The Musée canadien des civilisations / Canadian Museum of Civilization is in Gatineau, Quebec – opposite Parliament Hill – with spectacular views of the Ottawa River. (Hint: It’s the one with waves of curvy walls and the array of striking totem poles in the grand hall.)
Initial efforts and collections behind the current museum date back to the mid-1800’s. Today’s iconic building opened in 1989 and was designed by Metis/Blackfoot architect Douglas Cardinal. The landmark (which includes an IMAX theatre) is the most visited museum in the capital region.
“Civilization” is such a broad topic, encompassing most human activity across time. The Canadian Museum of Civilization tries to reflect the diverse cultures that evolved here first, and encompass the ones that followed. (I say “tries” only because it’s impossible to do it all.)
This past Tuesday, Heritage Minister James Moore announced changes for that museum in advance the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation in 2017. The museum will get a $25 million dollar renovation and emerge rebranded as The Canadian Museum of History, with a greater emphasis on the country’s social and political history.
The idea is not a new one. Indeed, as the Star’s Susan Delacourt reports (under a cheeky headline “Civilization ends, history begins”) Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien laid groundwork for the idea back in 2003. As Delacourt put it:
Historians and cultural critics have long complained there was no place in the nation’s capital paying tribute to the big events, ideas and people that shaped Canada. There are museums to honour war, nature, science and technology and even currency, but no venue that presents the country’s whole story, from Confederation to modern times.
The new initiative will also earmark funds to bring content from smaller regional museums to the capital region and send items buried in deep warehouse storage out on the road to be seen. That show and tell exchange is detailed further in this Oct 16th Ottawa Citizen article by Don Butler.
Many in Canada’s cultural community mistrust the current conservative government’s goals and tactics. This announcement raised immediate suspicion museums would be pressed into political service.
According to the Citizen, Moore thinks that’s an overly cynical view:
“I don’t know what the partisan spin is on Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe. I don’t know what the partisan spin is on Maurice Richard’s jersey,” he said, referring to two of the numerous historic artifacts that formed the backdrop for his announcement in the museum’s Great Hall.
“This is not about a left-wing issue or a right-wing issue,” Moore said. “This is the right thing to do, to build an institution that will span all of Canada and represent all of Canada’s rich diverse history. That’s what we aim to do.”
Still, the Globe and Mail says the plan has generated “skepticism in academia and outrage in opposition ranks” with the NDP calling it yet another example of the Harper government’s “propaganda agenda”.
Some are hailing the move as a good way to build partnerships and facilitate better use of historical material and displays.
The Canadian Museums Association issued a press release in which executive director John McAvity welcomes the new collaborative outreach. According to the Globle and Mail, McAvity particularly likes renaming Gatineau’s federal Museum of Civilization, considering there’s also a provincial Musée de la civilisation in Quebec City:
“It will end years of confusion. You have two museums with virtually the same name, in the same province,” he said. “This will be good for branding, good for awareness and it will given Canadians greater access to their heritage, to their history.”
In an Oct 17th Ottawa Citizen article about opposition to the announcement, James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (representing 68,000 members) came out against the changes. The same article quotes Historian Craig Heron as favoring how current displays include ordinary people and their cultural impact.
“You can find the Chinese laundry, the Ukrainian Hall, a print shop, a union hall, a whole variety of things that came out of the work of social historians over the last three decades.”
What’s being proposed in its place is somewhat vague, he said, “but what I’m hearing is a kind of 1960s textbook version of Canadian history.”
Columnist Dan Gardner is taking a wait and see attitude, but has concerns the new museum could end up with a “Hall of Fame” tone that does a disservice to any serious treatment of the subject.
Debating history come with the territory. What it is, what gets included, what gets left out and who gets to shape the message….those disagreements are pretty standard stuff, in any country.
And change itself also sparks debate. Which can be healthy. As one prominent stakeholder was quoted in the Ottawa Citizen:
Architect Douglas Cardinal, who designed the striking curvilinear museum, gave the rebranding a thumbs-up. “I love the fact that the museum keeps evolving and growing, and people still feel that it’s a national monument that can expand and serve all of Canada,” he said.
With a big birthday looming to mark 150 years as a young and vibrant nation, Canada can probably expect more such conversations about how to see itself through the lens of history.