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The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization features Haida poles and (in the background) a Tsimshian house from the Northwest coast. (Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout)
The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of Civilization features Haida poles and (in the background) a Tsimshian house from the Northwest coast. (Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout)

The new Canadian Museum of History: Whose history will it tell? Add to ...

When the Canadian Museum of Civilization emerges from renovations in 2017 to become the new Canadian Museum of History just in time for the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Rocket’s jersey is sure to be prominently displayed. But will the No. 9 Canadiens sweater worn by Maurice Richard in the 1959 Stanley Cup final be presented as a sacred icon for a hockey-mad Canada – or for a politically awakened Quebec?

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Richard was a French-Canadian hero whose suspension by an English hockey-league president in 1955 led to riots by Montreal fans that are now often interpreted as nationalist demonstrations that heralded the province’s Quiet Revolution. The jersey itself came to the CMC in 2002 when Ottawa won a tussle with Quebec over who would acquire memorabilia from the Richard family, with the museum in Gatineau paying $600,000 to keep the collection in federal hands.

And however the jersey is politically interpreted, what’s to guarantee that Canadians born long after Richard hung up his skates would not much rather watch a hockey game on TV than stare at some old sweater?

In an era when museums are increasingly called on to tell complex stories rather than simply display artifacts, the rebranding announced by the federal government in October is becoming a tussle of its own. Competing visions for the renovation of the history exhibits at Canada’s most visited museum pit conservatives who favour political history of the kings-and-battles variety against liberals who prefer the museum’s past emphasis on social and multicultural history, but want a lot more of it. Meanwhile, with a mere $25-million federal grant to renovate about a fifth of its floor space, the new institution must create exhibits that compete in a dense entertainment environment in which museums are expected to offer alluring interactive displays. Handed heavy expectations, contradictory visions and a lightweight budget, the new Canadian Museum of History might be headed for trouble.

“Can they rise to the challenge to change this into an international-level museum? Doing history exhibits in a way that is truly engaging and exciting is not easy, and it’s expensive,” said John McAvity, director of the Canadian Museums Association. “The days of glass display cases are long gone.” McAvity welcomes a major federal investment in a sector that has been starved in recent years, but says visitors expect multimedia exhibits that match the production values they are accustomed to at theme parks or in video games. The adventurous and inventive standard to meet is set by Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand in Wellington, a bicultural, Maori-European institution of art, history and nature that opened in 1998 and features laser shows, video walls, touch screens and immersive environments, plus traditional displays.

Is $25-million plus the $5-million the CMC is expected to raise privately enough to create anything like that? The budget must cover a complete overhaul of 4,000 square metres on the third and fourth floors where currently the Canadian Personalities Hall offers 27 biographical exhibits on such figures as Nellie McClung and Mordecai Richler, and the Canada Hall leads visitors through a series of social vignettes from a 16th-century Basque whaling station to a lounge at Vancouver Airport. Plus it has to pay for the preparation of another 650 square metres previously occupied by a postal museum so that that space can receive touring shows from museums across Canada. (The iconic exhibits of first-nations artifacts on the ground floor that make the museum a must-see for foreign tourists will not be touched, nor will the popular Children’s Museum or Imax theatre, which help push attendance to 1.2 million visits a year.) The Canada Hall cost $50-million to build in the 1980s and 1990s, so the budget seems like a stretch, but museum president Mark O’Neill insists it can be done.

“We are certainly not going to take the Canada Hall and gut it. We are going to enlarge it and try and tell a better history of the country,” O’Neill said, citing the absence of material on the British conquest of Quebec, Confederation, the Riel rebellion, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

Emboldened by their success in telling historical narratives at the Canadian War Museum, which is a satellite of CMC that opened in 2005, museum staff felt they could do a lot more with their history displays, O’Neill said. As luck would have it, the government’s interest in marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation and encouraging interest in Canadian history coincided with the museum’s goals, he added.

But whose history is this museum going to tell? The emphasis on major political and military events makes critics suspicious that the displays will only advance a traditionalist version in keeping with the Conservative government’s emphasis on the military and the monarchy as appropriate national symbols.

“This is a triumph for the old-time academics,” said Dan Gallacher, who created the Canada Hall before his retirement from the CMC. He warns against trying to turn a museum exhibit into a chronological textbook, saying that the hall’s scenes of the fur trade, a 19th-century Ontario main street or a Japanese-Canadian fishing boat purposefully focused on social history to avoid offering interpretations of political events that might rapidly become outdated.

