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Museums are neutral public institutions? I don't think so!

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Recently, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) et al have successfully brokered a deal with the Canadian Museum of History -- the future version of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. An annual $200, 000 cheque for the next five years will be cut to the institution in exchange for big oil’s stake in crafting Canada’s 150th birthday exhibition, among others.

Out of sheer excitement, the president of the industrial lobby stated that "the advantage of partnering with an institution like this museum is it has national presence" and that the partnership is "a way for us to get the industry's presence more broadly identified and visible across the country."

These comments have given me and others night-terrors, albeit for different reasons.

A preliminary survey of critiques advanced in media seem to coalesce around the same issue: private financing of public culture is bad because it sets afire the institutions presumed neutrality, permitting private interests to drive public content.

At first blush, interventions like these sounds attractive. Who doesn't want for-profit, environmentally offensive corporations having anything to do with the places you might send your daughter on a school field trip? Who doesn’t want to call out the patent cronyism occurring, further compounding the museum’s anxiety over its forced name and mandate change? Many, I’m sure.

But I have different questions and a different critique. Museums are not neutral spaces, they are political arenas. Deferring authority to the public sector to fund, manage and curate exhibitions does not guard against the politicization of history. Indeed, it is but just another form of politics.

I spend my time troubling a logic which understands history as linear, coherent, sensical and verifiable. The institutionalization of history is a political craft: it redacts, edits and omits in order to bind and constitute communities.

Such efforts are largely motivated by the mantra that "a community must understand their past in order to imagine their political future." What underpins this colloquialism is the rationale that a political community (or collective memory) can be forged at history museums. History can be read, written and presented to distill a sense of patriotism or nationalism framed by political geography, and the state has a vested interest in doing so.

Museums also police narratives so as to frame the identity of a community not defined by state borders (take religion, for example). The maintenance and defense of a particular historical narrative is essential for the advancement of the contemporary political objectives for some identity groups.

Permitting pro-profit big oil is no different: they will ensure as many exhibitions as the manager will let them are linked to Canada’s natural resource sector, shining a favorable light on petrol extraction. Perhaps they would even go so far as to say it is "Canadian" to extract oil and gas! That oil built Canada! I wouldn’t put it past them.

Museums are not neutral spaces where "the facts" of history are stored and presented. Regardless of whether the museum is publicly funded, in whole or in part, I caution against a common understanding that museums are the authority on history and the master of our pasts.

A plethora of histories exists in Canada, and they are constituted by different political communities existing within the geo-political bounds, and beyond. These histories are agonistic and often irreconcilable. They are in flux, they are forgotten, re-claimed and changed.

We can see how competing histories play out in museum culture elsewhere, especially in places with difficult pasts. Take Berlin, for example. The memorial district is home to several history museums, all largely centered on dealing with the atrocities committed by the Third Reich and the period of state repression thereafter.

Each museum approaches the same period of time differently, allowing for contradiction. So too, is the public often invited to submit proposals for exhibitions or memorials, displacing the authority of "specialists" in any given area and the dogma of conservative historians. Publicly funded or not, these museums become places where history can be contested.

So, let the CAPP hand over their big bucks to the soon-to-be-known-as Canadian Museum of History. We are safe from the imminent propaganda Big Oil will imbricate into an exhibition on Canada’s founding if we are mindful that history cannot be institutionalized, and if someone tries to convince you otherwise, contest.

Tiffany is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University in the Department of Law and Legal Studies. Her research explores how museum exhibitions in Germany and the US discuss, memorialize and aestheticize historical war-crimes trials.

  

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