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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?

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.

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