Presenting a nation’s history is tricky business, says Mark O’Neill. He would know.
In 2011, after 10 years as an employee at the Canadian Museum of History— then known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization—O’Neill campaigned for the position of CEO on an assertion that the federally funded institution could do a better job of telling Canada’s collective story.
“It has to be based on the historical record. It has to be authentic. It has to be artifact-rich. It has to be a compelling story, and we have to involve Canadians in developing it,” he recalls now, six years later, standing in the grand centre foyer of the new, $30-million dollar exhibit. Curators and construction workers dart around him, putting the final touches on his 40,000 sq. ft.-dream in anticipation of its grand opening on Canada Day.
“It’s a dramatic departure in terms of this museum and how inclusively and how transparently it tells history, and”—he says with emphasis—“who it involves.”
In order to tell a story that is truly national, the museum has relied on a series of partners; some well-established, and some new.
The completely revamped space was brought to life by Douglas Cardinal, the highly regarded architect from Calgary who designed the original Museum of History’s iconic rippled building, constructed between 1989 and 1999.
And, not unlike other relationships throughout Canadian history, this one required making some amends.
“He did not have a relationship with this museum for a number of years, for a variety of reasons, but we invited him back in,” O’Neill tells P&I. “[Cardinal] is 82-years-old now. He’s been working with us for four years, and he sees this as the culmination of his architectural vision for the museum.”
He adds: “We could have never done this without him.”
A national story with many perspectives
The new space is not only physically overhauled, but the story it communicates is also very different than the one in the Hall’s earlier form.
“History is something that is national. We look at Canada’s story as whole—it’s a national story—but it’s made up of lots of individual ones,” notes Lisa Leblanc, the History Museum’s director of creative development, while standing at the entrance to the Hall.
“It’s made up of a variety of things—like conflict-struggle-loss, and accomplishment and hope—and those different perspectives can live side-by-side; they can live in conflict, they can live in isolation, but that notion of multiple perspectives and just laying-out the evidence is at the root of everything in the Hall.”
The new exhibit is an ambitious undertaking, covering 15,000 years of human life on the Canadian territory. It begins with the arrival of the First Peoples on the land, and culminates, in part, with the recent arrival of Syrian refugees.
This is a stark contrast to the previous version of the exhibit, the storyline of which began with the arrival of Europeans on Canada’s coastlines.
“We also have this notion that history is still around us; it’s something that’s unfinished, that’s unfolding,” adds Leblanc. “Canada is not a finished chapter—we don’t know what will happen tomorrow, but it’s that notion of saying: ‘You, visitor, coming in here, you are a part of this.’”
And in addition to Canadians’ symbolic involvement, the general population also played a tangible part in the Hall’s creation.
In preparing for the project, the Museum held cross-country consultations with more than 24,000 Canadians from nine different cities, explains O’Neill. These town halls were held in a variety of different spaces, from schools to shopping malls.
The museum also relied on the advice, insight and perspectives of six advisory committees: a general committee, a women’s history committee, an indigenous history committee and three time-period committees comprised of historians.
After one year of consulting with these committees and gathering data, the museum condensed them into two panels, which continued to give advice throughout the Hall’s completion—a general committee, which included history experts and members from the original women’s history committee—as well as an indigenous committee.
“They were involved with everything; from concept, to storyline, to text-writing, to artifact selection,” says Leblanc.
15,000 years of human history
When first entering the hall, visitors are led down a striking corridor, brightly illuminated with warm light that reflects off 101 etched mirrors portraying scenes of Canadian culture.
These illustrations show symbols of Canadian identity, culture, and communities and are based on feedback from Canadians who were asked where they see Canadian history in their day-to- day lives.
The reflective surface, once again, is meant to remind the viewer that they, too, play a role in forming Canada’s history.
The next stop in the hall is a cavernous foyer, with a massive, 15.5 x 9.5-metre satellite image of the Canadian land mass, as viewed from space, installed on the floor in full-colour.
The image—which is actually 121 satellite photos of the territory overlapped and stitched together—was taken by the Canadian Space Agency over the course of the month of May in 2013.
“It’s not a map that politically demarcates political borders and territories,” notes O’Neill. “It’s simply Canada. The land mass known as Canada.”
He adds: not even the great elephant to the south of Canada’s border is indicated in any way.
The History Hall exhibit is split into three galleries, which roughly represent three chronological stories of Canada’s 15,000-year relationship with human beings.
Gallery one takes visitors through the earliest signs of life on Canada’s territory up until 1763. Gallery two illustrates the years from 1763-1914. Gallery three tells the story of Canada in the 20th and 21st centuries, from 1914 to present.
Leblanc explains that as the museum’s team began to plot each gallery, they applied six guiding principles, formed from various advice gained by consultations with Canadians and the advisory committees.
Guiding principle number one: each story or element in the History Hall must have a national narrative, meaning it had to have a lasting affect on the country, and the population as a whole. For example, while the tragic Halifax explosion was certainly an important moment in Canadian history, it did not have long-lasting repercussions for the entire population or the development of the country.
