As a historian, I always appreciate it when historical issues arrive in the mainstream press. Fortunately, the current government in Ottawa is tremendously keen on history. From the celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the War of 1812 to the recreation of the Canadian Museum of Civilization, Harper and Co. have not been shy about wading into historical issues. As James L. Turk argues in the Toronto Star, however, Conservative interventions into historical storytelling speak to a way of studying history that most historians have left behind, and seem intended not to further historical knowledge, but rather to imprint their own particular political ideology onto the past. Turk is the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers and a former professor of Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto so presumable he has a vested interest in the kind of critical knowledge-making he accuses the government of attacking in his column.
In short, Turk suggests that replacing the current Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) with the proposed Canadian Museum of History will rob Canada of its largest and most popular museum, one that is internationally recognized as a centre of first rate research and forward-looking exhibitions. The mandate of the CMC, established by an act of Parliament, states that the museum’s purpose is to increase critical knowledge of human cultural achievement. The proposed Bill C-49, which would replace the CMC, by contrast, envisages an institution that would fulfill a function more akin to cheer leading a particular point of view. The purpose of the Museum of Canadian History will be to shine light on events, experiences, people and objects that have shaped Canada’s history and identity. This sounds fine on the surface, but it is what’s missing here that counts. The new bill makes no mention of research or of developing collections for future generations to study. Any reference to critical study or knowledge creation is gone. Already the office of research and collections has been eliminated at the museum. Who, then, will decide on exhibitions if there is no independent research, asks Turk. The new mandate seems to clear the way for a kind of “great man” history that focuses only on the deeds and achievements of a few and then casts these as the central elements of Canada’s past and Canada’s identity. Any alternative views, perspectives or understandings are then removed from discussion, clearing the way for the representation of only one position, one ideology, one identity, one truth, to the exclusion of all others.
This exclusion and single mindedness, the loss of critical perspective, is what bothers Turk about the new Canadian History Museum and leads him to conclude that this initiative is another step in Conservative efforts to suppress knowledge that does not fit with its policies and ideology. Like the muzzle the government has placed on environmental science, and the shuttering of scientific projects like the Experimental Lakes Research Area, the transformation of the CMC into an institution that uncritically reflects a particular narrative of Canadian history is an assault on knowledge. Turk concludes by arguing that national institutions like the CMC should stand apart from government, and should be run according to sound professional and scholarly standards. What he does not say is that this position, too, is a political one. History itself is political. It is always at least as much about the present as it is about the past. At least Turk’s politics, however, make room for critical and experimental knowledge, rather than seek to impose a single view on everyone.