Ex-museum CEO calls proposed mandate 'narrow and parochial'

A government plan to rename the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Museum of History abandons a successful brand and gives it a "deeply worrying" new mandate, says the man who led the museum from 2000 to 2011.

'If the Museum of Civilization stands out as such a good product, why would anyone want to change its brand?' former CEO asks

Former Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Victor Rabinovitch, seen here in this 2001 photograph, is voicing concerns about the federal government's proposed history-focused mandate change for the museum. (The Canadian Press/Tom Hanson)

A government plan to rename the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Museum of History abandons a successful brand and gives it a "deeply worrying" new mandate, says the man who led the museum from 2000 to 2011.

Former CEO Victor Rabinovitch addressed the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Wednesday evening, making his first public remarks since the government announced the proposed changes in the fall of 2012.

He pointed to reviews in tourism guides about the country's largest national museum, which sees about 1.2 million visitors per year.

"If the Museum of Civilization stands out as such a good product, why would anyone want to change its brand?" he asked.

Rabinovitch suggested the museum be called The Canadian Museum of History and Civilization if the government wants to bring more attention to its presentation of history.

New mandate creates inward focus, ex CEO says

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is in the process of being renamed the Canadian Museum of History. (CBC)

Beyond the name change, Rabinovitch said it was the new mandate proposed for the museum that he found "deeply worrying," and "narrow and parochial."

The current mandate aims to expand Canadians' knowledge of human behaviour and cultural achievement.

The new wording seeks to expand Canadians' understanding of "events, experiences and objects that reflect and have shaped Canada's history and identity."

"These proposed changes to the mandate will have the overall effect of reducing the museum's scope of activity and creating an inward focus that turns away from the world and eliminates concern with the here and the now," said Rabinovitch.

The former CEO said museum staff in areas such as archaeology, aboriginal studies, music and popular culture, design and craft have made large contributions.

"History has been part of the work. History is not everything," Rabinovitch said.

Role of research questioned

Rabinovitch also questioned the role research will play under the new mandate. Critics have argued the new exhibitions will present a narrative of prominent people and events, rather than exploring societies and culture.

"Perhaps research will simply be a form of enhanced journalism that is aimed at popularization," he said.

Earlier at committee, Heritage Minister James Moore said the museum spends a third of its budget on research, which will continue when it becomes the Canadian Museum of History.

Moore argued strongly for the changes, saying "We deserve to have our own Smithsonian.

"We deserve to have a large, national museum about which we can be incredibly proud," Moore said. "We do have that in the Museum of Civilization, but we can do so much better with the new Canadian Museum of History by tying all of our institutions across the country together."

Many Canadians don't know country's history, minister argues

"We have in Canada today, sadly, an entire generation of Canadians who are largely illiterate about Canada's history," he said. "And with the Canadian Museum of History we're going to start building the infrastructure we need so we can tell our stories one to another."

Moore said the changes have broad-based support, including from the building's architect Douglas Cardinal, the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau, as well as museums across the country.

Rabinovitch said he does support the idea of networking Canada's museums to better share things and exhibitions among them.

"There's nothing ideological about this," said Moore of the mandate change, addressing head-on claims by Opposition MPs that the name and mandate change represents government interference.

Moore said the law governing museums clearly spells out they are independent from political involvement.

No CEO of any national museum would say he's ever interfered with what they display, Moore said, though he's often asked about exhibitions, especially when they're controversial.

"From time to time I choose to offer my opinion. But at no time ever can I nor would I ever tell a museum what they can or can't display. Nor the narrative they can tell about Canada's history, nor the narrative they can tell about Canadian science, nor the narrative they can tell in the National Gallery. These are independent institutions," he said.

He encouraged members of the heritage committee to support the bill to change the museum's name and mandate. Bill C-49 passed second reading in the House of Commons in late May.