Number two: each element must include multiple perspectives, and number three, must focus on the human experience of that development.
Number four: the presentations in the gallery must touch on the idea of legacy, meaning that the specific story must have continued influence.
Number five: each gallery has an emphasis placed on visitor participation, with efforts made to offer the viewer ways of interacting with the exhibit.
And, number six: authenticity. The exhibit uses “very few reproductions,” says Leblanc, who adds that if a piece on display is a reproduction, it will be made very clear that it is such, and will explain why it had to be used.
A dramatic departure for the museum
The first gallery focuses largely on Canada’s First Peoples, their way of life, their creation stories, and their adaptation to different environments. The exhibit uses theatrical lighting, clean design principles and bright colours with pieces that can be interacted-with and touched.
“This is a dramatic departure… the very first people you encounter in this Hall are indigenous people, telling you their creation stories in their own voices…this did not exist in this museum before,” says O’Neill, motioning to a large projection screen that features a beautifully animated film, illustrated and narrated by the Anishinaabe, telling the group’s creation story.
“We worked with the communities directly when we’ve spoken about their communities specifically,” notes Leblanc. “We had the indigenous advisory committee which helped us with the broad narrative, but whenever we speak about a specific community, we’d work with that community.”
The gallery eventually transitions into a much darker section, which Chantal Amyot, the director of the Canadian History Hall, explains as illustrating “the consequence of the arrival of the Europeans: trade, disease, war,” as well as resiliency and adaptation.
The story transitions into developments such as the formation of New France, entrepreneurship, the fur trade, and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
The exhibit’s second gallery looks at Colonial Canada; all of the infrastructure growth that came with British rule and how the British negotiated relationships with both indigenous peoples and the French.
The gallery tells the stories of the population explosion, the ingenuity required to create new communities and institutions, as well as the displacement—and even extinction—of First Nations groups as a result.
One display shows a map of Canada that portrays the displacement of indigenous groups, and indicates where the various land claims are in the country, and at what stage of settlement they are currently in.
“We think this is the first time that a map in this sort of transparency and honesty has been presented anywhere in a museum,” says O’Neill. “If you look at the legend, it talks about the actual treaties— the ones that are contested, even.”
“When we were in school, we had a very, very particular and biased education with the National Policy…there was no discussion about the displacement of indigenous communities; there was no discussion of the Chinese workers who built the rail; there was no discussion of the racism and, essentially, imprisonment of people on the reserves. These are issues that are explored in great detail here,” says O’Neill, adding that he expects some visitors to “be a little bit disturbed about what they learn.”
He points to a large quote from Sir. John A. Macdonald displayed on the wall of the exhibit: “We cannot allow them to die for want of food…[We] are doing all [we] can, by refusing food until the Indians are on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.”
O’Neill hesitates near the quote and says, “There is no other exhibit as comprehensive and as transparent, and with the multiple perspectives that this one has.”
An unfinished story
The third and final gallery of Canada’s History Hall was “the most challenging” to create, says Leblanc. “Everybody feels like they know this story, and everybody expects to see what they think should be in here,” she adds, explaining that feathers are bound to be ruffled when you’re portraying events from living memory.
“There’s definitely going to be community groups who will come in and say, ‘we used to be so well-represented in the Canada Hall, and now we’re not.’ I’m sure that we’ll have those conversations a er we open—we’ve had a lot of them before, as well,” adds Leblanc.
“But we know that this is an unfinished story, so those perceptions are important for us. We’ve been listening for four or five years now—listening to everybody—and making decisions based on those conversations, but those conversations don’t end and the listening doesn’t end after we open.”
The gallery of Canada’s 20th and 21st centuries tell the overarching geopolitical story of how Canada became independent and prosperous.
This portion of the Hall, which is bright, open, and filled with plenty of natural light, touches on both World Wars, the baby boom, and the introduction of teen culture and childhood leisure.
There are some significant pieces on display—everything from the table on which the Constitution Act, 1982, was signed by Queen Elizabeth II; to the sewing machine used by Joan O’Malley to piece-together the first Canadian flag prototype; to Canadian rock icon Randy Bachman’s guitar.
And there are darker elements to this chapter of Canada’s story too, which are also prominently displayed.
“Many of our consultations with First Nations groups [showed that] they are so proud and adamant about this sense of resilience, and perseverance, and agency,” says Leblanc.
“It isn’t just a question of victimhood, but also giving the context. So, what was the Indian Act? What were some of the restrictions? What did it mean about their cultural identity and oppression? What did it mean about colonization in the North, and how it changed communities completely?”
There is a large section on the residential schools, including videos that give first-person narratives from survivors of and witnesses to the residential school system.
As the final gallery winds to a close, it features stories like the Meech Lake Accord, language debates, and the emerging rights for those with physical disabilities and those who identify as LGBTQ.
There is a section about the empathy shown and welcoming arms extended by Canadians to Syrian refugee families in recent years.
Lastly, there are screens which will display messages left by visitors to the exhibit, who will all be asked to share their thoughts about what could—and should—be done to further develop the country and the people known as Canada.