How Canada 150 is becoming a discussion rather than an anniversary celebration.

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The most important thing to come out of the Canada 150 celebrations may be the critical discussion that’s happening across the country about how we tell Canada’s story.

The City of Vancouver decided to modify the Canada 150 title by adding a plus sign so that it reads Canada 150+ to acknowledge the thousands of years of history that occurred before 1867.   Vancouver’s official web site says “Canada 150+ will be a uniquely Vancouver commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, acknowledging an ancient past and looking toward a future where all communities, nations, and peoples are walking together as a society, stronger than ever before. “

In a recent story called, How Indigenous People are Rebranding Canada 150, MacLean’s Magazine comments “So, far from being another hurrah for Canada, the event is deliberately challenging our collective amnesia.”

University College, the founding College of the University of Toronto, has taken a leading role in the discussion by marking Canada’s 150 with Kent Monkman’s “Shame and Prejudice: a Story of Resilience” an exhibition that premiered at the University of Toronto Art Centre location and is now travelling across Canada. Doug Ainslie, Principal of University College, writes in this months’ alumni magazine, that Monkman used art and carefully curated historical artifacts to tell the story of Confederation from a queer indigenous perspective. He required us to see what is too often erased in national histories: those who have been subjected to violence, to cultural genocide, to ongoing displacement. In doing so he exemplified what the University can offer during this sesquicentennial year; not further celebration, but historically informed investigations of what it means to be Canadian and where our country is heading.

Last Sunday CBC devoted its national Cross-Country Check-up program to the question: “Should we change the names of streets and monuments that honour contentious figures?”  What followed was a thoughtful discussion about the nature of public celebration and commemoration.

And then there is the disappointing Story of Us broadcast on CBC in early April to celebrate Canada 150. So far both the governments of Quebec and Nova Scotia are asking for apologies, stating that the 10-part series ignores key historical events and feeds into prejudices. Others have called it an anglo centric production that condenses 12,000 years of aboriginal history and 150 years of New France into one hour.

This is all a far cry from 1967 when celebration of 100 years of history was never questioned. Perhaps the celebration of Canada 150 or Canada 150+ is that both the celebration and the 150 years are being questioned.

The Power of Objects in the Great War Attic

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a wonderful WWI project completed a few years ago by City of Toronto Museums in partnership with Historica Canada and York University.   It’s a great example of how museums are increasingly inviting the public in to co-create experiences and share curatorial authority.

Called Toronto’s Great War Attic, the project invited everyday Torontonians to bring their family heirlooms from the Great War to a series of public sessions held at different locations throughout the city. Once there the participants told their stories and showed their heirlooms to museum staff, who in turn shared their expertise of the Great War and the heirlooms.

In many cases the participants had done a lot of detective work to piece together the story on these heirlooms since they had been passed down through generations.

One of the stories is told by a woman who is a nurse. She has the instrument bag from her great aunt who was a nurse in WWI. By using her contemporary nursing knowledge and by examining the antique medical instruments she pieces together an understanding of what nursing was like during the Great War.

She discovers the metal syringe with the needle still secured and contrasts this with the disposal ones used today. She marvels at how difficult the instruments must have been to clean. “How many bodies did these touch? How many people did she help?”

Another participant is a woman who finally opens a box of letters that her parents had stored in their basement and that her grandparents had stored in theirs.  The letters are from Flanders France and are from her great uncle. They had never been opened until she opened them just two years ago.  The letters had arrived in Canada after he was killed.

The best of the stories were made in to short 5-6 minute video. They are simple but moving.

What I find most interesting in watching these videos is the power of the objects— so much more powerful had I seen them in an exhibit about the Great War. The power of the story and the person telling it is what gives these objects so much more resonance. This project is a good example of how museums are sharing their curatorial power with everyday citizens to create better experiences.

Please have a look at the video with this post. What do you think of this method of serving up history?  I think it works because it uses a personal story to make us want to learn the bigger narrative. And it makes us feel part of a bigger community.

What do you think about citizen or non-experts sharing a part of the curatorial voice in museums?