“A museum isn’t out to educate anyone; it’s a portal to introduce them [to topics].… People will read 75 words for 11 seconds and then move on,” Gallacher said. “If you try to create a story line that moves from one exhibit to the next, you bite off more than you can chew.”

Gallacher and O’Neill do agree that museums can treat controversial topics – was Louis Riel a patriot or a traitor? – but they have to do it with a great deal of sensitivity. “The devil is in the details,” said O’Neill, who was working at the War Museum in 2007 when veterans hotly contested a text panel’s interpretation of civilian deaths during the bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, and curators were forced to change it.

Canadians themselves seem unlikely to agree with any notion that their history is a triumphant procession from the War of 1812 through Confederation to Vimy Ridge, nor that it should mainly record, as the Personalities Hall does, the achievements of well-known people.

Promised curatorial independence by the government, museum staff have been touring the country, holding public consultations. Last week’s consultations in Toronto raised a huge variety of suggestions, but at the event O’Neill said two things that came through loud and clear: People did not think history was the story of the famous and the powerful, and they did not want a focus on events to eclipse themes. As the CMC continues in Montreal and Saskatoon in January, however, one danger is that it will find it difficult to resolve conflicts over how specific groups or issues are represented. Since plans for a federally funded Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg were announced in the 2000s, the institution slated to open in 2014 has been hit by one controversy after another, including debates about which genocides it should include and how it should represent the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.“Presenting history is full of potholes and land mines. They are sometimes hard to see coming,” McAvity warned.

Participants in the Toronto consultations did call for more political history but also more folk, oral, regional, women’s, aboriginal and South Asian history too, leaving at least one citizen scratching his head.

Toronto businessman Jim Stewart, a collector of duck decoys, antique guns and historic wildlife art he might bequeath to the museum some day, gently reminded the crowd that museums are places dedicated to the collection and preservation of objects.

“A museum starts off with artifacts,” he said in an interview afterward. “Otherwise, it’s a theatre or a university or some other means of communication. The challenge is to collect artifacts that speak to streams of Canadian history. I am a supporter of the museum, but they are going to have a very difficult job here. They may be spreading their wings beyond their capabilities.”

If the CMC were to be judged not by what stories Canadians might want it to tell but by the artifacts it has collected in the past, then first and foremost it is the repository of a magnificent array of first-nations objects, especially from the Northwest Coast. Despite recent additions to the historical collection, including the Richard jersey and a ceremonial last spike from the Canadian Pacific Railway, the archeological and ethnographic material that the Geological Survey of Canada first started assembling in the 19th century is still the cornerstone of the institution. That will remain powerfully symbolized by the iconic Haida and Wakas poles and the contemporary Spirit of Haida Gwaii sculpture that stand in the museum’s Grand Hall within sight of the Parliament Buildings, but does the new name and new focus reflect those strengths? Ironically, when staff stopped in Edmonton to consult the public there, native elders had but one message to relay: We want to be included in the new history galleries too.

How they did it in New Zealand

The Museum of New Zealand or Te Papa Tongarewa is a bicultural, European-Maori museum of art, artifacts and natural materials that sits on Wellington’s waterfront. The collection, housed in 36,000 square metres of space in a building designed by local architect Ivan Mercep, features hundreds of thousands of objects grouped around five themes: art, history, the natural environment, Pacific and Maori.

Te Papa (the Maori name means container of treasures) is internationally recognized for its interactive exhibits, which include a laser-light show devoted to aboriginal legends, as well as video walls and artifacts that can be handled by visitors. Its holdings include everything from a 1913 silver rowing trophy made by the Canadian jeweller Birks in Vancouver and presented to officers of the HMS New Zealand battlecruiser to the world’s largest specimen of a colossal squid, as well as numerous examples of Maori art. The museum receives more than a million visitors a year.

The result of a 1990s merger of the National Museum and the National Art Gallery, the new institution that opened in 1998 has faced several controversies. Some critics have compared the interactive exhibits to a theme park while others have questioned the wisdom of housing precious artifacts on reclaimed land in an earthquake zone. The building is erected on 150 shock absorbers and is built to withstand a one-in-250-year earthquake without suffering any damage.

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