Curating The Canadian Nation: Harper’s Remake of Canada?

Curating The Canadian Nation: Harper’s Remake of Canada?

The Government of Canada recently announced that one of Canada’s leading museums, the Canadian Museum of Civilization would be gutted – the euphemistic term being “refocused” – and renamed – aka “rebranded” – the “Canadian Museum of History“ (LeBlanc 2012). This will be followed by the creation of a network of Canadian history museums that will promote “national heroes” and “national treasures”. I will analyse this in terms of promoting new myths, myths tied to a new national discourse that the Prime Minister is clearly trying to cultivate and I will ask why precisely do we need a new Canadian nationalism seemingly focused on Canada’s military past? Drawing upon past research, I will then project some likely consequences of this revamping of one of Canada’s leading museums.

Although the establishment of new museums is laudable, from a critical anthropological perspective, the question remains: what national discourse will be articulated, what voices will be silenced or pushed aside, and what are the politics behind the change? What is the new Canada that will be curated around the “last spike” and Champlain’s astrolabe, and who exactly will gain from the new mythologizing of the War of 1812? Eric Wolf argued that we “can no longer be content with writing only the history of victorious elites” (2010[1982]:xxvi) and I would say the same of museums.  They, too, should seek to uncover and present the “active histories of ‘primitives,’ peasantries, laborers, immigrants, and besieged minorities” (Wolf 2010[1982]:xxvi). While the Canadian Museum of Civilization sought to present social history, I fear the new museum presented will seek to glorify the victorious elites to the detriment of those who were largely powerless, and will follow the Canadian tradition of treating the history of Canada’s First Nations people as an insignificant preface before real history begins.

Building upon anthropological research conducted in Russia and in East Europe, as well as anecdotes from my youth, I will argue that a museum is not merely about exhibiting artefacts of our past; rather it is a political act of curating the past to create guiding myths for the future. As anthropologists, I will argue, our role is to analyze the ways in which discourses and narratives are articulated, to challenge them when necessary, and to demonstrate how the meaning is not solely in the artefacts and the words in museums but also in the subtle discourses created in the “curation” of nations.

The Pioneer Museum

Looking back, it is a small town museum in a hamlet of northern Alberta that forced me to examine the subtle narratives that are hidden behind any museum exhibition. It was only later that I was able to tie the small museum in the French-speaking community of my birth to the larger pioneer narrative that shapes most small museums in Western Canada. Every day for a summer, I would drive to my high school summer job in my parent’s little black station wagon to work in the museum, longing for any visitor. Visitors being rare, I kept myself busy tweaking the displays and trying to make some work for myself.

I remember vividly the wall of axes and the mighty stump that stood in the middle of the museum – that and the five-legged squirrel that had been ironically stuffed and put on display holding a peanut. Years later, I came to understand that the display was not meant to be a typology of axes, rather it was designed to solicit an emotional response as the visitor would see the axes, see the stump and then consciously or unconsciously wonder what it would have entailed to fell such a tree using the axes on display. The hidden narrative was thus the heroism of the pioneers – quite often the fathers, mothers, grandmothers, grandfathers and other relatives of the museum visitor. This masked narrative was not, solely about the past, but about the future, it was defining values projected onto the past to establish a narrative as to what the community should be in the present and what it should aspire to in the future.

The other lesson learned that summer was of the importance of what was not on display in a museum. As a child, I would wander in back of my grandparents’ homestead and would occasionally come across empty brown jugs strewn in the old garbage heaps. Much later, I learned that these were whiskey jugs. I also heard the story of my great-grand-father being killed by his nephews. Apparently, they had a still out in the barn in back. There were no whiskey jugs and no stills in the small museum, and there were certainly no displays on the violence and the other social ills that also were prevalent past and present. Not only is a narrative created in how objects are put on display, it is also shaped by what is excluded.

Finally, the museum did have some arrowheads and a few traces of the First Nations peoples who lived there before the arrival of the pioneers. They were lumped in with the fossils, remnants of a past too distant to matter, though this of course was not overtly stated. The small town museum of my youth was not simply guilty of parochialism; Michael Ames in his analysis of Expo ’86 notes that in the Canada pavilion, the “first panel began with the standard reference to ‘first peoples,’ but by the second panel they dwindled to statistical insignificance” (1992:122). Whether it was Expo ’86, Vancouver’s 1986 centennial or even the commercial by the Hudson’s Bay in honour of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the ideological underpinnings remain unchanged as Ames notes: “Before the pioneers, then, there was no history except wilderness and a few Indians” (1992:120). The act of “curating” the Canadian nation then is one where “Canada begins as pioneer land without a past; it sees its future as its history” (Ames 1992:120).

It does not matter whether it is a small town museum or a major national museum, these same questions should be asked. What is the narrative that is being masked behind the words and objects, what are the artefacts and voices that are being excluded and what exactly is being shunted aside or relegated to an insignificant past even within the confines of the museum?

