Crowdsourcing as Consultation: Branding History at Canada’s Museum of Civilization (Part I)

December 18, 2012
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Canadian Museum of CivilizationThe year 2017 will mark Canada’s sesquicentennial: 150 years since the British colonies in North America came together to form the Dominion of Canada. The date is eagerly anticipated by Canada’s Conservative government, which is planning a series of commemorative events. The trouble is, these events are contrived to commemorate the Conservative government far more than the nation’s glorious (or inglorious) pasts.

History appears to be a pet project of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his elected officials. Since the Conservatives came to power in 2006, several cultural institutions have been pushed into service to articulate the government’s particular conception of Canadian culture: the twin pillars of monarchy and military. The 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, for example, has become an opportunity for the Conservatives to reframe the battle as a signal moment in Canada’s nation-building project. A budget of $28 million was earmarked for dramatic re-enactments, PSAs, a website and grade school curriculum, and an elaborate physical exhibit at the War Museum in the nation’s capital, all aiming to retrospectively situate the war as a pillar of Canadian identity. Never mind that Canada was little more than a frigid British outpost at the time; or that the outcome of that war remains a matter of scholarly and public debate. Suddenly, the government’s commitments in Afghanistan, its plans to purchase sixty-five F-35 fighter jets, and its desperate desire to thumb its nose at its American neighbor are placed on a teleological timeline whose origins can be traced to the bravery and dedication of those not-yet-Canadians in 1812.

In October 2012, Heritage Minister James Moore announced yet another project in the run-up to 2017: the rebranding and renovation of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, one of the most highly attended museums in the world, and arguably the most symbolically significant museum of Canadian heritage in the country (its collections stem from the mid-19th century and predate the founding of Canada). Its new name, the Canadian Museum of History, signals a novel mandate for the institution: Half the museum space, currently occupied by the dated Canada Hall, the Personalities Hall, and the Postal Museum, will be cleared to make way for a selection of Canadian “accomplishments” and “achievements.” So far, Mr. Moore has focused on objects as major drivers of the exhibit’s themes, pointing to iconic national “treasures” like The Last Spike, which completed Canada’s transcontinental railway in 1885, signifying the conquest of nature through human ingenuity; and items from Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope, demonstrating the strength of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity. Both, of course, are powerful, self-edifying signifiers for the nation itself. Moore’s vision for the museum has been heavily criticized in the local press, with journalists calling the rebranding “The end of civilization” and decrying the new collection as an uncritical “Hall of Fame.”

Even more egregious than this Whig version of history is the suggestion that the museum’s new role is to let visitors decide on the tenets of Canadian history. The museum’s Web site invites users to “Be part of its creation!” by clicking through to the “My History Museum” site. “What would you put in your national history museum? What stories would you tell? How would you reach Canadians across the country?” asks the site. Users are then presented with an array of options to participate in the creation of their “very own” museum. You can take the “Public Engagement” survey, which asks you to choose how you most like “to connect with history” (“Seeing real artifacts,” “Consulting websites,” Asking “people I know”?). You can scroll through the “What is the Canadian Story?” timeline, clicking the heart icon under images of the Calgary Winter Olympics or Expo ’67 to “like” different events listed on the timeline (with some of the milestones purposely removed to allow users’ suggestions to populate the gaps). You can make a video for the museum’s YouTube channel, telling the world which Canadian “you consider to be an icon for your generation” (recent votes: The Dionne Quintuplets and one user’s grandmother).

The museum is not alone in its attempts to use personal appeals to power public engagement. The digital media company ChinaOnTV recently launched “My Channel,” where visitors upload personal videos and stories about their trips to China, forming a kind of user-generated cultural diplomacy portal. Or witness the “Curators of Sweden” Twitter campaign, a fascinating if misguided effort by the Swedish government to encourage its citizens to tell the “true” story of Sweden by turning over the @Sweden channel to different, hand-picked citizens each week. Citizens duly took on their role as Swedish ambassadors by sleeping in, tweeting about their sexual proclivities, and in one extreme case, making racist and vulgar comments.

Other Canadian institutions have made similar crowdsourcing efforts. The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) ran a “35 Million Directors” contest, in which the “entire country” was invited to upload videos of “their” Canada. One Talkback comment on the CTC YouTube channel puts the problem in relief:

User: Although this is a very beautiful video, and I am a very proud Canadian, there was only half a frame on aboriginals…it was their beautiful land to start with.

CTC: … We’re sensitive to the concerns you’ve raised, and we can assure you that visible ethnicity in this video is solely a function of the content that was submitted by Canadians during the 35 Million Directors contest period. All Canadians were equally able to submit content for consideration in the contest.

Beyond the obvious exclusions crowdsourcing can perpetuate, there is much else wrong with this tactic. Such social media strategies are increasingly seen by government institutions as a panacea for problems of civic participation, public deliberation and transparency. Online users do not only provide the museum with content for its website; they give it the appearance of consensus. “Soft” participation platforms like Facebook comments and interactive timelines mask the hard reality that all of the really consequential decisions – the removal of archival material, the intensely problematic indemnification of the collection, the several-million-dollar budget that will require cutting other parts of the Heritage Ministry portfolio – have already been made. If citizens were really meant to be central in deciding which themes are important in Canadian history, the government would have included citizens in the decision-making process at a much earlier stage. And lest we see social media as Democracy 2.0, we would do well to recall Evgeny Morozov’s (2011) observation that oppressive totalitarian regimes also employ strategies of crowdsourcing in the process of nation-building, where “netizens” are made to feel as though they’re participating in important decisions. It doesn’t take a Hill & Knowlton associate to tell you that making people feel involved in politics is an excellent way to paper over the denial of actual political participation.

In the case of a museum, and in the case of the contested terrain of history, having the whole public involved might seem like a great idea. But in the brave new world of Governance 2.0, the invitation to Canadians to “be part of the creation” of Canadian history is an invitation to say very little that matters. And it’s the only invitation they’re likely to get.

Part 2 can be found here.

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