Canadian War Museum may soon have a new director

Caroline Dromaguet seems poised to become the next director general of the Canadian War Museum – a job with a troubled record during the last 12 years.

Dromaguet, an experienced exhibitions manager, was named acting director general more than a year ago, just before she left on maternity leave. She returned to work in August. These days, her boss enthusiastically sings her praises.

“Absolutely” she is a candidate for the job, says Mark O’Neill, head of the corporation that manages the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.

Caroline Dromaguet

“In addition to her skill set, knowledge and experience, she is a francophone woman,” says O’Neill. “To me, that was important. It was important to have leadership that reflects new ways of thinking, in this case, a very different kind of manager and she brings experience and viewpoints that are quite different. So, I’m going to continue to work with her in the next little while and see what she can contribute and provide to the job and then I’ll worry about how I’m going to staff it.”

The last director general, Stephen Quick, was hired in 2015 but mysteriously left two and one-half years later when his contract was not renewed. Before him, there was James Whitham, who asked to leave the job after almost three years to return to his previous post managing artifacts. Whitham had replaced O’Neill, who had the job for four years, before being promoted to the history museum.

In 2007, O’Neill replaced Joe Geurtz at the war museum after Geurtz was pushed out amid a dispute with veterans groups over a controversial Bomber Command exhibition.

Good relations with stakeholders, such as veterans, are an important part of the job, says O’Neill. Outside groups have already been “impressed” with Dromaguet’s interactions with them, he adds.

Whoever gets the director general job will find a roadmap of exhibitions in the works. The museum has emerged from several years of exhibitions marking various aspects of the First World War. Next summer will feature an exhibition titled, Canadians in a Global War, marking the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Then the museum will move away from a focus on commemoration to deal with issues that are more contemporary and thematic.

The main thrusts of the next five to 10 years, O’Neill said in a recent interview, will include four topics: Women war artists, Indigenous military history, future war and technology and war. Exhibitions encompassing those four topics are already being planned.

O’Neill says the “major” exhibition of women artists will be held within a few years. The show will include such contemporary artists as Gertrude Kearns, a Toronto-based military artist, and two Ottawa artists, Karen Bailey and Elaine Goble, who have done some military-themed art. As well, there will be historical artists such as Pegi Nicol MacLeod and Molly Lamb Bobak from the Second World War.

Mark O’Neill.

The exhibition will include loans from other museums and galleries. Such loans have, at times, ruffled feathers at the lending institutions. Three Ottawa-based cultural bureaucrats independently claimed the war museum and history museum treat loaned paintings as “wallpaper” rather than “art.” O’Neill appeared shocked when told of the criticism and said he had never before heard such complaints.

Organization of the women artists’ exhibition could be complicated by the fact the museum’s last art curator, Joanne Stober, disappeared from the museum last winter after three years on the job. Her status is unclear. “That’s an ongoing human resources issue,” says O’Neill.

A replacement has not been announced although Meredith Maclean, a collections specialist, has been doing some of the work Stober used to do, including organizing an exhibition in February on art produced by a Canadian Forces program that places artists in military camps at home and abroad.

Stober, with a background in photography, had been hired by Quick to give the museum a more digital and contemporary presence rather than the more predominant focus on commemoration of historic events. Neither Stober nor Quick would comment on their experiences at the museum but clearly there were differences of opinion with the boss over the museum’s direction.

Some senior museum staff, for example, were unhappy with O’Neill’s move to exhibit badly done paintings of war veterans by former president George W. Bush.

Outside cultural bureaucrats in Ottawa have complained quietly that the museum has under-used its own vast art collection and has overly favoured commemoration of historic events over contemporary issues.

O’Neill seems to be addressing both of those areas, saying the museum must “leverage” its art collection more and will do so with the planned women artists show and other travelling exhibitions.

“We want to get as much of the collection as we can on the road to use the artifacts and to tell incredibly important stories and to connect a whole new generation of Canadians.,” says O’Neill.

Exhibitions about “future war” and “war and technology” will put the spotlight on contemporary issues, including cyber warfare and the ways technology developed for the military affects all our daily lives. An exhibition for 2021 will focus on video war games. The new Indigenous focus will open the door to possible exhibitions on the resurgent Oka crisis and Canada’s Arctic presence.

In the war museum’s early days, directors general were often military historians. That has not been the case for a few decades and is no longer necessary, says O’Neill.

“A large part of the museum management today … is the ability to get the resources, organize the business model of the museum, be the public face, interact with a huge number of stakeholder groups.

It’s tough slogging.”

Dromaguet, like her predecessors, could have some tough days ahead.

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