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

December 19, 2012
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Canadian Museum of Civilization IIIn Part I of this entry, we discussed the recent announcement by the Ministry of Canadian Heritage that the flagship Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) will undergo a major transformation by 2017, becoming the Canadian Museum of History (CMH). The newly revamped museum will discontinue three longstanding installations to make way for a large exhibition focused on national history, which will constitute about half the museum’s total exhibit space. As we noted in yesterday’s post, the museum’s new focus on showcasing national “achievements,” “accomplishments,” and “treasures” appears to be a way to elide objects and events from the country’s past that tell a less positive or celebratory narrative.

What is also clear from the estimated date of completion in 2017 is that the government is placing symbolic considerations over practical ones. The CMC and Heritage Minister James Moore’s insistence that the renovated CMH will be open to the public by Canada’s 150th birthday indicates that they must either already have significant plans in place, or they have dramatically underestimated the amount of time it takes to design and curate a major exhibition. This only highlights the lack of serious consideration of the process of public deliberation. While museum staff have been holding community meetings in cities across the country to solicit ideas, their ability to take such ideas seriously based on their timeline is unlikely. Moreover, it’s unclear who exactly will be included in community meetings: citizens must express interest by clicking on a link on the museum’s website and then wait to be invited.

Consider the consultation process that took place during the development of the First Peoples Hall. When initial plans were deemed “too traditional” as a result of the controversy surrounding “The Spirit Sings” exhibit in the 1980s, museum planners went back to the drawing board. While the CMC’s inaugural exhibits opened in 1989, it took the museum about 14 more years to finally open the First Peoples Hall in 2003. Among the factors contributing to the delay was the formation of a consultation committee with First Nations people in accordance with recommendations from the Assembly of First Nations and Canadian Museums Association. In the case of the First Peoples Hall, First Nations participants actually helped to shape the themes and content of the exhibit from the planning stages.

As another point of comparison, the Museum of Anthropology of British Columbia (MOA) was similarly involved in a major design and renewal project titled “A Partnership of Peoples.” Collaboration was key in MOA’s case as museum staff worked with Musqueam and other local communities to design physical and digital museum spaces. Plans were in place in the 1990s for an expected completion in 2010 to allow ample time for collaboration and creation of spaces that would be useful and accessible to those communities represented within them.

CMC curators know very well what it means to participate in meaningful consultation and the benefits it can have for curation, if taken seriously. Many of the museum’s curators are talented, creative and in tune with some of the most important museological shifts occurring over the last 30 years, including the sensitive issues concerning exhibition and Canada’s First Peoples. However, it is not necessarily those talented museum staff who are driving the CMC to CMH transition, and whether those staff will be there throughout or after this transition is uncertain.

This too is troubling. Although the CMH plans to continue to include Aboriginal histories in the new exhibit, it is likely to include them only as they pertain to the teleological drive and accomplishment-oriented focus emphasized by the Canadian Government. The Heritage Minister’s vision for the museum includes a history told from the perspective of a conservative, non-First Nations majority. This suggests a convenient amnesia about past curatorial shifts in Canada toward meaningful consultation and collaboration with First Peoples and with Canadian citizens more broadly.

In the meantime, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has threatened to take the federal government to court for failing to hand over documents related to residential schools in violation of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Despite the millions of dollars allocated to the CMH reorganization, the National Research Centre, which will house some one million records related to Canada’s Indian Residential Schools legacy in accordance with the TRC’s Mandate, remains unfunded by the government. While the CMC’s “What is the Canadian Story?” timeline currently lists the closing of the last residential school in the 1990s as a seminal event marking the nation’s history, what of the 120 years prior to that when the schools were in operation? The testimonials of residential school and intergenerational survivors about abuses in these state-mandated institutions are not in line with the discourse of national “accomplishments,” “achievements” and “treasures” which are apparently to constitute Canadian history in the new exhibit. Perhaps this is why the CMC claimed they did not have the resources to support the TRC’s collection. In this context, it seems that meaningful conversations about historical issues that are actually formative of Canadian culture are less compelling than the $25 million incentive that comes with the tunnel vision of the Ministry of Heritage.

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