Canadian Museum of Civilization 

Published on: 3 Dec 2012

The CHA President writes to the President of the Canadian Museum of Civilization 

Ottawa, December 3, 2012

Mr. Mark O'Neill
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Dear Mr. O'Neill:

I write on behalf of the Canadian Historical Association, Canada’s leading organization of professional historians with more than 1,100 members from every region of the country. As historians in Canada engaged in researching and teaching about the past, we are vitally interested in the recently announced changes to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC). The CHA welcomes the new appropriations to support the interpretation and fostering of greater knowledge of Canadian history. Having read the Purpose, Capacity, and Powers of the Canadian Museum of History included in the recently tabled “An Act to amend the Museums Act in order to establish the Canadian Museum of History and to make consequential amendments to other Acts,” we believe this mandate statement is better than indicated in initial media reports following the announcement of the impending change to the Museum this past October although we still have concerns regarding elements of the Canadian Museum of Civilization's mandate which have been dropped in the new legislation.

We sense that criticisms raised by various constituencies following the October announcement of the changes at the Museum suggest considerable public skepticism regarding these proposed changes. To help ensure that the implementation of the new museum`s programming fully reflects our diverse history, and to help endow the new Museum with the credibility of arm’s length, expert, disinterested advice, we urge you as President of the Museum to appoint a representative panel of leading specialists in historical and museum work to recommend appropriate directions for redeveloping this outstanding heritage institution.

Our specific comments are the following:

1.  Mandate: While the proposed mandate for the new museum appears similar to the existing mandate for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, we noted two main differences. First, the new mandate omits reference to "critical understanding," was removed from Section 8 of the mandate of the CMC, as follows: ``The purpose of the Canadian Museum of Civilization is to increase, throughout Canada and internationally, interest in, knowledge and critical understanding of and appreciation and respect for human cultural achievements ...`` The CHA believes that critical understanding should be a goal of an institution in terms of encouraging visitors to consider multiple perspectives, critical analysis, and texts and displays that challenge master narratives, rather than simply venerating national heroes.

The other concern relating to mandate relates to item 9 (f) of the CMC mandate, empowering the museum ``to undertake and sponsor any research, including fundamental or basic research and theoretical and applied research, related to its purpose and to museology, and communicate the results of that research.``

The CHA believes that the earlier commitment to theoretical and applied research was commendable and wishes to ask how research at the new museum is being defined in light of the elimination of item 9 (f).  Beyond historical research, we are particularly concerned that anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological research should continue to be maintained and encouraged at the museum. We hope that serious research in all disciplines relevant to the diversity and sweep of Canadian history will continue in your programs.

2.  Diverse perspectives on History: The government’s announcement of what will be included in the new CMH emphasises dates, events, heroes, and narrative time-lines. Yet the writing and teaching of Canadian history has moved decisively away from such a one-dimensional perspective on our past, mainly because it leaves out the experience of the great majority of the Canadian population. Such a “great-man” or “great woman” approach to history does not readily accommodate crucial processes that don’t fit on a rigid time-line or into a political biography – the history and cultures of First Nations, colonization, agriculture and resource development, industrialization, gender relations, sexuality, migration, ethnocultural conflict and cooperation, environmental change, and much more. Certainly political history is an important component in any presentation of our history, but it must be situated within the rich diversity that Canadians at all levels of society contributed to our collective past.

3.  Non-partisanship: We are concerned that the government’s decision to transform the CMC into the CMH fits into a pattern of a politically-charged heritage policy that has been emerging in the past few years. Alongside the substantial public funds that were directed into the celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, this initiative appears to reflect a new use of history to support the government’s political agenda – that is, the highlighting of particular features of our past favoured by leading ministers of the current government. If so, this would be a highly inappropriate use of our national cultural institutions, which should stand apart from any particular government agenda and should be run instead according to sound professional standards and principles of non-partisanship.

4.  Process of Consultation:  The meetings being set up with selected individuals across the country, while a useful start, are not comprehensive. These meetings are not providing opportunities for the majority in the historical community to provide inputs on the critical issues of mandate and programming. The CMC has set up a website for public input into the programming of the new museum. But it is troubling that visitors to the web site are encouraged to express their preference for a number of options on a time line that contains very few entries, and that they are not encouraged to identify longer-term processes, such as migration and settlement, dispossession of First Nations lands, changing class structures, or evolving gender relations. We urge the Museum to expand its meetings to invite as many professional historians and museums specialists as possible to contribute to the consultative process.

Further, we wish to make a proposal for your consideration. The Canadian Historical Association believes that an optimal approach would be for the Museum to convene a panel of senior scholars and history specialists to undertake a thoughtful process of conceptualizing the new museum. Such an approach would help ensure that the Museum is enlisting the available expert advice to help ensure that the Canadian Museum of History receives the broadly based support of Canadians that it will surely need to carry out its mandate in the future.

We look forward to your response and are prepared to assist the Museum in identifying senior scholars from a cross-section of historical fields for the proposed panel to help guide the implementation of the new institution at this critical juncture.  My colleagues representing the CHA Council look forward to discussing these important matters with you at our meeting with you on 17 December.

Lyle Dick
Canadian Historical Association

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