Museum’s mission of truthful history more important that ever, CEO O’Neill says

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

This summer, the building housing the Canadian Museum of History is 30 years old, but for the CEO, that landmark is not the whole story.

Normally the 30th anniversary is celebrated with a pearl, but Mark O’Neill suggests that in this case, the museum’s 30th should be marked with a chunk of Tyndall Stone. The dolomitic limestone harvested from the Winnipeg, Manitoba area is the signature rock that encases the Parliament Buildings and the history museum.

It was chosen deliberately by the architect Douglas Cardinal, so that his building would “speak” to the Hill, O’Neill said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

“One of the interesting things to do is to walk around the building and look closely. You’ll see the fossils in the stone.”

At 30, humans are just growing into their pants, but what about museums?

“It’s the 30th anniversary of this stunningly beautiful and important statement in the national capital,” O’Neill said.

“I think it was John Ralston Saul who said it was one of the first major buildings in Canadian history not designed in the European tradition. It was startingly different when it opened.”

O’Neill who grew up in Ottawa, says he can remember people being aghast at the design because it was like nothing anyone had seen in Ottawa-Gatineau. That’s not the case today as it is the most visited building in the city with a million or so visits a year.

Today, he believes, “the building is only beginning to take its place on the landscape of the nation. It is 30 years young. It seems to me that, as a structure, it is coming of age.”

But it comes out of one of the oldest institutions in the country, he said — the Geological Survey of Canada which was established in 1842.

“It is important to remember the people who came before. There have literally been thousands of men and women who have worked in this museum, and its antecedents, who laid the groundwork for things such as the Grand Hall which was (founding CEO) George  F. MacDonald‘s great vision.”

These individuals created the collections that form the beating heart of the museum, he said.

But “because we don’t know our history, people forget about some of the folks who were here in the history of the museum of history, people such as Diamond Jenness and Marius Barbeau.

“These people were talking about things like reconciliation before anybody used that word. They lived and worked amongst Indigenous peoples.”

Barbeau, O’Neill said, was one of the first anthropologists in Canadian history. He was a Rhodes Scholar. Jenness was part of a Canadian arctic expedition during which he lived with the Inuit for a year.

“They created this incredible legacy that the rest of us are working on today.”

Even with the name change to the museum of history, there is still an active archeological program.

“We are developing exhibitions on Indigenous history literally as we speak. And we’ve added the element of post-Confederation, contemporary Canadian history. If we are going to be Canada’s major museum of human history we have to talk about that history.”

That means bringing in qualified experts who can talk about such things as social history, economic history and political history that is critically important to us.

Evidence of that work is on display in the new history hall. But moving forward the museum has to properly research, collect and present work that represents the broad swath of Canadian society that includes Indigenous peoples and all the communities that have come here since, O’Neill said. And that means working on what could be deemed controversial subjects.

For example, “in the third gallery of the Canadian History Hall, which opened July 1, 2017, there is a section on the Quiet Revolution in Quebec. We even have a bomb detonation unit from the Montreal police to remember the mailbox bombings in the 1960s.”

The exhibition also includes Pierre Trudeau’s legendary speech on eve of 1980 referendum. And there are equally powerful speeches in the National Assembly by René Lévesque.

“I mention this because 20 years ago that material would not have been included in our discussion and representation of Canadian history or society.”

Further to that, he said museum staff is currently working on a special exhibition on civil liberties in Canadian society — where they have come from and including an examination of public security and such things as the infamous War Measures Act.

This work will stand alongside important international exhibitions such as a visit by the Queens of ancient Egypt in 2020, he said. And, because he’s also the head of the Canadian War Museum, O’Neill noted that 2020 will see a major examination of Canada’s role in the Second World War which ended 75 years ago next year in 1945.

The museum is following five directives set out by its board of trustees, he said.

These are, he said:

• To establish the museum as a hub of Canadian history;
• To connect Canadians to their history and reflect this connection;
• To develop a collection that better reflects Canada’s history and distinctiveness;
• To engage dynamic partnerships and networks to help get all this done (there is now a history museums network that meets a couple of times a year);
• To diversify revenue generation by enhancing fundraising.

Basically, O’Neill said, the museum needs to “ensure that everything we collect, everything we research and everything we present that is as comprehensive as possible about Canadian society.”

He believes this mission is made more urgent because of a perceived great and growing interest in Canadian history.

“Canadians are consuming more; they are more critical and they are more interested. The Afghanistan war is one reason,” he believes. It focused national attention on Canada’s place in the world and a reflection upon our past international involvement.

