Thursday, November 12, 2009

Winner of the Plains of Abraham debate...

... William Thorsell and the Royal Ontario Museum, for sure.

I have a certain ambivalence about the ROM. Member for years, actually use our membership, kids practically grew up there. But I'm always aware that Toronto does not have a museum of the city or the province or the country. We have the ROM instead, the ROM with glorious collections in Egyptology and Ming statuary and European armour... but with the Canadiana in basements and outbuildings, and no Canadian historians on staff ... ever? (Okay, they've done some great things in Canadian archaeology.) All I can say is it would never happen in Montreal.

But Thorsell as head of the ROM has always wanted to prove that a great museum will be a vital, provocative place, at the centre of life and culture in its city and its country. He brought that off last night. A capacity crowd in the atrium gallery: 500-700 people out for a ticketed Canadian history event on a Wednesday evening, and the ROM quietly boasting of its riches, with West's "Death of Wolfe" and Wolfe's own copy of "Gray's Elegy" on display. Bravo!

The debate, however, seemed to be more about 1960s history than the 1750s. Jack Granatstein gave us federalist politicking so vigorous that even the crowd, good Toronto Trudeauvians for the most part, I'm sure, went "Oo...ooh" when he began talking about Quebeckers' ingratitude for the cash pipeline from Ottawa to Quebec City. Well, he knew who was going to follow him. Bernard Landry gave us some of the legend of a paradisiacal New France the nuns must have taught him c1950 (before the conquest 80% of the Canadiens were literate, yeah, sure), but mostly it was the full PQ circa 1960 -- speak white, nous sommes opprimés, the call of the nation. It's what happens to history when you let the politicians in.

Even Desmond Morton, invited to give an overview of the battle before the debate, offered a watered-down version that might go over with undergraduates, but seemed a bit thin for the ROM audience... to say nothing of anyone who followed the live-blog here.

So kudos to Thorsell. The audience for serious, provocative Canadian history is here. Do this again. Just hope the historians do you better next time.
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