Revised mandate for renamed Canadian Museum of Civilization raising fears

I had missed this article in last month’s Ottawa Citizen by DON BUTLER, OCTOBER 15, 2012
It includes comments from professors at U of O and Carleton.

OTTAWA — Staff at the Canadian Museum of Civilization are worried that a rebranding of the popular museum in Gatineau to be announced Tuesday could turn it into a “propaganda arm” of the government. And some history experts share their concern.

The iconic 23-year-old museum, designed by architect Douglas Cardinal, will be renamed to reflect a focus on the interpretation and presentation of Canadian history. Heritage Minister James Moore, accompanied by Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, will make the announcement at noon.

Though the museum’s permanent collections feature Canadian history and First Nations exhibits, many of its blockbuster special exhibits feature other nations, such as the current exhibit on the Maya.

Such exhibits — which can attract significant audiences — may have no place in a renamed museum explicitly focused on Canadian history.

That’s causing concern in the museum’s exhibition branch, said a source who spoke on background. “They’re quite worried because they know full well that it’s the blockbusters on non-Canadian themes that draw in the crowds.”

Of even greater concern to some staff is the fear that the shift signals a politicization of the historical events that the museum will feature. The federal government has made no secret of its desire to raise awareness of Canada’s military history and ties to royalty, for example. (The museum is currently featuring a special exhibition celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee.)

The museum of civilization is the most popular of the museums in the National Capital Region, attracting about 1.2 million visitors annually. It was spared any cuts in this year’s federal budget, but incurred a $2-million deficit in 2011-12.

Though museum staff have largely been kept in the dark about the impending changes, rumours of a name change have been swirling within the institution for months. Some staff have spoken openly of their fear that the museum could be turned into a propaganda arm.

The worry, said one staffer, is that the Canadian history stories that will be the subject of research and exhibitions will be identified by politicians across the Ottawa River rather than the museum’s own experts. “And that is quite worrisome,” the staffer said.

“We’ve been told so far that we will be retaining our autonomy,” the staffer said. “But at the same time, the topics of exhibitions seem to either be dictated from across the river or chosen by (museum CEO Mark O’Neill) to please the people across the river.”

Pierre Anctil, a history professor at the University of Ottawa, echoed that concern. While he welcomed the greater focus on Canadian history, he said the risk is that it could become “too uni-dimensional, meaning that it would explore this complex body of facts and periods in a way which would reflect what the government thinks. That would be a bad thing,” he said.

Anctil cited the current celebration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which he said is “historically not very solid and not very informed. The government prepared a narrative that was too simplistic and didn’t reflect the complexity of the history. That’s what we have to avoid.”

If such pitfalls can be avoided, Anctil said he regards the name and mandate change as positive. “The more citizens know about their history, the more they’re willing to involve themselves in the building of the country.”

David Dean, a historian at Carleton University, said he was “nervous” that the change represents a retreat from the museum’s legislated mandate, which is to increase, both in Canada and internationally, respect, knowledge and appreciation of human cultural achievements and behaviour.

As a historian, Dean said he’s not opposed to anything that disseminates historical knowledge. “I’m just a little suspicious about what the intention is here.”

If the new mandate “allows us to tell the story of the horror and legacy of residential schools, if that happens, then yeah, that’s a good thing,” he said. “But I suspect that’s not the motivation.”

Dean described the museum of civilization as breathtaking. “It’s highly innovative, it’s enormously influential around the world, and I’m worried that narrowing its mandate will actually work against some of those achievements.”

The rest of the article can be read here.

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