The federal government announced plans today to rename and refocus the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Canadian Museum of History. The plan includes a major remodeling of over half of the exhibit space at the museum in Gatineau and new investments in a pan-Canadian museums network that would ensure our national historical artifacts and collections are showcased across the country.
This is not the first time the Museum has undergone a renaming or a refocus. Former Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Victor Rabinovitch provides us with a timeline of key points in the evolution of both the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.
Nor is this the first time a federal government has tried to create a national institution devoted to Canadian history. In 2003, the Chretien government announced a $50 million plan to convert the Canadian Conference Centre in Ottawa into the Canadian History Centre only to have Paul Martin cancel the project several months later. Then, as now, reaction among historians and the general public was skeptical, with many expressing concerns about the potential for political interference in the shaping of exhibits.
One of the most promising parts of today’s announcement is the mandate for the Museum to work with a pan-Canadian network of history museums to develop exhibits that see collections shared with Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast. I wrote about the virtues of a truly national strategy to promote history in the Aug/Sept 2003 issue of The Beaver.
A 2008 study commissioned by Canada’s History Society about people’s interests and preferences in Canadian history revealed that most Canadians hold a very local view of history, preferring stories about their own province and region. And so, while I tend to agree that a broader knowledge of all kinds of history including world history is generally good, there is merit in making a concerted effort to connect all Canadians to our national narrative as a first priority.
One of the most challenging questions is what national story we are telling? It’s that very question that foundered plans almost a decade ago, and is likely to be the biggest concern the Museum faces as it goes about creating its blueprints for the new permanent exhibitions and establishing its partnerships. There are few comparable national museums to guide them.
The National Museum of American History originally opened in 1964 as the sixth Smithsonian Building on the Mall in Washington D.C. Its mission is the collection, care, and study of objects that reflect the American Experience. The building has 300,000 square feet of public exhibit and programming space over three floors and a collection of more than 3 million wide-ranging artifacts. In addition to items you might expect to see like a piece of Plymouth Rock and Ben Franklin’s printing press, the Museum’s primary focus is to represent everyday American life through other unique collections such as the first video games, the national quilt collection, and Judy Garland’s ruby shoes from the original Wizard of Oz.
In 2007 then Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly wrote in support of a proposal by his educational Minister Lord Baker to create a new British History Museum. In The Telegraph article, he argued "We will focus not just on how a museum could relate the narrative of British history, but how it could celebrate the great British values on which our culture, politics and society have been shaped." The proposal was harshly criticized by academic historians many of whom felt the enterprise was destined to either wallow in British boosterism or conversely become so mired in political correctness that it might be more aptly named the Museum of Misery and Boredom.
Indeed what is striking about these other national history museums is this: in their efforts to avoid being seen to be politicized, most have tended to focus heavily on social history, popular culture and lifestyle. This type of history is valuable and understandably very engaging for a broad popular audience, but is a very different project from “showcasing the seminal events, personalities, and objects that have shaped the Canadian experience.” That endeavor will be a much more challenging enterprise, but one well worth undertaking.
Why a Canadian Museum might succeed is based on three things. The Canadian Museum of History, under its old nomenclature, has an international reputation for its innovation and creativity in presentation and programming so it is well equipped to lead such a challenge. Working with several other institutions with other perspectives, on an ongoing basis will provide its own check and balance, ensuring a richer, broader representation of our past. Finally, they have these other examples to guide them.
Along the way there will no doubt be many voices saying it can’t be done, it shouldn’t be done, the wrong things are being done, or the wrong people are doing them. Still, the potential for the new Museum to help create a national framework for our history is compelling. And the time is right. This could be most important national project undertaken for Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017.