Today’s announcement regarding upcoming brand changes to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) speaks to a change in how history is interpreted at Canada’s federal museums. As my recent post on National Conceptions of History in Museum Settings noted, the CMC has never been a museum focused solely on the history of Canada. Rather, the CMC has always had an anthropological focus and many of the blockbuster style exhibits that are at the CMC focus on the history of cultures outside of Canada.
This re-branding is to coincide with the 150th anniversary of confederation which will occur in 2017. It has been noted that exhibits will predominately focus on the monarchy, major milestones, and military history of Canada. Considering Ottawa is already home to the Canadian War Museum, this focus on military history seems a bit strange.
The proposed changes see the CMC being renamed as a Canadian Museum of History and refocusing the content of the museum to more Canadian topics. Some CMC staff have expressed concerned about the potential that “Canadian history stories that will be the subject of research and exhibitions will be identified by politicians across the Ottawa River rather than the museum’s own experts.”  The CMC currently operates under its own independent mandate without the influence of political forces. It will be interesting to see if the objectivity and freedom of interpretation remains in this new incarnation of the museum.
The actual announcement occurred after speculation, cries of politicization and complaints were running wild throughout the media and twitterverse. The remarks of Heritage Minister James Moore and Museum president Mark O’Neill attempted to address some of these concerns. O’Neil maintained that the museum would continue to host international exhibits. Some of these international exhibits will be housed in the space that is presently home to the Canadian Postal Museum. The current re-branding plan includes the dismantling of the postal museum, with it’s contents possibly being relocated. This relocation may be part of the new plan to link Canada’s network of museums with the Canadian Museum of History, with the aim of increasing accessibility.
All potential political motivations aside, the Museum of History is seeking input from Canadians about the content of the new museum. By the looks of the new “My History Museum” site the CMC will be holding online and in person consultations about defining Canadian moments, important arfitcats, and influential Canadians. I like the idea of crowdsourcing aspects of museum exhibits, and ideally this crowdsourcing venture will be paired withed strong curatorial insight.
It will be interesting to see how the $25 million dollar re-branding and renovation project unfolds. I’m sure there are Canadians on both sides of the argument — some wishing to see a more Smithsonian National History style museum and others wishing to keep the CMC in it’s current state. Personally, I really hope this process allows for great attention to be paid to Canada’s diverse past, including the history of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and residential schools. Though, I suppose if nothing else, the publicity surrounding the re-branding has the potential to draw attention to history education, museums, and the public history field in Canada.
Amongst the museums I visited while in DC, my least favourite was The National Museum of American History (NMAH). Upon reflection, it is not that I disliked the content of the museum, I just had a hard time grappling with the national differences of conceptions of history. I expected a grand narrative style of history in the museum and was confronted with something very different.
Canada’s national museum system does not include a museum dedicated solely to the history of Canada as a nation, but perhaps the closest would the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The CMC isn’t solely a national history museum, but it does currently give the most cohesive museum based look into Canada’s past. But, the two institutions are so different comparing them is akin to apples and oranges.
One of the main things I struggled with in the NMAH was the focus on individual great figures. I found the large overarching history of America was told most frequently through a great man style narrative. The most prominent exhibits that stick out in my mind as falling under this category include : The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, Lighting a Revolution—Electricity Hall (focused on Edison), and Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty. In each of these cases the emphasis tended to be on the individual not on larger historical trends.
These exhibits also reinforced the extent to which Canadian Prime Ministers and US Presidents exist on very different plains of history in their respective countries. Prime Ministers are viewed as players in history but Presidents seem to be points around which history revolves. Presidents are seen as being directly associated (and responsible) for key events and developments, where as Prime Ministers are seen as parts in a larger less individualized narrative. I’m not sure either interpretation is better than the other. Rather, the interpretation reflects each country’s unique view of the role of government and the past.
I also struggled with The First Ladies exhibit at the NMAH. The NMAH website suggests “The First Ladies encourages visitors to consider the changing role played by the first lady and American women over the past 200 years.” To be honest, I had a hard time getting past the fact that the prominent items displayed about each Woman were dresses and dishes. Similarly, the majority of the prominent text panels focused on the First Ladies’ role as hostess, entertainer, and public face. While walking through the exhibit part of me kept thinking “I wonder if they know that women can wear pants now.” The exhibit also left me wishing that there was more content in the NMAH about the history of women’s rights and changing roles of women in America.
Even with these conceptional struggles I did enjoy my visit the NMAH. I think the highlight for me was the Star Spangled Banner exhibit. I had never really considered the history of the first flag in America and the exhibit but the exhibit helped put that history into context. This exhibit was also interesting to see from a curatorial perspective, as the flag is huge making special display considerations necessary.
How do you see national conceptions of history being explored in museums?
In many of our public history classes earlier this year we examined some of the pros and cons of working at small and big museums. The point most often brought up was that small museums often lack funding to hire many (or any) full-time employees. Conversely, the bureaucratic structure of many large museums does not appeal to all public historians or museum professionals.
Spending the summer in Ottawa has made me look at this issue from another perspective. Ottawa has numerous national museums and the city of Ottawa is also home to many community based museums. How many tourists to Ottawa visit the smaller local heritage sites and museums over the national museums? Most school or bus trips focus on visiting the large museums. These museums are representing the entire nations history, and are one of the main tourist attractions in Ottawa.
So who do the smaller museums cater to? Many of these smaller museums focus on the unique heritage of various smaller communities within Ottawa. For example the Bytown Museum preserves the history of the original city of Bytown and the early years of the city of Ottawa. Similarly, the Nepean Museum is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Nepean and the former township of Nepean. Most of the community museums in Ottawa strive to interact with visitors and the community at large. Many offer a variety of weekend and summer activities. Until moving to Ottawa the unique combination of national museums and community museums available in the city had not occurred to me. This unique combination is ideal for anyone looking to expore a combination of national history and local history.