Ideas under Glass
As museums turn from artifacts to stories, cultural tensions arise
Many institutions can lay claim to an uplifting foundation myth, but the new Canadian Museum for Human Rights boasts not one but two.
There is the story that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was so moved by a visit to Auschwitz in 1999 that he declared a site would finally be found for a Canadian Holocaust museum.
There is also the anecdote told by Gail Asper, head of the family foundation that began the fundraising campaign for the museum and its chief advocate. The Asper Foundation regularly tours school groups to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and other sites in Washington DC and, on one of these trips, Asper found herself standing in line with her Canadian cohort waiting to see the American Declaration of Independence. Why, she wondered, was there nowhere in Canada where school children could see key documents in their country’s human rights history.
A Canadian Holocaust memorial. An institution dedicated to human rights education. The first national museum outside Ottawa. The Canadian Museum for Human Rights slated to open sometime next year is a museum built on ideas.
And with what else would you build a museum? Well, with objects, actually.
The 19th-century museums that preceded today’s institutions were treasure houses dedicated to the collection and preservation of wondrous things, great hordes of Old Master paintings and ivory tusks, Japanese fans and Paleozoic trilobites. In the 21st century we insist that these things must be organized to tell stories and if they mutely refuse we step in with text panels and video screens.
But as the story museum rises so too do ugly debates about whose version of events the museum’s exhibitions must represent. The development of the CMHR has been marked throughout by an unseemly competition between the Jewish and Ukrainian communities over whose historic suffering will be given top billing. However exhibition space is finally distributed, the museum seems unlikely to satisfy all the competing agendas. Heedless of that lesson, the Canadian government has just opened up a whole second tier for debate with its decision to rename the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History, and to launch consultations as to what history this new institution should be telling. The glass display cases have been shattered and the museum wars rage on.
If you want to remember what a museum used to feel like, visit the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal, housed in the oldest purpose-built museum building in Canada. Renovations in 2003 have focused the exhibits in this Victorian charmer, but under its coffered ceiling, it still maintains some of the creative chaos bequeathed to it by geologist and McGill principal Sir William Dawson and his colleagues as they collected fossils, rocks, and Greek and Egyptian antiquities. It is one of those places where a dinosaur skeleton and a mummy case can happily sit side by side.
The sense that this is not good enough, that the public has neither the patience to read the small print nor the wit to place objects in context had become received wisdom by the 1970s. By the 1980s it was fashionable to point out that the supposedly neutral displays of objects actually contained their own prejudices and preconceptions. In 1989, the notorious Into the Heart of Africa exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto was an attempt to install in a new critical context the many African artifacts collected by Christian missionaries earlier in the century and left mouldering in the museum basement. With a bit of tongue in cheek, it attempted to depict 19th-century colonizing attitudes, but only succeeded in proving that museum audiences were completely unprepared for irony and that museum curators needed a lot more practice telling stories.
The major Canadian museum founded during this new narrative age was the Canadian Museum of Civilization, and it too was controversial from the start. The CMC has its roots in a collection of natural specimens and archeological and ethnographic material collected by the Geographical Survey of Canada in the 19th century. It had several homes and names before it became the bifurcated museums of Man and of Natural Sciences housed in the two wings of the Victoria Memorial Museum Building on Ottawa’s Elgin Street. In the 1980s, the two institutions split and the half dedicated to the historical and ethnographic collections was given a nice, new gender-neutral name and a building of undulating sandstone designed by Métis architect Douglas Cardinal. Its soaring Grand Hall featuring the towering Pacific Coast aboriginal poles and colourful house fronts was from the start a smash hit, and remains a must-see for every foreign visitor to Ottawa.
The central history exhibit, on the other hand, was much criticized. Unveiled in sections throughout the 1990s, the Canada Hall takes the visitor from a 16th-century Basque whaling station on the Atlantic coast through 18th-century New France to a 19th-century Ontario main street and an early 20th-century ethnic bookstore in Winnipeg to a Vancouver airport in the 1960s. It has never been easy to distinguish what is an artifact and what is a replica in these carefully constructed displays where ephemeral pieces of social history that had long since rotted away—the Red River cart that carried meat and furs across the Prairies, for example—needed to be constructed from scratch. If the dioramas with their mannequins and sound effects now seem a tad quaint, in the 1990s they were perceived as an alarming new Disneyfication of the museum, turning a place that should have been dedicated to the judicious display of artifacts into a populist entertainment that made no distinction between the real and the reproduction. Nor did the clever way the hall covered a great swath of history and geography by following the continent’s chronological settlement pattern from east to west please everyone: one Quebec columnist complained that a display that made no reference to her province after the days of New France implied Quebec was not a modern society. More recently, critics have lamented the lack of much reference to major political events such as the Riel Rebellion or the Acadian expulsion.
Despite criticisms, the Canada Hall has, in the end, proved highly popular with visitors who enjoy poking about the inside of an oil rig or a Victorian parlour, yet it is precisely this display that the museum is set to rethink, spurred on by a government that has picked the monarchy and the armed forces as its national icons and complains that nobody knows their Canadian history anymore. Education is, of course, a provincial jurisdiction, but perhaps a new Canadian museum of history would be a useful federal contribution, Heritage Minister James Moore speculated to the CBC when he announced the plan to rename the museum and grant $25 million toward a $30 million reworking of its history exhibits that will renovate almost a quarter of its floor space.
There are several red flags attached to the project: it certainly appears underfunded since it cost $50 million to build the original Canada Hall in the 1980s and ’90s, in an age that did not demand the interactive, multimedia displays that contemporary visitors have come to expect. Although the minister has promised that the curators are to operate at arm’s length, the museum cannot be blind to the government’s interest in a kings-and-battles version of national history leading up to the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017, the date the exhibits are set to reopen.
