The recent announcement of a name change for Canada’s Museum of Civilization has sparked a great deal of public debate in Canada. It all began, when Heritage Minister, James Moore, first announced the idea in 2012, as part of a departmental branding initiative. In anticipation of Canada’s upcoming 150th anniversary of Confederation, funding priorities are being directed towards specific historical benchmarks.
One month after making the announcement, Bill C-49, An Act to amend the Museums Act in order to establish the Canadian Museum of History and to make consequential amendments to other Acts, received first reading in the House of Commons, followed by a second reading in May 2013. Meanwhile, museum consultants launched a cross-Canada engagement campaign, holding roundtable discussions in nine cities, and establishing an online survey for wider participation. By December 2013, the name change became official. The Canadian Museum of Civilization would now be called the Canadian Museum of History.
There was more to this initiative, however, than merely a name change. The mandate of the museum was made much more specific, switching from a broad cultural sweep:
…to increase, throughout Canada and internationally, interest in, knowledge and critical understanding of and appreciation and respect for human cultural achievements and human behavior by establishing, maintaining and developing for research and posterity a collection of objects of historical or cultural interest, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, and by demonstrating those achievements and behavior, the knowledge derived from them and the understanding they represent. (Dewing, 2012, p.3)
To a more focused historical stance:
…to enhance Canadians' knowledge, understanding and appreciation of events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada’s history and identity, and also to enhance their awareness of world history and cultures.(Dewing, 2012, p.3)
As well, along with this change came additional one-time funding, in the amount of $25 million, to renovate and re-integrate The Canada Hall, the Canadian Personalities Hall, and Canadian Postal Museum (Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2012). Of these three permanent exhibit spaces, proposed changes to The Canada Hall have brought about the greatest public reaction. There are those who see this as an attempt by Stephen Harper to “rewrite history” (Geddes, 2013); while others see this as a museum exercise, like none other (Butler, 2013), that has the support of museum staff, board of directors, and building architect Douglas Cardinal (Bolen, 2012).
Sifting through the series of parliamentary discussions which took place around these events is a tedious task. One thing that clearly stands out, however, is that President and CEO, Mark O’Neill, presents a compelling argument as to why these changes are necessary at this time (Parliament of Canada, June 10, 2013). First of all, there does not exist a museum in Canada that presents a “pan-Canadian” story about our national past. As O’Neill points out, although the Canadian Museum of Civilization has been working since 2005 to broaden and deepen its Canadian content (Corporate Plan, 2005-2010, p. 17), their exhibition efforts have not met expectations. Secondly, the three permanent exhibition spaces devoted to this purpose, namely The Canada Hall, the Canadian Personalities Hall and Canadian Postal Museum, do not work together as a unified exhibition space. In the words of O’Neill, the exhibits present “serious shortcomings” (Parliament of Canada, June 10, 2013).
The Canada Hall in particular, has been plagued with problems. Presenting a Eurocentric interpretation of our nation’s past, “history” in The Canada Hall begins, with the arrival of Europeans. As such, First Nations history is totally ignored, and women’s roles are marginalized.
Originally conceived to be a backdrop for theatrical storytelling and revenue-generating events (Rider, 1994), The Canada History Hall presents an imagined past – not history, and not heritage. The static interpretation units present a re-constructed environment that is Disneyesque in nature, making a ‘walk through time’ seem lifeless and frozen. Although there do exist interpretive gems along the pathways of ‘imagineering’, as a visitor, we have no way of knowing what is authentic and what is merely fabrication. We are also given no opportunity to contribute our thoughts to the experience; or challenge any of the subliminal narratives we encounter. Instead, we are treated as naïve consumers of a ‘ghost town’ past.
If O’Neill is correct in stating that all of the museum curators are in full support of this endeavor, then I trust their professionalism. Their dedication to the artifact collections is what counts most in this debate. I trust that they realize the great burden of reasonability that they carry for our nation’s material history. All political joisting aside, let’s not lose sight of what is absolutely essential to Canada’s network of museums: working together as a community of inquiry; and preserving our national treasures. To that, I say, please Mr. O’Neill, keep it real. Honour the collections which we, as Canadians, hold so dearly in your trust.