Making history matter with Museum CEO Mark O’Neill

This past summer, in the three months after July 1, about 235,000 people visited the Canada History Hall.

The numbers confirmed something that Mark O’Neill holds to be true: that given the opportunity, Canadians will seize the chance to learn about their history.

The president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History Corporation which oversees the Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum, knows the cliché about Canadian ignorance of their own nation’s history.

“I have been here in the museum for about 15 years,” he said in a recent interview. “I became CEO in 2011 and one of the things that heavily influenced me was a report by Jack Jedwab, of the Association of Canadian Studies. He did an illuminating report on what Canadians know about history. He concluded that Canadian historic literacy is low and that the majority of the population does not qualify as literate when it comes to the degree to which they know their history or read about the subject.

“I thought that was fascinating. It validated my own anecdotal experience. That was one of things was very influential for me in terms of how the national history museum could play a lead role in changing all of that.”

Mark O’Neill. Photo courtesy Canadian Museum of History.

O’Neill says he finds the history of this nation “is complex, highly relevant and extremely exciting when people understand the influences that created the country we know today. It is largely untold and I think there was also a thirst to learn about history.”

To support that latter conclusion, he pointed to another survey conducted by the Museum’s in-house research team.

In it people were asked their interest in history before they entered the new Hall. The results showed that about 37 per cent of those questioned said their interest was high at a rate of eight out of 10. After the visit that total almost doubled to 62 per cent of those asked.

The result was buttressed by the fact that in the new Hall real artifacts from the Museum’s collection were available to see.

So much of our world is now digital, that real things, the tangible artifacts of our past, are not always available. O’Neill isn’t surprised.

“Everyone has jumped on the digital bandwagon. It’s not new for us. This museum was one of first in the world to have fibre optic cable in it. The institutional website is 25 years old. We are on every social media platform; we’ve digitized a quarter-million pages of artifacts and we’ve got more than 100 exhibitions on-line.

“But what we are finding though is that there is a yearning for an intimate experience with tangible heritage. People want to come and see the real thing.

“You have to reach out as much as you can so you have to do digital. It’s a binary kind of thing, but people are coming back to the experience with the real object.” Authenticity matters, in other words.

Inside the new hall. Photo: Canadian Museum of History.

In preparing the new History Hall, the research done by the museum showed people wanted to experience objects, he said.

They also “wanted us to tell the whole story of Canadian history … warts and all. They also wanted multiple perspectives. Those are the kinds of things we worked very hard to do.”

Which is why, for example, the story of Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump is told by a Blackfoot elder.

“The perspective is not a curator’s perspective, it is the authentic experience of an elder who is telling story of why that place is important and why visitors need to know about it.”

This openness to perspectives was cultivated from the beginning of the development of the Hall with input sought from and delivered by six consultative groups representing interested parties such as women and First Nations.

“That was a leap of faith for us,” O’Neill said. “It required a new way of thinking.”

As the year 2017 draws to a close, O’Neill says he believes the museum has moved past the controversy caused by the name change from Museum of Civilization to History, a decision taken by the former Stephen Harper government.

“Our museum is a cultural policy instrument of the federal government acting on behalf of the people. When governments adjust those policy instruments, as they do occasionally, people get concerned. They worry about motivation. I understand all of that.”

He experienced an upwelling of a similar sort of concern when the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien planned the new Canadian War Museum.

“There was some feeling in the veterans community and among some military historians that the new museum would be imbued with the ideology of the government of the day.” It didn’t happen, he says.

An ivory carving between 3,900 and 3,600 years old — the oldest known depiction of a human face in Canada. It is part of the new History Hall. Photo: Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Museum of History and the War Museum have always been about presenting the historical record from as many perspectives as possible, he says.

“We never set out to say a given exhibition is going to have to be fair and balanced. We never used words like that. We said the exhibition has to be inclusive, comprehensive and transparent. Those are very different words.

“If, for example, you are going to tell the story of the First World War and not talk about the internment of members of the Austro-Hungarian empire, you haven’t told all the truth. We had to be faithful to the record.

“If you can accept fact that history is not going to be politicized, and I think we proved that with the new Hall, then you can accept that history is everything that ever was and will be and that you are part of it and can influence it.”

In today’s world of Donald Trump, fake news and alternative facts, there is an enormous responsibility on an institution such as the Museum of History. But, O’Neill says, there is opportunity too for the museum, if you get it right.

“We have the privilege of being able to say, we think you need to know this. Not everyone will be happy with History Hall and we knew that too.”

O’Neill says a friend of his was furious that infamous Vive Quebec Libre speech by Charles de Gaulle was included in the History Hall.

O’Neill says he told the friend he had every right to be upset.

“It should provoke you, but it doesn’t mean it should not be there.”

Canadian museums are knowledge based institutions, he says, where important scholarship takes place.

“That’s often overlooked. This goes back to the question of integrity and reliability. Scholarship is integral to the success of these institutions.

“We probably don’t” promote that well enough. Right now at the two museums under his watch there are about 40 ‘content’ experts across a range of disciplines.

“It’s the most we have ever had.” He doesn’t anticipate adding any more right now. “I think we have the right mix.”

It has been a big year but now that it is almost over, the question is what’s next?

“First, I see the launching of the History Hall as a beginning. We now have to figure out how to bring it to those Canadians who will never get to the museum.

“We are also going to be redoing the Children’s Museum which is largely original to the opening of the building in 1989. It might have more room, but it will be anchored in its current space.

“In the war museum we will be moving out of the anniversary cycle of the world wars and we need to start looking at things like gender and war and Canada in the 21st century.”

The war museum, he says, will also be looking at more opportunities to partner with institutions in Europe such as happened this past year with the show Witness – Fields of Battle Through Canadian Eyes, which was on view at the Musée des beaux-arts in Arras, France this past spring. It featured war art by the likes of A.Y Jackson and Fred Varley.

History clearly waits for no one.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.