In a gesture toward those who believe Canadian history is the celebration of Canadian achievements, the museum already added a hall of personalities in 2007, offering brief displays on 27 different figures who, to use the museum’s own terms, inspired, founded, fought, built or governed, including writers Gabrielle Roy and Mordecai Richler and politicians Joey Smallwood and Jeanne Sauvé. Located on a mezzanine level above the Canada Hall, it not as popular with visitors as the quaint streets and shops below it: on a quiet weekend this winter, the Canada Hall was bustling with people while the figure of Sir John A. Macdonald stood forlornly at the start of his exhibit ready to give lessons in the Great Men and Women school of history to students who were nowhere in sight.
Canadians, when asked their opinions at consultations that the museum held last fall across the country, seem to prefer social to political history; or at least they are convinced that Canadian history is not simply the story of the powerful or famous. They also, of course, want to see their various ethnicities and communities represented; the Canada Hall already ticked off French, English, Ukrainian, Japanese, Chinese, African Canadian and Filipino with its displays, but no doubt others will want in. Voices both inside and outside the aboriginal community have suggested that indigenous stories need to be included. This is somewhat ironic since the CMC’s collection of indigenous objects is one of the best in the country, beautifully displayed in the Grand Hall and the galleries behind it. But it is stories, not artifacts, that are at issue in today’s museum environment.
Nonetheless, the CMC’s curators have not abandoned the search for telling objects. The museum has been beefing up its history collection in recent years and has just acquired a ceremonial last spike from the Canadian Pacific Railway, a strongbox that belonged to Sir John A’s doctor and a large collection of objects retrieved from the Empress of Ireland, the CP ocean liner that sank in the St. Lawrence in 1914 in the worst maritime accident in the country’s history.
At least the new Canadian Museum of History will have some artifacts to display.
The Museum for Human Rights is starting from scratch. Museum president Stuart Murray will not say what “iconic objects” the $350 million museum project might have acquired with the $37 million it is spending on the exhibits themselves. He mentions only the possibility that it will include a loan from Library and Archives Canada of the last letter written by Louis Riel before he was hanged, but he points out the museum’s collection is mainly digital: it is collecting oral histories on such topics as women’s rights, gay rights, aboriginal rights and the experiences of new Canadians. A spiral of glass erected at the historic Forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers in downtown Winnipeg, the building, designed by U.S. architect Antoine Predock, will take visitors from a dark entry hall up toward the light. Its displays will cover notorious human rights abuses, including the Holocaust, the Ukrainian famine or Holodomor, and Canada’s residential schools. But Murray stresses, “This is not a museum of human wrongs; it’s a museum of human rights. It’s not that you shy away from the disturbing material, but you look at it and say what happened, why and what can we learn from it.”
This is programming a long way from the idea of a Holocaust museum originally bruited about when it was decided in the 1990s that the Canadian War Museum would not include a Holocaust gallery. In that instance, veterans had protested loudly, fearing that such a gallery would overshadow what they saw as their museum.
The question of whether the Jewish community will be satisfied with the much changed CMHR will only be answered on opening day, but the development process has featured a long and acrimonious debate about whether the Holocaust is a unique genocide that should be given the largest floor space in the new galleries. The new institution has done significant work with the Ukrainian community, which wishes to see the Holodomor given equal attention. It entered into a memorandum of understanding with Ukraine’s Holodomor museum last year, has organized a series of lectures about the 1930s Stalinist state-sponsored famine in which millions died, and is commissioning a documentary film on the topic. However, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress still expresses reservations about the proposed exhibits, while the more radical Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association is actively protesting what it sees as an institution that will elevate one people’s suffering over others. In a recent postcard campaign it denounced the CMHR as the pet project of a single community being unfairly underwritten by tax dollars.
In an article published last year in the Journal of Genocide Research, Australian scholar Dirk Moses identified the museum’s dilemma, arguing that the CMHR was caught between its need to unite a multicultural Canada around a human rights agenda on the one hand and, on the other, the need to memorialize the tragedies of specific communities so as to meet its fundraising needs. Indeed, it is pinned between its two foundation myths, caught between Jean Chrétien’s commitment to a memorial (which he later backed away from) and Gail Asper’s vision of advocacy. The museum has raised $138 million from private donors to date, but Moses points out that communities who have made donations will feel they have bought space in this new institution. Murray is already dampening expectations, warning some communities they will not be represented on opening day, but promising that since the museum is primarily digital its exhibits will be ever changing. “If we tried to tell every story every community wanted us to tell we would never open this museum,” Murray said.
Just as the federal government made its commitment to this difficult new national institution in 2007, it cancelled plans to build premises for a national portrait gallery that would house the large portrait collection of Library and Archives Canada. Both decisions seem largely political: the portrait gallery was an Ottawa initiative that had become associated with Liberal profligacy; the human rights museum was a Winnipeg project associated with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pro-Israel stance and with the decentralization of federal institutions. Still, they mark a telling choice to build a monument dedicated to complex ideas digitally displayed and call it a museum while a physical collection that languishes in storage can only represent itself to the public with digital images on a website.
“At the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington you round a corner and you see a bin of shoes. There is nothing you have to say,” Murray observes. The thousands of shoes are on long-term loan from the Majdanek Museum at the site of the former Majdanek concentration camp in Poland. To buy such objects would seem horrible, to fabricate them worse still; and yet their presence is key to the story the Washington institution is telling and the display is often cited as visitors’ most moving experience there. Sometime next year the doors will open in Winnipeg and a fractious, opinionated citizenry can judge whether the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has found its pile of shoes.