The Harper government is calling on the Canadian Museum of History to dedicate half of its permanent space to a new gallery honouring Canadian heroes, achievements and milestones at a cost of $25-million in an era of cultural cuts.
The exhibition will feature a host of “national treasures,” such as explorer Samuel de Champlain’s astrolabe, the “last spike” from the Canadian Pacific Railway, and Maurice Richard’s No. 9 Habs jersey.
The goal is to replace an old social-history exhibition at the institution with a new gallery dedicated to great moments in Canadian history, designed to provide a chronological understanding of the country’s major events and characters.
The shift in the mission of the cultural institution was met with optimism in historian circles, although the government’s long-standing emphasis on military history and the monarchy continued to fuel concerns over the exact focus of the revamped exhibition.
Historian and author Charlotte Gray said she hopes the museum will not only focus on “men in uniforms,” adding she is waiting to see how the government treats an event like the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2016. Still, Ms. Gray applauded the creation of the new institution.
“It’s crucial that we focus on our history, and this is a wonderful opportunity,” she said.
As first revealed in The Globe and Mail, the Harper government is transforming the Canadian Museum of Civilization into the Canadian Museum of History as part of celebrations leading to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.
Historians are excited by the potential of the new institution, which will replace the Museum of Civilization that was created in 1986 and moved three years later from Ottawa to Gatineau, Que.
The opposition, however, continued to deride the creation of the new historical institution. While Ottawa has spent millions on promoting the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, it has also cut funding at the National Archives and other cultural institutions like the CBC in recent years, raising questions about their intentions in this case.
“They are throwing splashy on what is essentially a ribbon-cutting [ceremony] for the Conservatives,” said NDP MP Andrew Cash.
Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore and the president of the museum, Mark O’Neill, said the new gallery will replace the existing Canadian Postal Museum, the Canada Hall and an exhibition space called Face-to-Face.
The existing space dealing with native history will be untouched, including the First People’s Hall and the Grand Hall that is filled with totems. Overall, half of the museum’s 100,000 square feet will be renovated, with the other half remaining unchanged.
The one-shot investment of $25-million for the upgrade will come from existing budgets at Canadian Heritage, Mr. Moore insisted.
He added that it will be up to museum staff – and not the government – to determine the content at the museum and the way that it is presented to the museum’s more than one million annual visitors.
“There are all kinds of narratives about Canada’s history, some of it not pretty, some of it inspiring, like Terry Fox, some of it just curious and interesting,” Mr. Moore said.
Speaking to reporters, Mr. O’Neill said that the existing Canada Hall, which dates back to the 1980s, “was not developed as a chronology of Canadian history.”
“In my opinion, [the new museum must offer] a comprehensive, authentic and honest telling of the history of Canada and Canadians,” he said.
Mr. O’Neill said the new exhibitions will deal with Canada’s history, “warts and all.”
“There are episodes in our history that are critically important, whether it be the internment of Japanese Canadians, whether it be the situation of people in residential schools,” Mr. O’Neill said.
He insisted that international exhibitions will continue to be hosted in the museum’s temporary spaces, including an upcoming collaboration with Greece looking at Alexander the Great.