Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

A History Museum, Not a Hall of Fame

Reasonable people can debate what exactly history is, but some things are beyond dispute.

Legends unsupported by rigorous examination of the available evidence are not history. Boy's-own adventure stories and tales of derring-do are not history. Airbrushed portraits of Great Men, lists of national triumphs, patriotic exhortations, schemes to inculcate national identity or pride - none of that is history. Not serious history, anyway.

And that is why we should be troubled by what, on the surface, looks like good news.

On Tuesday, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore announced that the federal government will change the name of the Museum of Civilization to the Canadian Museum of History and refurbish its landmark building at a cost of $25 million. That's not new money, which means cuts will have to be made in other parts of the heritage file. But still, it is at least a modest indication that the government thinks history is important. And in a country where historical awareness is abysmal and few politicians care - and even fewer are prepared to do something about it - that's welcome.

I can understand why some prominent historians were on hand to applaud the announcement.

But this is more than an institutional facelift because underlying it will be legislative amendments that change the museum's mandate. Of course we'll have to wait to see the details to draw conclusions, but there is more than enough reason to be concerned.

Consider the name. Read literally, it suggests a Canadian museum dedicated to history, not Canadian history. That would be in keeping with the Museum of Civilization's mandate, which, as the name indicates, is to look at the human story, not merely the small portion of it that takes place in the top half of North America.

But the government's news release and other statements make it clear that, despite the name, the new museum will only be about Canadian history. Of course there's nothing wrong with that remit. In fact, it would be wonderful if the government created such a museum. But it isn't. It's taking an existing museum and chopping off part of its mandate - the part that covers the entire rest of humanity.

That is classic "little Canadian" parochialism.

But at least we'll have the consolation of a newly refurbished museum of Canadian history, right? That's something. If it comes to pass. And it may, depending on how the legislation is amended, and how seriously the museum's leadership takes its mission. But early indications suggest there will be little history in this museum of history.

"The Canadian Museum of History will highlight the national achievements and accomplishments that have shaped our country," reads the government's press release, "including the 'last spike' from the construction of the Canada Pacific Railway, Maurice (Rocket) Richard's hockey jersey, and items from Terry Fox's Marathon of Hope." Sounds swell. But that describes an institution where fans come to worship their heroes and kids are taught to become fans. It is not a museum of history. It is a Hall of Fame.

And that vision isn't limited to the press release.

On the Museum of Civilization's website, visitors are asked "what would you put in your national history museum?" A section called "what is the Canadian story?" pops up a timeline with notable events - 1988: Calgary Winter Olympics - that people can "like." But social history doesn't lend itself to chronologies of notable events and so that whole branch of history - which covers most of what most people did - is completely missing from "the Canadian story" as told by the museum's website.

What makes that particularly disconcerting is that a big part of the museum's refurbishment will be the creation of a chronological narrative of Canadian events. Will social history vanish there, too?

Then there's a section called "who has shaped our country?" There are 29 profiles of famous figures, from Montcalm and Wolfe to Pierre Trudeau. The profiles are uniformly anodyne. Visitors are again invited to "like" their favourites.

It is almost literally a Hall of Fame.

To be sure, James Moore insisted at the press conference that museum staff, not government officials, will determine the museum's content. He also acknowledged that "there are all kinds of narratives about Canada's history, some of it not pretty, some of it inspiring, like Terry Fox, some of it just curious and interesting." That's all to the good. But it's also contrary to the "Up With Canada!" spirit that saturates everything else the government has said about the museum.

And recall the minister's handling of a controversy about an exhibit on sex at the Museum of Science and Technology earlier this year. He could have simply said, "I will not interfere in any way with the judgments made by museum officials." He didn't. Instead, while claiming to respect the museum's independence, he publicly criticized the exhibit. Moore's spokesperson even called it "an insult to taxpayers" that was outside the museum's mandate (as if biology were not a science).

It also doesn't help that the government has commemorated the bicentennial of the War of 1812 by spending an enormous amount of money on propaganda so crude and jingoistic it would make old Victorian colonels roll their eyes.

Now, add in the fact that the government is gutting Library and Archives Canada - the custodians of so much Canadian history - and it's hard not to suspect the government is much more interested in political propaganda than history.

It's also hard not to fear that the new museum's staff know that, and will be influenced by it. I don't mean to impugn their professionalism. But it's basic psychology: When self-preservation requires a certain course of action, our thoughts skew heavily in that direction and we discover - what a coincidence! - that what is in our self-interest is also the right thing to do.

But all that remains to be seen. I once worried that Stephen Harper would advance his ideological agenda with appointments to the Supreme Court, but so far I've seen no evidence of that. Here's hoping the minister and his government will prove me wrong again.