James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, speaks to the media Tuesday regarding Canada's 150th birthday and the future of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Oct 16, 2012, in Gatineau, Quebec.
Credits: ANDRE FORGET/QMI AGENCY
It's hard to believe we didn't already have one.
It's also hard to believe the excitement it's bringing to the often staid world of museums. If it were only about replacing Egyptian hand-thrown pottery with Canadian hand-blown glass it might seem a tempest in a storeroom. But the Harper administration's intentions go considerably beyond renaming a building.
As the first step toward Canada's 150th birthday in 2017, a Canadian Heritage press release declared it is also legislating a change in its mandate.
According to Minister James Moore: "Canadians deserve a national museum of history that tells our stories and presents our country's treasures to the world."
So, the press release continued: "The Canadian Museum of History will highlight the national achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our country" including the Last Spike, Rocket Richard's jersey and Terry Fox memorabilia.
What's not to love? Yet Liberal Heritage critic Scott Simms thundered "This government has decided that the Museum of Civilization will no longer focus on world history, and instead will concentrate on the historical events and symbols that best fit with their narrative."
Which rather conflates two issues.
Surely it is possible to concentrate on Canada's history without presenting a Tory "narrative". The new museum is hardly likely to claim Stephen Harper invented the telephone. And whether we should know our national story is not a matter of partisan contention.
Or is it? After all, the last full-time Liberal leader called Canada "the place on earth that, if I needed one, I would call home." If. And the heir-apparent blurted out on Quebec radio that if Harper remade Canada in his own image "maybe I would think about making Quebec a country."
In fact there is a lively public argument over whether being Canadian is an essential or accidental attribute. It underlies disputes over the new citizenship guide, War of 1812 celebrations, and whether we are a "nation of peacekeepers".
So it matters that the current museum presents, essentially, a technically accomplished panorama of Canadian historical settings. For, without events, the overall effect is not a story but a set of situations lacking context and ultimately lacking meaning.
A citizen who forgets his nation's history, good or ill, is like a man with amnesia. Unaware of who he is and what drama he's part of, he has no idea what to do next, including about various evils history has deposited on his doorstep.
Of course a museum makeover can be botched, creating something dull or tendentious. A true examination of Canadian history, or anyone's, must not gloss over the tragic or the tragicomic, from the collision of European and aboriginal culture to the controversy over Dieppe.
But the fact that a museum can in principle be either bad or biased has nothing to do with whether it should in principle treat Canada's story as special.
That doesn't mean we need a pep rally here. But it's possible to be shallow and triumphalist in a politically correct as well as a reactionary way.
The Museum's current president, Mark O'Neill, said: "Canadians have created a society not like any other; a country that is economically viable, is based on fairness and justice, and that promotes the participation of all of its citizens."
But while Canada has its peculiarities, his remarks actually underline how much we are like other Western nations from Australia to Britain to the U.S. and how unlike much of the Third World. It would be fatuous and saccharine to deny this point and I hope they don't.
Nor should the Museum succumb to the conceit that Canada sprang from the sea-foam in 1867, tiptoeing around our British heritage, Quebec, aboriginals etc. If MPs can enter the Commons under carvings of Henry VII of England and François I of France, who sent Cabot and Cartier, the museum can discuss Magna Carta and celebrate thrilling upset victories against the Soviets, Hitler, Napoleon, Phillip II and, yes, Guthrum.
But if you disagree, don't panic. Join in the planned extensive public consultations.
After all, it's your history and your museum ... finally.