According to a recent news report, museum attendance is up substantially across the country this summer. This, thanks in part to the many events and programs celebrating Canada’s 150th coupled with summer vacations.
This is good.
Another explanation is that museums are the inadvertent beneficiaries of resistance to the growing trend to non- (or incomplete) truthfulness. Not just the general proliferation of online misinformation, but the Orwellian prediction that has come true under the euphemism, ‘alternative facts.’
Why would this influence museum attendance? Because many people, subconsciously or otherwise, appear to be seeking the comfort of that which they recognize as fact, something they can accept without question — the past presented as the truth.
Meg Beckel, president and chief executive officer of the Museum of Nature put it another way to the Canadian Press: “In addition to being a place of inspiration, which is the public engagement part of what we do…we’re also the keeper of the evidence and the creator of the evidence.
“And all of that makes what we do real and relevant.”
Which brings us back to presenting the past — as it really was and as it should be told, warts and all. This hasn’t always been the case, however; in fact, it’s a quite recent trend.
Some would call this, not always unfairly, political correctness which has a connotation of overkill, of being hyper-sensitive to perceived sins of the past and to alleged miscarriages of justice.
Lisa Leblanc, director of creative development for Canadian history hall at the Museum of History, gave as an example a newly-opened exhibit featuring Canada’s first prime minister. Sir John A. Macdonald is revered for, among other things, bringing Canada together as a confederated nation with the building of a transcontinental railway. But, until recently, few other than serious historians, have taken note of his leadership in the effort to “assimilate Indigenous Peoples via the Indian Act”. (Think residential schools.)
Many of us now accept this as moral failure on Macdonald’s part. And he wasn’t alone; much of Canada’s colonial history is open to scathing criticism.
Museums are meant to be places of learning, not just repositories of old things. For example: To comprehend how much our lifestyles have changed over the past three-four generations, we need go no further than a local museum. Young people today know nothing of rotary telephones, of black and white television reception from rooftop antennae, of outdoor plumbing, of coal and sawdust fired furnaces, of iceboxes and root cellars, of farm chores before and after school, of walking not riding to and from school, of home delivery of groceries and goods by department stores, of steetcars, of going to the Saturday movie matinee for 15 cents, of life before credit cards when you had to save up to buy something, of going to war for your country. No smartphones, no mobile apps, no wi-fi, no instant gratification!
Fortunately, we in the Cowichan Valley are blessed. We have the Mill Bay/Malahat Historical Society’s small museum, currently in the Frayne Centre but soon to go into the former Mill Bay United Church; the Shawnigan Lake Museum; the Cowichan Valley Museum in Duncan; Kaatza Museum in Lake Cowichan; the B.C. Forest Discovery Centre; the Chemainus Valley Museum; the Crofton Museum and the Ladysmith Historical Society. That’s eight museums.
What better way to introduce a child to his or her nation’s fabulous history — their history — than by a tour of museum exhibits from the past as it was lived and experienced right here in the Cowichan Valley? The schools can teach on a greater regional, national and international level but local museums can capture a young person’s interest by engaging them on an “in their own backyard” level.
The exhibits displayed don’t relate to something and someone far away and ancient, but to the pioneer men and women who built the society and culture in which we live. The society and culture that our young people, for better or worse, are going to inherit.
To gain some sense of where one’s going in life, it helps to know where one is from. Knowing about the past helps us in many ways to forge the future. Let’s encourage our young people to take notice; while they’re at it, parents can learn something too.