By his own admission, Eric Hughes has undergone a "baptism by fire."
Interim chairman of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for less than a year, Hughes was only confirmed formally as the full-time chairman on Nov. 28. Almost immediately, Hughes was deluged with controversy.
Media reports levelled numerous allegations, from too much meddling by the trustees in matters of content, to mistreatment of employees, to political interference from Ottawa. More specifically, some reports claimed the board demanded content be changed to make it less critical of Canada's human rights record. Various reports detailed the more than three dozen staff departures the museum has suffered since 2009, many because of political manipulation of content. There are further insinuations Ottawa, through Hughes, has been directing those changes.
Hughes, a Calgary accountant who toils in Alberta's oilpatch, is a Tory and longtime friend of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. With that kind of resumé, he's well-positioned to play the villain in stories about political manipulation of museum content. Not surprisingly, Hughes denies he's that guy.
Since media reports first surfaced last week, Hughes has been working overtime to dispute that narrative and save and draw private-sector comparisons to explain the CMHR's current predicament. First and foremost, to explain the large number of staff departures. "The museum is a startup company, and startup companies are notoriously stressful," Hughes said. "The fact that there has been a certain amount of staff turnover is not necessarily shocking. There is a great deal of uncertainty and... that puts a lot of stress on employees."
That explanation for the staff departures is consistent with the one offered by CEO Stuart Murray. It is, however, becoming less satisfying as some of those ex-employees toss hand grenades back at the museum. Allegations of content manipulation acts as the galvanizing icing on the cake.
A letter from a museum vice-president, details of which were broadcast by the CBC, noted the board recommended "material changes be made to the visitor experience" to create a "positive, optimistic tone." Without details about exactly what the board wanted changed, it's tough to know what that means. But it certainly looks bad.
Hughes said the board has not meddled in any specific issue of content. "We've never nixed or tried to nix any particular story," Hughes said. "What we do is to hold up the story and the mandate of the museum to see if they're aligned." Hughes said the new Canadian content was to be included in a gallery that was always designed to celebrate positive stories of individuals and groups that successfully championed human rights causes. The concern, he said, was that there shortage of Canadian stories in that gallery.
At first blush, it's a plausible explanation of the content changes. As is the context, as offered by Hughes and others, for the exodus of staff. However, the more strenuously Hughes denies political influence at any level, the shakier the case becomes.
Politics has always has been a part of decision-making at the museum. Hughes became interim chairman of the board last summer after Ottawa asked for and received the resignation of former chairman Arni Thorsteinson, a key confidant of the Asper family who had, itself, lost cachet with the Prime Minister's Office.
This is fairly solid proof the long arm of the federal government was at work in the museum. But does that influence extend to content? Although Ottawa frequently claims it has no hand in national museum content, history has shown the federal government has, through parliamentary authority, made its views known. The idea for the CMHR was born after the Canadian War Museum decided, with heavy political input, to leave out a Holocaust gallery from its expansion plans.
That does not mean this recent controversy is the best evidence of political manipulation. In essence, the board asked for more positive Canadian stories in a gallery that has been, since its inception, designed to be a place for positive stories. At worst, it's a sign of wilting board resolve to keep the edge of the museum's original vision. Whether or not that came at the end of a political spear is unclear.
Museums sometimes need no outside influence to dull the edge of content. Consider that the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., was soundly criticized for burying stories about American industrialists who collaborated with the Nazis. It was a concern prior to the museum opening; it was confirmed for some once that museum finally opened.
It is undeniable the CMHR has become a difficult, even untenable place to work. Is that a function of mismanagement, political meddling, the stress of uncertainty or all of the above? To this point, opinions vary.
The good news is the answer to these and other questions will be fully and perhaps more appropriately answered in 2014, as soon as the doors of the CMHR open and the product of the museum is laid bare for all to see.