Monday, 18 January 2016

Canadian Heritage: Behind Closed Doors of the National Museum

The old logo, global not particularist heritage
Since plans began to change its name and mandate in 2012, the Canadian Museum of History has reportedly experienced internal disputes over major acquisitions, controversial dismissals, and an erosion of the “arm’s-length” relationship with the former government writes Sean Craig ('What’s Gone On Behind Closed Doors At Canada’s Most-Visited Museum', BuzzFeed Canada Jan. 14, 2016). Mélanie Joly, the Minister of Canadian Heritage (she called it "the Ministry of symbols") has set about “resetting the symbols tweaked out of alignment” by the previous Harper government.
Canada’s most-visited museum is one of the major cultural symbols that significantly changed in the nine years of Conservative rule. A controversial revision to its name and mandate meant the Canadian Museum of Civilization officially became the Canadian Museum of History on Dec. 12, 2013. The Liberals called the change an attempt to “turn the museum into a subsidiary of the Conservative Party spin machine.” [...]  On Oct. 16, 2012, Heritage Minister James Moore announced that the Museum of Civilization would soon cease to exist. In its place would be the Canadian Museum of History. “Canadians deserve a national museum that tells our stories and presents our country’s treasures to the world,” he said. [...]  Former Museum of History CEO Victor Rabinovitch also has concerns about the museum bringing in exhibitions that lack Canadian content.
“[...] the CMH is carrying on a modest program that brings in packaged shows from abroad, with little or no additional Canadian content or Canadian interpretation,” said Rabinovitch. Others have raised similar concerns. Ottawa Magazine said the current exhibit on Vikings contains no Canadian content at all...
So much then for the idea of the "Universal Museum" and the collectors' "cultural internationalism".* The article also reveals that before the realignment of the purposes of the institution, the museum reportedly made legal threats against six archaeologists who objected on ethical grounds to a major acquisition of artefacts salvaged from the wreck of the ocean liner the Empress of Ireland ("Canada’s Titanic") which sank in the Saint Lawrence River on May 29, 1914, taking more than 1,000 lives with it, designated a heritage site in 1999. In October 2012, the museum  acquired a collection of 400 items from the wreck for $1.75 million in cash and a $1.3 million tax receipt. It now being reported that the acquisition was made despite objections raised by six museum archaeologists, as well as by archaeologists from Parks Canada. The museum’s response to its own archaeologists is stated to have included a stern letter from an outside legal firm that warned of serious consequences if they made their concerns public. BuzzFeed Canada says it has obtained the French draft of the letter which the six archaeologists sent Jan. 31, 2012 to the museum’s executive committee.
The final version was signed by curators and archaeologists Matthew Betts, Jerome Cybulski, Jean-Luc Pilon, Terence Clark, Yves Monette, and Patricia Sutherland. Two of those signatories — Monette and Sutherland — subsequently lost their jobs at the museum under circumstances that led to media coverage and, in Sutherland’s case, a petition calling for her reinstatement. [...] Many museum collection guidelines, including the Museum of History’s, discourage the acquisition of artifacts obtained through commercial exploitation or for unscientific purposes. It is believed such acquisitions could encourage the unregulated and unscientific trade of cultural artifacts. “The biggest problem is that salvors only take a tiny fraction of a shipwreck’s total artifact assemblage: only the things they can raise, rinse, and retail,” Paul F. Johnston, the curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History, told BuzzFeed Canada. “They leave behind the vast majority of a shipwreck’s artifacts — maybe 99.9% — and commonly disturb or destroy that remainder to get to the monetarily valuable stuff.”
Which is in fact what happens in most cases of artefact hunting in general. Unlike their British fellows, who are quite happy to turn a blind eye to such concerns and with a shrug of their shoulders look away as the museums fill with sparkly geegaw eye-candy loot, it seems that the Canadians spoke out.

You can read the reporter's account of the aftermath here

*championed among others by Ozarks-based  ACCG who once employed the Canadian antiquarian fellow John Hooker to write their hillbilly ideology. The goings on in the National Museum of his own country do not figure in Hooker's blog"Past Times and Present Tensions". 

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