Ottawa Citizen

Mu­seum has rich his­tory


Re: Good rid­dance, Dis­ney­land North, Dec. 15.

I was dis­ap­pointed by noted writer and his­to­rian Char­lotte Gray’s take on the re­nam­ing of the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion to the Cana­dian Mu­seum of His­tory.

Na­tional his­toric am­ne­sia is in­deed in ev­i­dence — as is am­ne­sia about the mu­seum’s own his­tory, with muse­ol­ogy as its ba­sic his­toric prin­ci­ple. The mu­seum was founded as a dis­play hall for the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Canada’s min­er­als, bi­o­log­i­cal spec­i­mens, and his­tor­i­cal and eth­no­log­i­cal ar­ti­facts. In 1910, it be­came the Na­tional Mu­seum of Canada, mov­ing into the new Vic­to­ria Me­mo­rial Mu­seum build­ing, where it was di­rected by an­thro­pol­o­gists, not his­to­ri­ans. In 1968, it was split into the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Man and the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Na­ture. Be­cause of gen­der is­sues, the Mu­seum of Man was sub­se­quently re­named the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion. But it is quite a lin­guis­tic (and cul­tural) leap to make his­tory a syn­onym of civ­i­liza­tion, re­gard­less of your po­lit­i­cal or gen­der bias.

While Gray cri­tiques the ex­ist­ing His­tory Hall, and for­mer di­rec­tor Ge­orge F. MacDon­ald’s pur­ported “Dis­ney­fi­ca­tion” of the ex­hibits, she makes no men­tion of the schol­ar­ship in an­thro­pol­ogy, arche­ol­ogy and ethno-his­tory on which the mu­seum has tra­di­tion­ally been based, be­fore “in­ter­ac­tive,” “cool,” “mul­ti­sen­sory” and “vir­tual” be­came mar­ket­ing buzz words. Nor does she men­tion the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of totem poles. Although re­port­edly stay­ing put, the col­lec­tion is per­haps the main at­trac­tion of the Mu­seum of Civ­i­liza­tion, cel­e­brat­ing na­tive Cana­dian ma­te­rial cul­ture and ar­ti­facts, while abo­rig­i­nal is­sues of land claims and res­i­den­tial schools are de­bated in the news, pol­i­tics and academia. The “slinky” ar­chi­tec­ture of Dou­glas Car­di­nal is ev­i­dence of Cana­dian abo­rig­i­nal aes­thet­ics and cul­ture, not of the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment’s new friend­ship with his­to­ri­ans and their “nar­ra­tive lessons.” But, like li­brar­i­ans and ar­chiv­ists, muse­ol­o­gists are not his­to­ri­ans (ex­cept as side ef­fects of be­ing in­for­ma­tion spe­cial­ists), not politi­cians, and there­fore, not on the gov­ern­ment’s radar.



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