Nicola Levell

Associate Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision

Dissertations completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest dissertations.

Museum of Vancouver's engagement turn : an ethnographic study of institutional transformation (2023)

Since the 1970s, many museums have focused their work on a post-museum approach (Hooper-Greenhill 2006) which places central importance on creating civic spaces for public participation, dialogue and social service. This thesis examines the Museum of Vancouver’s (MOV) adoption of a post-museum approach, shifting from a collections-based to an engagement-based model over a decade (2006-2016), to develop more participatory and collaborative relationships with diverse local communities, creative class audiences, and new immigrant groups. In this thesis, I examine MOV’s “engagement turn”, which involved an institutional reorientation, rebranding and organizational restructuring process with the aim of creating a healthy internal museum environment. Contributing to a growing body of ethnographic work on museums, I reveal important findings underlying the institutional transformations that occurred at MOV. I consider that despite MOV’s notable improvements in rebranding its identity, and higher visitor and membership numbers, the museum still faced ongoing operational, funding and resource challenges that were decades old. Although organizational restructuring somewhat improved staff relations, museum management had to work towards creating a more participatory and team-oriented approach which made staff members feel better supported and included in discussions surrounding new engagement-based projects. As MOV moved away from a collections-based model, conservation work on world collections was deprioritized, and more collection staff attention was focused on localized collecting practices with responsibilities of preparing, accessioning and digitizing Vancouver-based collections. Within MOV’s engagement-based model, an emphasis was placed on building relationships with local communities and bringing in local objects when they could accentuate the Vancouver stories being told. In this ethnographic study, participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and archival research document the museum’s internal transformations as well as the achievements and challenges working with Vancouver-based communities and audiences. I state that a large aspect of MOV’s institutional redirection prioritized design-centered projects which primarily catered to creative class professionals working in Vancouver’s post-industrial soft economy. Overall, I argue that the museum did succeed in beginning new relationships with several communities including members of Vancouver’s South Asian community, local contemporary collectors, and the Musqueam First Nation; although, limited staffing and resources make it challenging to continue these relationships long-term.

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Master's Student Supervision

Theses completed in 2010 or later are listed below. Please note that there is a 6-12 month delay to add the latest theses.

Making space: new aesthetics in the Masterworks Gallery at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (2018)

In the twenty-first century, museums are becoming increasingly interested in the immaterial—the affective and sensorial—qualities of exhibition spaces like sound, light, and movement. These expanding aesthetic qualities or ‘atmospheres’ offer new ways of communicating narratives, meaning, and value in the exhibition context. They can therefore be mobilized to honour Indigenous ways of presenting information, like storytelling, which also enriches audience experience. In effect, they have the potential to become atmospheres of reconciliation which foster new intercultural understanding, dialogue, and healing. This thesis aims to illuminate the relationship between space, objects, and people in museum exhibits and the processes that collaborative teams embark upon to curate and shape exhibition content, narratives, and the messages they communicate. I explore the system of staged arrangement of atmospheric components—light, colour, materiality, new media—in museum settings by considering the newly constructed Masterworks Gallery and its inaugural exhibit, In a Different Light: Reflecting on Northwest Coast Art, at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The significance of MOA’s twofold project—the design of a new gallery and the development of its first exhibit—is its potential for communicating institutional philosophies, priorities, and future goals in concrete form. My research will contribute to the fields of museology and design studies by illuminating how space and the sensorial might come together to create atmospheres of reconciliation using technology and new media not only as a product but also as a process. It will show how making space for multiple perspectives, through culturally diverse ways of remembering, communicating, researching, and learning, works toward advancing a decolonized methodology by challenging outdated museum prescripts and developing a new curatorial model. By claiming authority and space within the museum, Indigenous storytellers reclaim their right to self-definition and demonstrate ownership and authority over their own material and intangible cultures. By recalibrating sensory inputs in exhibits, like touch and voice, museums are building new kinds of connections, fostering understanding, and ultimately promoting reconciliation with Indigenous people through these new forms of aesthetic action.

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Becoming and being at the crossroads: challenging borders at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia (2017)

This paper explores how the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) creates exhibitions on conditions associated with globalization, such as transnationalism and migration. This has been a particular focus of the museum since the completion of an expansion project, officially titled “A Partnership of Peoples” (2006-2010), which sought to establish MOA as an internationally renowned museum of world art and culture. Guided by art historian Saloni Mathur’s question, “what kind of ideological work is sustained by [a] particular notion of the ‘global’?” this paper explores how MOA portrays an increasingly globalized world through exhibitions, as well as the “work” these exhibitions accomplish on both a discursive level and the level of individual viewers. These topics are explored through the analysis of two temporary exhibitions: Border Zones: New Art Across Cultures (2010) and Safar/Voyage: Contemporary Art by Arab, Iranian and Turkish Artists (2013). In addition to focusing on the selection and arrangement of particular works in the gallery space, this paper examines the discourses used to speak about the “work” done by each exhibition. When combined with theories of performativity, embodiment, and narrativity, this discursive analysis demonstrates how these exhibitions opened up pathways for viewers to participate in the exhibition space and become certain types of global subjects. Through examining the discourses employed in each exhibition and the pathways they opened for viewers, this paper argues that both Border Zones and Safar/Voyage created translocal spaces in which viewers were encouraged to become crossroads. The tension between local and global embodied by the concepts of the crossroads and translocalism is also a tension that reflects MOA as a whole. Ultimately, this paper calls for greater attentiveness to the borders that may be unintentionally reconstructed by the discourses applied to exhibitions on conditions of globalization.

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