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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 ...

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purposefully focused on social history to avoid offering interpretations of political events that might rapidly become outdated.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.”

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