Women’s Roles in Museum Education

Blurring the Boundaries of “Femininity” in the Mid 20th Century

Woman, World Traveller and Archaeologist

Mary Stewart Houston, known as Stewart, was born and raised in the affluent neighborhood of Rosedale.[1] She was the great-granddaughter of Sir John Beverly Robinson who was the first Chief Justice of Upper Canada. “After the death of Stewarts father, her mother wanted her to receive an education in a more cosmopolitan society and they moved to Europe.”[2] In Rome, while furthering her studies in art history, she met Gilbert Bagnani, an archaeologist who soon became the Director of the Royal Italian Archaeological Expedition to Egypt. For five winters the Bagnani’s lived in the Sahara Desert, excavating a Graeco-Roman town where they uncovered the largest discovery of papyri in thirty years. Upon her return to Canada in 1937, Stewart could honestly say that she has unrolled more papyri than any other woman in the country. In Egypt, she worked alongside her husband and spent much of her time copying frescoes and inscriptions exposed during excavation.[3]

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, MSS 03195 vol. 5 c. 1
Stewart Bagnani in Rome during a women’s trip to Italy, 1920s

From Part Time Lecturer to Director of Extensions

Stewarts education and experience led her to become a prominent figure within the Ontario arts community. In 1950, after several years as a part time tourer and lecturer at the Art Gallery of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum, Stewart became a permanent employee at the Art Gallery of Toronto, later renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario. One of her first projects was to build a program of tours for school groups. In 1951, she expanded the program to circulate exhibitions throughout regional parts of Ontario. The circulating exhibitions mainly featured Toronto artists. This introduced Canadian artists to the public through slides and exhibitions that were sent all over the country and helped expand the public’s interest in art. This program became one of the main components of the Committee for the Extension of Public Relations and Education, which Stewart directed until 1963. As director, she continued to enhance the program by giving talks within the city and various smaller art museums throughout the province including the “What Do You See” gallery talk that took place on Wednesday evenings. Wednesday Open Nights was a program designed for anyone who wanted to gain a wider knowledge of art,[4] a tradition that remains intact to this day as the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Free Wednesday Nights.

Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, MSS 03195 vol. 2 c. 1
Gilbert and Stewart Bagnani visiting sites in Egypt, 1930s

By the mid-1900s, many upper and middle class women with university educations and the social capital of having travelled the world became educators in museums. Museum positions allowed women mobility within the public domain in a period when women’s opportunities in the public sphere were very limited. Women became critical in the development of education departments because these activities were perceived as suitable “feminine” duties within the museum. Since women were seemingly excellent communicators they were perceived as being better educators to children and the lay public. This was one way that women were granted entry into the realms of science and history, two disciplines that were historically associated with “masculinity” and reserved for men.[5]


Sarah Proulx holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Socio-cultural Anthropology from the University of Toronto, for which she conducted fieldwork in Greece and Peru. Travelling is her passion and she has travelled extensively throughout Europe, North Africa and Latin America. Before starting graduate school, she worked as a field archaeologist for an independent heritage consulting firm. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Museum Studies program at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information.

[1] Beverly House to Stewart Houston

[2] Ritchie, 2014

[3] Baldwin el al, 1958

[4] Baldwin, 1958

[5] Zankowicz, 2014

Upon her return to Canada in 1937, Stewart could honestly say that she has unrolled more papyri than any other woman in the country