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The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, Canada, July 17, 2020.

AARON VINCENT ELKAIM/The New York Times News Service

There’s a bad outbreak troubling Canada’s museums – and it’s not COVID. Allegations of harassment, racism and overweening management are erupting at the big institutions, sending their boards scurrying to human resource consultants as they issue contrite statements to the press. Large and historic organizations, the museums look like lumbering beasts as they struggle to adapt to new social demands.

Here’s the recent evidence, from west to east. Haida curator Lucy Bell, the head of the First Nations Department at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, resigned in July, publicly calling out white privilege in her workplace. An independent investigation is now under way.

In the most painfully ironic of these cases, Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights stood accused of trampling on its own subject matter, hiding displays about gay rights from religious tour groups, allowing non-Indigenous docents to tell Indigenous stories, and failing to address both racism and sexual harassment directed at staff. In June, director John Young resigned to be replaced by human rights lawyer Isha Khan in August.

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At the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. president Mark O’Neill is currently on leave as an outside investigator probes harassment complaints that arose this summer, apparently from management ranks. (The museum’s union says its members are not involved.)

And in Montreal, cultural and corporate leaders have been drawn into a very public dispute between the former director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Nathalie Bondil and the board that fired her in July. A government report tabled last week found employee complaints about a dysfunctional workplace were legitimate but also there were issues with rules governing the museum’s board.

What’s going on? Each of these cases is different, but they all revolve around shifting power dynamics in these large, multi-faceted organizations that require both co-ordinated teamwork and strong central leadership – that is, a director who probably has a big ego. Built around the work of clever curators who can make scholarship come alive in public programming, museums are often hierarchical places that prize PhDs but don’t listen to the troops.

The museums are now facing the same demands to get with the program as any large employer; calls for more diversity and gender equity in the workplace are widespread while social media offers people with complaints a means to bypass systems that aren’t helping them. And cultural organizations, the beneficiaries of both public grants and a certain glamour quotient, are held to a higher social standard than private companies.

But the museums are also institutions troubled by unique tensions between populism and scholarship, communities and elites. Traditional museums are built on vast collections of material objects, often donated by rich people or assembled by colonizers, yet they are increasingly asked by society to function as broadly based community centres. Bondil, who stressed community programming and art therapy at the MMFA, has said that the museum is a great place to debate difficult or divisive issues in a welcoming, neutral space. But achieving that neutrality means returning Indigenous artifacts to Indigenous communities rather than hoarding them. It means making sure Black artists are well represented in the art collection before you organize a BLM panel discussion.

Meanwhile, the museum is also, since the growth of the blockbuster formula in the 1980s, a place of public entertainment. Budgets vary, but most big Canadian museums are generating about half their income themselves, either at the box office or through donations. Millions are needed because museums are capital-intensive places with a lot of physical plant, not to mention all that research, conservation and storage behind the scenes. In one column of the ledger, they can’t survive without generous philanthropists, prominent business figures who themselves often bring egos and agendas to the boardroom table. In the next column, the demand to create popular exhibitions that drive big numbers is huge, yet the foundation of the museum is education and research. Imagine if you asked Cirque de Soleil founder Guy Laliberté to run the McGill University history department and you get some idea of just one strand of the tensions at the MMFA.

Museums are addressing these social issues – some, such as the MMFA, have been doing it with much talk; others, like the Art Gallery of Ontario, are more quietly walking the walk as they extend free admission to youth or remake exhibition schedules to highlight women and Indigenous artists. Museums are institutions built by colonialism and yet they can still offer some of the most deep and delightful cultural experiences. New leaders are going to have to figure out how to hold onto the baby as they desperately bail bathwater.

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