Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

History is not a plaything

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Replacing the Canadian Museum of Civilization with the proposed Canadian Museum of History will rob Canadians of our largest and most popular museum by getting rid of an internationally recognized institution that has been at the forefront of historical and archeological research on human cultural heritage in Canada and internationally.

From the federal government's first announcement of the proposed new Canadian Museum of History, some have feared the new museum would be a parochial institution designed to reflect the Harper government's ideological version of history.

With its tabling of Bill C-49, the Canadian Museum of History Act, the government has confirmed that fear was well-founded. The new act indicates not only the narrowing of focus from that of the erstwhile CMC, but an end to that museum's mandate as a knowledge-creating institution.

The act that created the museum of civilization stated the museum's purpose was the increase of critical understanding, knowledge and appreciation for "human cultural achievements and human behaviour." The new act for the museum of history refers only to the "events, experiences, people and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada's history and identity."

The writing and teaching of Canadian history has moved decisively away from such a restricted perspective of our past, because it leaves out the experience of the great majority of the Canadian population. Such a "great-man" approach to history gives no opening for crucial processes that don't fit on a rigid timeline or into a political biography -- the colonization of First Nations, industrialization, gender relations, migration and ethnic conflict, 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 have contributed to our collective past.

Another change in the new act is the elimination of any reference to collecting and developing collections "for research and posterity." This has been dropped entirely from the statement of purpose of the museum of history.

We suspect this change will involve a significant decline in the research and collections function of the new institution. Recent actions taken by management of the museum of civilization confirm this suspicion. In May 2012, the office of vice-president of research and collections was abolished, and the museum's curators and collections managers were placed under the management of the vice-president of exhibitions. Fears that this action foretold a regime in which the nature and scale of research would be driven solely by the narrow requirements of exhibitions now appear to be justified.

Who will decide on the exhibitions that will be developed in such an organization? The world's great museums are knowledge-creating institutions in which exhibits flow from a dynamic relationship between the discoveries of researchers and the interests of public audiences. This was recognized in the Statement of Principles of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which affirmed that "museum activities focus on the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Our research is rigorous and creative, thereby contributing to new understanding. Our exhibitions and programmes are knowledge-based and provide clear information to the public."

The elimination of these principles fits into a pattern of politically motivated heritage policy that has been emerging in the past few years. This includes the ideological rewriting of the historical guide for prospective citizens, the great quantities of public funds being directed into the celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, the dramatic budget cuts to the operation of Canada's 167 national historic sites and the ongoing dismemberment of Library and Archives Canada.

It is now clear the proposed museum of history is being designed to use history to support the government's agenda -- that is, the evocation of particular features of our past as worthy of official endorsement and promotion. This is highly inappropriate for our national cultural institutions, which should stand apart from any particular government agenda and should be run instead according to sound professional and scholarly standards. Our past should not be a political plaything.

James L. Turk is executive director

Canadian Association of University Teachers.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 11, 2012 A13

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