Monday, January 18, 2016

Night at the Museum?

At Buzzfeed, Sean Craig reports on events at the Canadian Museum of History, presented as evidence of political inference in the work of the museum.

Buzzfeed leads with the change of name of the Museum of Civilization to make it the Museum of History.  As ever, no reasons are provided for why we should see this as evidence of political manipulation of the work of the museum and its staff.  The government of Canada does have the authority to change the name, but how describing a museum of history as a museum of history is evidence of some sinister ideological agenda remains unexplained, not to say inexplicable.  (Okay, except that sinister ideological agendas and the Harper regime  were soulmates.)  It is true the opposition did make the allegation at the time, but just because the opposition was opposing doesn't prove some unexplained plot actually existed.

I have a short piece forthcoming in Canada's History related to the Museum of History.  My own contacts there did not suggest an agency under the thumb of the Heritage Minister or any one else on Parliament Hill.  Buzzfeed's article has not changed my mind -- though I would welcome fresh evidence if there is any.

We followed here the press coverage of the appointment/re-appointment of Mark O'Neill as Museum CEO. There seems to be less there than Buzzfeed implies. O'Neill did get caught up in the train wreck of the Harper government's efforts to game future seats on many government boards, but he was imminently due for reappointment anyway.

The story of the Empress of Ireland exhibition, and its apparent sanction of the use of plundered artifacts, is more serious. It seems to be more about a possible failing by the museum, rather than a story of political interference. If the museum breached archaeological protocols for the sake of an exhibit, that seems to point to bad decisions by board and/or senior management than some kind of ideology-driven political interference.

The same may be said about a statement Buzzfeed quotes: a manager's warning about a shortening of the arm's length relationship.  An arm's length relationship with government depends not only on restraint by government but also on the integrity of those at the other end of the arm. That is, it depends on the willingness of senior officials of arts and culture institutions to tell ministers and their lackeys to go to hell if they start meddling where they are not wanted.

Some years ago, where there were politically-influential efforts to manipulate the content of display texts at the Canadian War Museum, the director there had a straightforward response.  He resigned. That's the kind of strength sometimes needed from arts and culture officials. The most worrisome part of  the Buzzfeed story is not the political part, but the implication that maybe some of that kind of fortitude has been lacking in the upper ranks of the Museum.

Image:  Museum of History, via Buzzfeed.
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