Canadian history – No, don’t fall asleep yet!

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Canadian Museum of Civili-er…History

Last week, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore announced the Canadian Museum of Civilization would be renamed the Canadian Museum of History and its content re-focused on, appropriately, Canadian history.

Opponents of the move, however, have decried it as politically-motivated propaganda. Yet, besides mention of a few random artefacts such as the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway, relatively few details have been released about what will actually make up the new content of the museum. Accordingly, I think criticism of the exhibits is purely speculative at this point and no more than politics at its worst (a topic I will address another day, I think). Personally, I remain cautiously optimistic about a museum dedicated to Canadian history.

What really caught my attention was an article published on Friday in the National Post. Titled Blood, sex & greed: Canadian history is more interesting than you think, the article suggests the new museum should embrace the more exciting aspects of Canadian history such as the raiding of the Haida people along the west coast, the mental peculiarities of Louis Riel, and the renowned drinking habits of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald.

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I don’t care who you are, this is an awesome picture.

I will be the first to admit that Canadian history has a reputation for being rather lacklustre, and Mr. Hopper is absolutely correct to point out that there are many exciting moments which are often overlooked. Nevertheless, the first reaction I had upon reading his article was one of unease.

The primary purpose of a museum is education. It is, of course, beneficial for a museum to also be entertaining in order to draw people in and increase revenues, but to sacrifice educational material in the name of excitement is counter-productive. What benefit is there in learning that Sir John A. was in a drunken hotel room fire? Or that two men shot each other five times in a duel in the early 19th century? These are interesting factoids, but I am hesitant to say they are more worthy of inclusion in a museum than less-thrilling pieces of history.

Take, for example, the recent discovery of a Viking settlement on Baffin Island in Canada’s north-east. This is only the second Viking settlement ever found in North America (the first being L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland), but it was not the site of any major battles or outbreak of disease or anything exciting. And yet, it is a profoundly important piece of Canadian history nonetheless.

Now, I am certainly not saying all interesting material is useless. The example mentioned above regarding the raiding habits of the Haida, for instance, is both interesting and educational. It provides a wider understanding of the Haida culture which is important when considering the rest of the Haida material held in various museum collections and should certainly be included.

Professor John Milloy is quoted in the National Post article, saying: “Blood, sex, greed, that’s the good stuff, that’s what brings people into the movie theatres.” The question then arises whether Canadian history should be a Michael Bay production – with all the blood and explosions and excitement – or rather a Scorsese or Kubrik-esque narrative, with well-rounded characters and a poignant story.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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2 responses to “Canadian history – No, don’t fall asleep yet!

  1. That is an awesome picture. It makes Canadians look badass!

    Also, I do feel that perhaps the new plan to spark interest in Canadian history is a bit overboard. I think you can be interesting without resulting to making you museum seem like a trip to the cinema. It slightly gives the impression, to me anyway, that the information to be presented is glorified and more fiction than fact.

    • The suggestions of the National Post article are, luckily, just that – one guy’s suggestions. Like I mentioned, the details about what will actually be included in the museum are less clear.

      My thoughts were more about the general tendency to favour the flashy factoids over more historically substantive (i.e. dull) things/people/events in Canadian history. It’s as if we are comparing ourselves to the US or other countries that have turbulent histories and going “We need some of that too!”

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