Russian War Memorials

Not only has there been a great deal of critical research conducted on museums, there has also been much written on the use of wars and war memorials to cultivate patriotism and nationalism. Following World War I, memorials and monuments were erected throughout Europe, and certainly contributed to shaping discourses that would lead to World War II. However, I would argue that contemporary Russia serves as a good point of comparison to understand how memories of war can be politicized and how narratives in museums are tied to larger popular discourses and then can be used to legitimize political and military actions.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mayor of Moscow financed major construction efforts to rebuild the city’s landscape. Churches and cathedrals were renovated and rebuilt, including the infamous Christ the Saviour Cathedral where Pussy Riot conducted an impromptu concert. Monuments were erected, including one to Peter the Great’s maritime exploits in establishing the first Russian Navy. Finally, Victory Park was completed to commemorate the victory over Fascism. In this museum, we see the essentials of national “curation.” There is an appeal to emotions as ominous music follows visitors in the early stages of the war. This gives way to uplifting music as the invading forces are pushed back and defeated. The subtle message is that the people rose up and vanquished the invading forces. In the displays, the Communist Party is evacuated, the only reference to the Party are in the actual documents on display.

Likewise, elements of history that detract from the grand narrative are excluded or put at the bottom of displays or in piles of document to the side, such that one must really know where to look and what to look for in the history to correctly interpret it. Thus, the secret Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact is pushed aside, the attempted invasion of Finland and the subsequent early invasion of Poland overlooked and no reference is made to the less than valorous actions that followed the victory of the Red Army, including Nazi prisoners released only to be sent to Soviet prison camps, and the rapes reportedly carried out by victorious soldiers. Of course, Russian museums are not alone in these selective memories of the past: exhibits that challenge popular discourses in North America and Europe relating to World War II will raise the ire of the populace.

Why is it important to study museums? Why should we care what is in museums that most will not visit? It matters because the national discourses being curated will spill over into popular sentiments and vice versa. The museums and Cathedrals being built and rebuilt when Russia was effectively bankrupt in the 1990s would presage the rise of a revived Russian nationalism in this century. The narrative of the Great Patriotic War in Russia (World War II) would define a people rising up to defend itself against invaders intent on cutting up the country, stealing its resources and otherwise annihilating the population.

This narrative was tied to older invasions, and served as a warning to the present that there are still powers that would force Russia to its knees with the intent of chopping up the motherland. Then, this discourse was applied to explaining and interpreting the 2008 war against the Republic of Georgia: the war was presented as a Great Patriotic War writ small, with the Russian forces defending defenseless populations against an invading force intent on genocide, and it feeds into a larger national discourse of Russia facing deadly forces that threaten it today.

Revamping Canada’s Museum of Civilisation

This past experience forces me to question the intent of the announced changes. Why is there an urgent need to “rebrand” (a somewhat annoying term from marketing) a perfectly worthwhile museum to create a Canadian Museum of History? Why is the “last spike” so important and why the recent obsession with the War of 1812? The Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin provides a telling analysis in that he proposes that government is intent on curating the peacemaking out of Canada’s history of peacekeeping to focus on our martial history. What else will be left out of the new discourse? Will the new narrative seek to expunge and silence an honest discussion of Canada’s internal colonialism that has marginalized and continues to marginalize First Nations peoples? Why is the new focus so intent on the British past, bringing back the “Royal” to our designation of our armed and naval forces? How will this new packaging of old history be interpreted and understood by the French-speaking population and likewise how will new and even not-so new Canadians be inserted into the seemingly new narrative that will emerge as to Canada’s past?

Interestingly, the critique that Martin makes of the Canadian Museum of Civilization is that it is “anthropologically dreary” which is perhaps shorthand for it seeking to put on exhibit a history that does more that simply relegate First Nations to the footnotes of history. To cite the museum’s website: “By displaying the remarkable history of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples from sea to sea, the First Peoples Hall underlines their fight for cultural survival and highlights the wealth of their modern-day contributions.” Instead, we are likely to have more displays on the “victorious elites” as the Conservative party in power, as notes Lawrence, has an “affinity for old wars” and there is a concern that they “won’t get it right, that a lot of our history will go missing.” My fear is that they will get it right, in that they will successfully curate a new form of Canadian nationalism that will be more aggressively imperial and colonial.

The changes announced must thus be analyzed I would argue as an initiative to curate the past to create a new narrative to shape the future. Anthropology can challenge the decisions made and contribute to a critical analysis of the politics of the “curation” of nation and explain the likely consequences of the nationalism being promoted or the backlash against the nationalism that will invariably ensue. Ames rightly argued: “In reconstructing our past we reconstitute ourselves according to current values and beliefs” (1992:117). Following the spirit of Michael Ames’ work, I will argue that we must challenge the politics of “rebranding” and revamping the Canadian Museum of Civilization to ensure that the neglected and the dispossessed are not curated out of our past and that a newly curated and mythologized history should not be used as a political tool to impose the values of the new elites on those who still continue in their contemporary struggle for equality and justice.


Ames, Michael M. 1992. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver: UBC Press

Canadian Museum of Civilization. 2012. First Peoples Hall.

Hudson’s Bay Company. 2010. We were made for this.

Lawrence, Martin. 2012. Don’t curate the peacemaking out of Canadian history. The Globe and Mail.  Published Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012.

LeBlanc, Daniel. 2012. Museum of Civilization to change name, focus only on Canadian history. The Globe and Mail. Friday, Oct. 12, 2012.

Wolf, Eric R. 2010[1982] Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: The University of California Press.