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Politics Canadian Museum of History aims to avoid CBC’s pitfalls with new exhibit

The Canada History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau will tackle difficult subject matter such as the decimation of Indigenous communities, the deportation of Acadians and Louis Riel’s hanging.

Blair Gable

The Canadian Museum of History has a message for the CBC: This is how you tell Canada's story.

On July 1, the country's biggest museum will officially unveil its new $30-million Canadian History Hall. Occupying one million square feet just across the river from Parliament, the exhibition goes back more than 13,000 years in time to explain the evolution of human presence on this massive and seemingly inhospitable land mass.

The museum's goal is to succeed where the CBC failed with its controversial series called Canada: The Story of Us. After being attacked for misrepresenting or ignoring key elements of Canadian history, the public broadcaster was forced to apologize for the historical failings last month.

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Museum president Mark O'Neill said his team started from scratch five years ago, conducting town halls to get public input and obtaining feedback from expert committees at every step of the creative process. In addition, he said, the exhibition is based on the museum's unrivalled collection of artifacts, which provide a level of authenticity that historical recreations simply cannot match.

Take a tour in 360-degree video of the newest exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que. The Canadian History Hall covers 13,000 years of human presence on the landmass. The $30-million exhibit occupies nearly 1-million square feet, and is broken up into three distinct galleries: from the beginnings of human presence to the Royal Proclamation of 1763; from 1763 to the start of the First World War; and from 1914 to today. The Canadian History Hall opens July 1 Reporting by Daniel Leblanc Camera by Blair Gable Produced by Patrick Dell

Posted by The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Finally, the team behind the new hall adopted an approach that gives a voice to First Nations, European settlers and various immigrant groups at all relevant points of the 90– to 120-minute visit. While Mr. O'Neill predicted the new exhibition will generate its fair share of criticism, he maintained that no one will be able to deny that various sides of the most important stories in the country's history are on full display.

The Canadian History Hall tackles everything from the decimation of Indigenous communities, the deportation of Acadians, the tragedy of residential schools, racist immigration policies, Quebec separatism and controversies such as Louis Riel's hanging.

"Doing history is very difficult," Mr. O'Neill said as he gave a preview of the new exhibition to The Globe and Mail this week. "We hope there is a candour and a transparency in the telling of the story that will engage visitors in ways they haven't been engaged before and allow them to draw their own conclusions about what they are seeing."

The museum's director of creative development and learning, Lisa Leblanc, added: "I feel very strongly for the CBC, because it is hard to do."

She said the exhibition has been well received by groups of First Nations and historians who have been through because it adds "a lot of grey" to what Canadians learn in high school. She said with modern storytelling techniques, which emphasize the efforts of ordinary people to survive and prosper, the exhibition aims to help audience members understand what people thought and went through over the centuries.

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"Visitors will do what they want to do [in the hall], they will be drawn to what they are drawn to. You can guide them, but unlike a linear narrative that you'll watch on television, where you are being fed a story, visitors will pick their high and lows," she said.

The Canadian History Hall is broken down in three distinct galleries: from the beginnings of human presence to the Royal Proclamation of 1763; from 1763 to the start of the First World War; and from 1914 to today.

The first two galleries are handled in a "chrono-thematic" way, more or less respecting the chronology of the various events. The last gallery, however, looks at broad themes such as Canada's role in the world and the impact of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on Canadian society.

The visit starts with the oldest artifacts in the museum's archeological collection, namely scrapers and spear points that go back about 13,500 years. They are presented alongside a video that depicts how First Nations see the creation of the Earth, illustrating from the get-go how the museum wants to offer different perspectives on events.

Mr. O'Neill hopes the new exhibition will help Canadians to answer some of the questions that are being raised by the country's sesquicentennial.

"You have to place it in the context of Canada 150 and the debate about 'What are we celebrating and what is it all about?' It may be that this really is the only Canada 150 legacy project of any significance, if you look at what has been funded," he said.

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The exhibition will open to the public on Canada Day. Entry to the Museum of History will be free during that holiday weekend.

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