NARRATING HISTORY IN A NATIONAL MUSEUM
No museum can be all things to all people; there are always limits on space, resources and collections. A national history museum has particularly difficult challenges, as it has a broad primary audience coming from many regions, and a secondary audience that is international in origin. It is essential for such a museum to affirm the “national” component of its identity and be true to its national mandate. In part, this flows from the location of the museum in the capital, which acts as cultural pilgrimage site. Visitors come to the capital to obtain a particular perspective on their country, to see up close the national symbols of government, and to examine how they are reflected in the national mirror.
Some of the challenges facing a national history museum are similar to those of local and regional museums; some are unique. The first is that the institution must meet visitor expectations. It must provide a wide range of interesting, high-quality exhibitions and programmes to leave people satisfied that the hours invested in the visit were a worthwhile use of their limited time. It must provide visitors with substantive information about the country in which they live, and its historical relationship with other societies.
A second challenge is to make available, beyond the museum’s walls, a range of knowledge products to complement formal learning available from other institutions. For example, we have a major programme of travelling exhibits for which we bear the full costs of production; recipient museums cover only the direct costs involved in travelling. There is also a research publishing programme in which we collaborate with commercial publishers. Most important, we have developed a very large and knowledge-rich Web site, which has proven very useful to both teachers and students. Virtual visits to the Web site fluctuate in parallel with the school year calendar. In other words, the “virtual exhibitions” on the Web have become a major learning tool for schools and the public, with over 5,400,000 unique visits in the current year.
A third challenge is to remain relevant to the formal educational system. Since the majority of visiting school groups come from Ontario and Quebec, our focus is on the curricula of those two provinces. But the resulting programmes are clearly relevant to curricula in other provinces.
A fourth challenge is a particularly difficult one in a country as regionally focused as Canada, for it involves selecting and presenting elements of a national perspective. Canada’s national museum of human history should not try to tell the detailed story of Nova Scotia, or Alberta, or Upper Canada. What it is uniquely positioned to do is to present a national narrative and express an overview of Canadian history. We seek to provide insights into national identity, portray relationships of the different parts to the whole, and provoke thinking on reciprocal influences between Canada and world.