Of course everyone is suspicious these days that when it was announced that the Museum of Civilization was going to become the Canadian Museum of History, people automatically assumed the worst.
Or at least some people.
The Museum of Canadian History was going to become an instrument of Conservative partisanship. Hall 1: How Sir John A. Macdonald invented Canada. Hall 2: The War of 1812. Hall 3: How the Liberals destroyed Canada. Hall 4: The Royal Family. Hall 5: How Stephen Harper saved Canada.
Then you exit through the gift shop, where on sale are fridge magnets with the Free Trade Agreement printed on them, maps of Canada where Alberta is unusually large and several of the smaller provinces are missing, Stephen Harper’s book about hockey and autographed copies of the Marketing Freedom for Grain Farmers Act.
Such are the times we live in. Nothing a politician does is above suspicion. But when you step back and look at it objectively, a Museum of Canadian History is not that bad a thing. There is no such thing now and every serious capital needs one.
The late lamented Portrait Gallery was a step in that direction, a chance for us to have a look at important Canadians past and present, but it perished for a variety of reasons, some of them political.
It is often said that Canada has a rich and colourful history. And it is said equally often that most Canadians don’t know that Canada has a rich and colourful history. That, obviously, has a lot to do with what is and isn’t taught in schools. But it doesn’t help that there is no single place Canadians can go and see their history portrayed in a vivid way.
Properly done, the History Museum could accomplish a lot. Think of the Canadian War Museum and how compellingly the war years are portrayed there. There is much of our history that is not about war, but no reason that it can’t be portrayed compellingly too. Think beyond war to the events and people who made this country, many of them uncelebrated, except perhaps in small museums in their birthplaces — the explorers, the politicians, the rebels, the artists, the scientists, the entrepreneurs.
If you are in Batoche, Sask., you can see a great Louis Riel exhibition. If you are in Grand Pré, N.S., you can learn about the expulsion of the Acadians. If you are in Neepawa, Man., you can visit Margaret Laurence’s house and learn about her life. We need to see all that here too, in a national museum. Not everyone can get to Neepawa or Batoche or Grand Pré.
There would be a lot to put into this museum and locating it in Ottawa is a positive step. Remember that this is the government that was going to put the portrait gallery in Calgary if a private donor would come up with the money for it.
Ottawa is where the history museum belongs because the capital is the logical place for people to come and view their history. Anyone who has visited Washington knows how impressively American history is assembled and presented. No reason we can’t do that here.
In a perfect world, a brand new museum would be constructed, a grand edifice somewhere along Confederation Boulevard (remember Confederation Boulevard?), but the times are less than perfect and governments are done with putting up grand edifices. So we lose the Museum of Civilization. That museum, as it turns out, is Ottawa’s most popular, but it has always lacked a clear identity. This change will give it one.
Combined with the National Gallery, the War Museum and the Museum of Nature, the new museum will present visitors with a well-rounded picture of the kind of country Canada is and has been.
That would be great to show visitors to Canada and even greater to show Canadians.