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October 17, 2012
VANCOUVER, BC, Oct. 17,2012/ Troy Media/ – Well, at least we didn’t hear about it in an omnibus budget. We got to read about it first in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Saturday October 13, in a column by Daniel LeBlanc. Simply put, we are informed that the Canadian Museum of Civilization, supposedly an arms-length Crown Corporation, is being renamed the Museum of Canadian History.
As someone who has spent the last 26 years as CEO of three significant western Canadian cultural organizations, including eight years (2000 – 2008) as CEO of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, I was greatly intrigued. My intrigue is based on my perception that the Harper Government is moving on a broad agenda of historic revisionism, aided and abetted by a wave of Anglophilia that gives even Hello! magazine a run for its money.
As someone who has spent 61 years growing up in Canada, and has a sharp sense of French, Inuit, Metis and First Nations’ contributions to the origins of our national culture, I am increasingly ticked off by the political gerrymandering of the boundaries of our national dream. As a westerner I am dismayed by the endlessly implied message that this new national history lesson, mandated top- down by government, is somehow reflecting western needs or ideas. Far from it.
The Glenbow, western Canada’s defining library, archives, museum and art gallery of the west has thrived as an independent and maverick NGO without any overt or implicit government direction for decades. Its mandate is set by an independent board of directors. Its staff delivers on the mandate, and measure success, or lack thereof, by tracking both qualitative and quantitative indicators. The idea of government direction of either board mandate or curatorial performance at Glenbow would raise the hackles of board and staff. What do elected politicians and bureaucrats know about museum governance or curatorial practice and audience engagement? The answer: very little.
It would also be illustrative to hear from others who have seen curatorial independence and local autonomy stripped from community museum control. I spent three summers (1995 – 1997) working with the Gorbachev Foundation in the Kola Peninsula of Russia with the Dom Kultura (literally ‘Culture Houses’) of Lovozero, Yona and Loparskaya. All of these community museums had been subjected to the brutalities of the Stalin era of central government hegemony, when ideology trumped all local notions of truth, beauty, and history. The Sami reindeer herders of these communities still fear the re-emergence of those days. And they fight proudly for their cultural independence today. In fact, they embraced Gorbachev’s democratic reforms to increase their local autonomy.
What is it about the Harper government that dictates its desire to enter our cultural shrines, built up over decades of volunteer and professional toil, and muddle away in the collections? Why not acknowledge the success of these institutions (e.g. the Canadian Museum of Civilization is one of the main tourist draws in the capital region), and get on with creating something new? We already have a Canadian War Museum with an excellent Military History Research Centre; how many more memorials to Canadian battle sacrifice and prowess do we need? If something is missing, why not create it? Is there some prohibition or fear about creating a new institution?
Perhaps some other logic is at play? Is it simply that the Trudeau government (in fact really Trudeau himself) commissioned the Museum of Civilization (designed by the renowned Metis western Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal)? Is there some discomfort with its anthropological focus, in itself detracting from the pre- Confederation colonial period we now seek to reify? Are aboriginal people and their pre-history somehow an embarrassment to those who seek to champion European and British values as the true roots of our national culture? Somehow I cannot get rid of Mr. Harper’s oft-cited refrain, ‘You won’t recognize the country by the time I get through with it.’
Whatever the reason, whatever the perceived need for mandate reform, let it be first clearly stated. Let the prime minister stir up the historic memories of the country by traveling about the land and making his views known. Increasingly he travels in a cocoon of aides and PMO political appointees who stand between him and the people. I cannot remember a public forum in B.C. in the past several years where he gave a speech to the citizens. I, for one, think that it is time for a cross-country tour to discuss the changes he is so enthusiastic to impose. Let’s start with our national museum. Our. National. Museum.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. Now back In Vancouver, he is still a cultural CEO, but also has business interests in a resource company and mutual funds.
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