site.  This allows the fostering an understanding of the history of the heritage site (Bennett, 2004; 2007), the nature and purpose of its emergence, as well as a list of the key actors involved and their intentions.  It also allows for tracing the nature of the organization over time to document its practices and key events; 

  2. To map out the socio-politics of actors who were instrumental in developing the uniform understanding of the history that is the subject of continuous re-construction and performance at the heritage site.  Specifically, the research focuses on the power-laden activities of involved actors as they came to agree on, and privilege one uncontested version of the past to be performed at the site.  Part of the goal of the research is to expose the politics involved in crafting a particular representation, to disturb the taken for granted and naturalness of the heritage operation and the history it offers.  To do this, the researchers document the multitude of activities undertaken by actors.  Examples of activities include those of heritage interpreters as they deliver history, and those of key players revealed through interviews.  The activities are documented, typed, analyzed for key themes, coded, and stored in the endnote database.

The Theoretical Development of ANTi-History:  The theoretical development of ANTi-History is iterative and occurs as the organizational history of NSM is developed.  The main reason is because ANTi-History draws on Marx and Engels (Marx, 1964; Marx & Engels, 1996) to stress that experience (experiential realm; e.g., developing a history of NSM) should give rise to, and legitimate all ideas or theories (ideational realm; e.g., ANTi-History). The theoretical development of ANTi-History is aligned with this and proceeds according to three (non definitive) steps:  

  1. Step One: The researchers will analyze and immerse themselves in the data collected on NSM (experiential realm).  This will provide a basis for and shape the direction taken in developing ANTi-History in step two;   
  2. Step Two:  The researchers will immerse themselves in the theoretical framework that informs ANTi-History (ideational realm), paying special attention to the ANT literature, which will be drawn upon extensively in year two of the research.  In doing so, the researchers will be especially mindful of the emergent nature of the theoretical framework of ANTi-History.  They will be reflexive on how their experiences with NSM will largely shape their frame of focus in terms of developing ANTi-History, and thus its nature (i.e., what ANTi-History will eventually become);
  3. Step Three: An iterative approach will then be adopted, whereby the researchers will move between step one and two as needed.  For example, emergent themes concerning constructing histories by using ANTi-History will be noted and subsequently used (‘tested’) on NSM data.

Though much work has already been done to outline ANTi-History (Durepos, 2009; Durepos & Mills, 2012a), certain themes have been earmarked as worthy of future development.  For example, using ANTi-History with human performers of history will allow for developing at least two themes:

  1. Which actors to follow: 
    In his research on how natural scientists make knowledge, Latour (1987; 2005) suggested following the actors and their politics.  To develop ANTi-History, Latour’s (1987; 2005) advice was put into practice.  Knowing which actors to follow when using ANTi-History posed few problems in the Pan American Airways archive, because all traces were nonhuman actors (documents, books, letters).  However, since much of history involves human actors (heritage interpreters) and human actors are reflective beings with complex motives, knowing how to distinguish between relevant and non-relevant human actors is crucial to effectively do history.  Further theoretical development of ANTi-History would entail developing sound (prescriptive) advice that will provide guidance to researchers in these deliberations. Details concerning the way to follow actors around and knowing which actors to follow can only be fleshed out in practice.  While web searches and the PANS will allow for clues that help with knowing which actors to follow, participant observation will provide an opportunity to practice following actors.
  2. History composed of heterogeneous actor-networks:
    In ANT, the social is suggested as composed of interacting human and nonhuman actors who each have the capacity to alter one another’s courses of action.  Drawing on ANT, ANTi-History assumes that history is an outcome of interacting human and nonhuman actors (Gunn, 2006); thus, it is the result of the social politics of heterogeneous actors.  Because ANTi-History has only been used to follow nonhuman actors (physical documents in an archive), it has not been possible to effectively theorize on the interactions between human and nonhuman actors.  The present research will allow for a theorization of the role of human (heritage interpreters) and nonhuman actors (the layout of the site, heritage artifacts) but more specifically, the nature of their associations in the construction and composition of history.

Ultimately, the goal in developing ANTi-History is offer a useful and clearly defined alternative postpositivist historiographical approach that can be applied in M&OS and other academic fields to undertake historical analyses and include the historic roots of knowledge and research.


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