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In my opinion

When a lost manuscript turns up

The discovery of McLuhan collaborator Harley Parker’s Culture Box after 50 years should inspire other scholarly sleuths.


Many “lost” manuscripts are literary works, while lost audiovisual media run a close second. Then there is a lost work of media criticism from the Toronto School of Communication, the name given to a scholarly community that developed at the University of Toronto between the 1930s and the 1970s. Lost for 50 years – from the time of the announcement of its imminent publication by Harper & Row Publishers, with an excerpt in 1972 – the manuscript of Harley W. Parker’s book, The Culture Box: Museums are today has resurfaced and awaits publication.

While it is rare that a book manuscript of this sort turns up after so many decades, it should inspire anyone engaged in scholarly sleuth work to stay the course.

Canadian typographer, painter and exhibition designer Parker was media thinker Marshall McLuhan’s collaborator and right-hand man. He was popularly known as the “McLuhan of the museum”. Parker’s career as general display chief at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto stretched from 1957-1968, and the experimental gallery he mounted at the Museum of the City of New York in 1967 was a touchpoint for his progressive ideas about museums as perceptual laboratories.

The story of my attempt to find the lost manuscript begins in 2012. I initially discovered that Parker’s youngest son, Eric, lived close to me in Toronto. He graciously participated in a small seminar on his father that my colleague, art historian Adam Lauder, and I held in Oshawa, and brought to our attention a Yousef Karsh portrait photograph of his father, the existence of which not even the Karsh Estate knew about. It was a pleasant surprise, wrapped in a larger mystery.

I learned a few years later that The Culture Box manuscript might not actually be permanently missing. Monica Carpendale, based in Nelson, BC, the widow of Parker’s late eldest son Blake, confirmed that she had seen it among Parker’s belongings at some point after his passing in 1992.

I was inspired by this confirmation and began to enlist more interlocutors, keeping in mind the twists and turns that the passage of time could bring into play.

It was only once I had begun corresponding with Parker’s youngest child, his daughter Margaret in 2017, that I began to piece together the story.

It turned out that it was Margaret who stored her father’s belongings in her house. But she did not know that they included a lost book manuscript. I had a hunch it might be tucked away in one of the boxes. With my encouragement and armed with what I had told her about it, Margaret found the manuscript in early April 2022, and a preliminary scanned copy was sent to me shortly thereafter.

Margaret explains the discovery: “The Culture Box manuscript along with a few other papers was found in an old-fashioned hard-shell briefcase. This was stored in my house in Vallican, BC along with some of Harley’s other stuff.”

The manuscript of The Culture Box is a 350-page typescript; the pages appear to be renumbered by hand several times. The text has been copyedited, and there are few corrections. The challenge is to reconstruct all of the footnotes and other references; there were quotations from many different sources, but no complete citations. This task fell to me.

Parker took up the year-long position of William Kern visiting professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology in January of 1973. The last three chapters of The Culture Box are marked by hand as “good copy”, dated February 1973. He was still finalizing the text while commuting to Rochester from Toronto. No one I have reached remembers him teaching from this manuscript at that time.

What is in The Culture Box?

The book argues that museums are in the business of retraining the perception of visitors. In order to accomplish this, Parker recommends the construction of what he called a “new centre,” emphasizing both “new” and “news”, essentially a small “newseum”, preferably built adjacent to any existing large prestige museum that would consist of a current public exhibition; an exhibition in process; and an area for gathering materials for a new exhibition.

The goal of this emphasis on exhibit process in the present is to re-orientate museum visitors by managing the degree of contrast between the everyday cultures they inhabit, and the cultures they will encounter in museum displays. Parker uses a gradual approach to managing contrast, beginning with significant world events in the new centre, then moving away from the contemporary into greater degrees of contrast in the museum proper. One of his keywords is a “new ordering,” which he aligns with art’s capacity to shift away from everyday life, culminating in a reflexive and empathic visitor experience of cultural distance and difference.

The Culture Box is an important precursor to the later emergence of the multi-sensory museum concept, in which his writings and exhibitions have been rarely mentioned. The publication of this book will contribute to restoring the significance of his contributions to sensory museology and of museums as systems of non-linear communication, as well as the importance of the liminal spaces to visitor experience.

The mystery is not completely settled, however. Why The Culture Box was never published remains unknown. No original publishing contract has been located. Parker collaborated on a book with McLuhan in 1968, Through the Vanishing Point, published by Harper & Row (which was supposed to have published The Culture Box). He had independent correspondence with his series editor, philosopher Ruth Nanda Anshen, and with the press. Although Anshen was solicitous in her dealings with the authors, the relationship with Harpers had become strained throughout the production process.  This may have been enough to sideline Parker’s own manuscript.

Harley Parker’s time may be finally arriving. The proposal to publish The Culture Box has been well-received within the Canadian university press community. Another key book by Parker and McLuhan, Exploration of the Ways, Means, and Values of Museum Communication with the Viewing Public: A Seminar, will likely be republished soon, and my own monograph about Parker’s life and work is nearing completion. Going from zero to three books in a short time would be a significant contribution to the Toronto school legacy.

Gary Genosko is a professor of communication and digital media studies at Ontario Tech University.

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  1. Doug Lewis / June 8, 2023 at 12:04

    I’d never heard of Parker before. Very interesting article! “One of his keywords is a “new ordering,” which he aligns with art’s capacity to shift away from everyday life, culminating in a reflexive and empathic visitor experience of cultural distance and difference.” I think shifting away from ” the every day” and museum is the NFT’s phenomena, exemplified.

  2. Anne Urbancic / June 8, 2023 at 15:24

    What an exciting find! Bringing Parker’s work to the fore even as museums and museum studies are undergoing notable adjustments and changes will add an important aspect to the conversations among archives and museum scholars today.