The sesquicentennial year is another reason.

The anniversary prompted a debate about exactly what the country was commemorating in 2017. He believes the consensus was the anniversary marked 150 years of Confederation and that there was a need to explore the country and its history in greater detail.

“It’s OK and it’s important for museums to regain a notion of the public trust and to have a very open discussion of history.”

The two year old History Hall is a major part of the work, he said.

“We still have huge amount of work to do. We are trying to program what’s in it so people can get most out of it. We know that a majority of Canadians won’t come to the hall so how can we make it meaningful for them.”

All national institutions in Ottawa face this dilemma.

“It’s huge issue. It’s done through digitization, virtual exhibits, but we are finding that  more and more, people want to see the real McCoy. They flock to travelling exhibitions to see the artifacts.”

So the museum’s collection is often on the road these days.

“At any one time we have 18 to 20 exhibitions on the road and we intend to ramp that up.” These range from small “corridor shows to full blown exhibitions.

The museum is also actively seeking partners for exhibitions in their building.

For example, they have worked with the LGBTQ community in Toronto to help display the struggle for social justice in the country.

So why does the museum bring in international shows that don’t have a apparent Canadian connection?

“Part of our mandate still calls upon the museum to bring in international cultures. It’s not the Museum of Canadian History; it’s the Canadian Museum of History.”

That said, the museum has curated more significant Canadian historical shows that ever before, he added.

Another reason they bring in international shows is to open up doors “to get our exhibitions out there.”

“Canada’s role in world is something else that we understate and underestimate. There are so many aspects of our history that we can take to the world. That’s something we have to redouble our efforts on.”

Another focus is the museum’s work on the story of Indigenous people.

For example, he said, museum staffers are now working on a huge exhibition called Indigenous Stories Beyond Borders.

“These days a majority of shows about indigeneity tend to be based on archeology and anthropology. But that’s one part of the story. What we are working on here now is how we tell story of the on-going contribution of Indigenous people to Canada and world. It’s history people haven’t heard.”

O’Neill believes the museum has a good relationship with Indigenous peoples.

One area of contention, however, is the repatriation of important artifacts.

O’Neil said he believes, “the issue is more than just repatriation. It is a part of it. I think it’s also about collaboration amongst museums and Indigenous communities. An example of that was the exhibition Footprints – A Walk Through Generations that was created by the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, of Oujé-Bougoumou.

The museum has also involved Indigenous peoples in creation of exhibits including the famous 3D images of a Sechelt chief and family and a recreation of a 400 year old Inuit hunter.

“They wanted their material and their histories to be in the national museum because they knew 700,000 people would see them,” he said.

Repatriation of artifacts is done through negotiation. Most are occurring in British Columbia during treaty discussions, he said.

“In the 18 years I have been here, all the repatriation requests have been successfully negotiated. There hasn’t been one rejected. We have tried to respect community’s time frames in way they want to negotiate.

“It’s not easy. It’s always a complex and challenging activity, but I’m proud of this.”

When the history hall was being planned, there were five external consultative groups, one of which was a group of elders and Indigenous scholars. These individuals had final say over everything.

“I think we have done something unique that has worked well for all involved,” O’Neill said.

This all fits into O’Neill’s vision of the need for authenticity in the museum’s activities.

That’s why an exhibition on the MS St. Louis was brought to Gatineau from Halifax a year ago. The MS St. Louis was a German vessel carrying Jews seeking asylum away from the Nazi regime. No country would take them in, including Canada.

“I personally felt it was important to show this story because of the period in which we now live. People are looking for organizations who can be held to account for telling the truth, that are reliable sources of information and care about the public trust. This is time when so many sources claim to be authoritative and they aren’t.”

So, in the History Hall “we tell the whole story. Residential schools are there in a permanent part of the third gallery.

“We talk about John A. Macdonald as the father of Confederation and of the Indian Act. The reason I mention all this is that the great responsibility and challenge for this corporation going forward is continuing to play a leadership role in scholarship-based collecting and exhibiting that Canadians and other visitors can rely upon. This place should be where you go to find out about Canadian history. That’s a huge responsibility.

“It does mean you will offend some people, while others will be happy. But that responsibility is much greater now.

“To do that you have to maintain integrity as an institution and everybody who works in it has to be viewed and looked upon as a trustworthy source and as museologists who are committed to an idea of bringing important stories of history to a new audience.”

Share Post
Written by

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.