Keynote Address to the British Columbia Museums Association
The Voice of Museums: Societal Expectations: the Future Role of Museums
October 4, 2017
The Honourable Senator Patricia Bovey :
It is great to be back again with my colleagues in the BCMA – thank you for inviting me!
It is a particular honour to be here as a member of the Senate of Canada. As the first art historian and museologist ever in the 150 years of the Senate’s existence, I feel a great responsibility and hope I am beginning to bring an increased awareness to the Chamber of the arts, the visual arts and material history.
As Canada enters its second 150 years as a nation we face huge challenges. As we all know we are a country built on diverse immigrant peoples, our citizenry is comprised of people from every country around the world – the only nation to be so – and of course we are blessed with the richness and depth of Canada’s Indigenous, Métis and Inuit peoples, many of whom have been here for millennia. With this diversity and depth, we are the envy of many around the world. Globally people are wanting to know more about Canada. We can fulfil that need!
The Prime Minister said last Thursday, as reported in Friday’s Globe and Mail: “Canadians have world-class content creators and creative industries and we know that investing in them and supporting our creators is the best way to ensure that Canadians hear our stories [and] people around the world hear stories Canadians have to tell.” Canada’s museum community tells our stories, and does so with real objects and works of art – the immediate voice of makers and artists. It was clear from the recent discussions I was part of with the Speaker of the Senate, in both France and Latvia, that culture is essential in all our international relationships.
We are now in the midst of NAFTA negotiations, having concluded the CETA agreement. And, with the US having pulled out of TPP, we are now facing the question of future Pacific trade deals. The arts, culture, intellectual property and copyright are critical in each of these trade negotiations. I am very sorry that I was not able to accept John McAvity’s invitation to be part of the recent museum delegation to China. I am trying to learn that I cannot be in two places at once! I gather it was a great success and I cannot stress enough how important those delegations are. We as the museum sector must be aware of the details on the international table. We must take our place in ensuring a strong cultural understanding of Canada and between nations.
Museums by virtue of their nature have the tools to take a lead in those international cultural understandings – in our exhibitions at home, our publications, our digital presence and through our artist, staff and exhibition exchanges. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, for instance, has done much over many years to further cultural understandings with Japan, China, and more recently with Korean and Viet Nam; the Royal British Columbia Museum is doing that with Egypt next year; and has done so in sharing exhibitions of BC’s First Nations internationally over a number of decades. All have met with tremendous interest and support. So too did the Group of Seven exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, which was followed the more recently by the Emily Carr exhibition. Both of these major exhibitions included works from BC’s public collections, from the Island and from Vancouver.
How is what I do now different from what I have done for decades in the gallery/museum sector? There are many commonalities between my curatorial and gallery director roles and that as senator. Both involve the presentation of multiple viewpoints, vision, and national and international concerns, issues, scholarship, and information. Canadian museums and the Senate of Canada both give voice to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to be heard, either within our gallery’s walls and outreach, or in the Senate itself. Both strive to give hope.
When I received the call to serve in the Senate, the Prime Minister made it very clear to me that I was to work on everything, I was an independent and my role was to improve legislation, and that I was to look at it all through the lens of arts and culture. That is what I am doing. I have spoken on a number of issues in the Senate Chamber, including basic income and poverty, palliative care, the Churchill crisis with the broken railway link, and the many interconnected short and longterm issues in the Arctic affecting its peoples, mobility, lifestyles and traditions, climate change and sovereignty. Indeed, last Wednesday, we agreed to establish a special committee on the Arctic and I can assure you we will start our work soon. As we know Canada’s artists are affected by all these issues. They make up the highest percentage of working Canadians who earn less than the poverty line.
On the arts front specifically, I have sponsored a bill calling for a Visual Artist Laureate on Parliament Hill, to take advantage of the visual arts as an international language in highlighting the work of Parliament, and making it accessible to all. That Bill is now through second reading and in Committee.
I have also supported and spoken on the need for a National Portrait Gallery. This summer I received a letter from the Prime Minister in which he says: “We look forward to continuing the conversation on the establishment of a National Portrait Gallery in the National Capital Region.” I know this initiative will continue, and I will be updating its progress in Kingston later this month when I speak at this year’s exhibition of the National Portrait Competition.
In addition, I truly hope that my request for the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee to undertake a special study on Cultural Diplomacy, will become a reality. Dreaming in technicolour, I would dearly love to see commenced this fall. I think this discussion would be particularly timely given Minister Joly’s announcement on Thursday to provide money for Canada’s cultural efforts abroad. The museum and gallery sector must be ready to be recipients of those funds. As the Minister said: “We must find a new way – a Canadian way – to support our content creators, to ensure they can compete, and to create a space for them in markets and platforms at home and around the world”. Even though her primary concern the other day was for the digital industries, I challenge us to help define those ways. Minister Joly did underline that museums are part of the creative sector, and the framework noted that “Museums are also digital content creators in their own right by providing cross-platform access to virtual exhibitions, interactive tools and online programming. … By promoting usergenerated content alongside museum content, (museums) help Canadians to be both critics and creators of digital culture.” The Minister has said that the “door is wide open for innovative ways to modernize museum policies and programs.” I know the CMA is moving proactively and quickly on this work. All museums and museum professionals should be involved in this invitation! We must remember too that the revision of the Copyright Act is underway, and that will have a huge effect on our work, internally, with collections, publications, exhibitions, outreach, education and trade and cultural exchanges. I think we need to be part of the discussion on data security too – an issue with ever greater concerns.
My overriding hope on the global stage is that Culture will once again be a strong aspect of Canada’s Foreign Policy, and that we will reinstate Cultural Attaches in all Canadian Embassies, not just a few, and give greater presentation of Canadian art and historical artifacts in our embassies, and that Canadian artists and arts organizations will once again be part of our international trade missions.
I have begun meeting with arts leaders in Ottawa – the Director of the National War Museum, the CEO of the Museum of Canadian History, the Director of the National Gallery, the National Arts Centre, the Ottawa Art Gallery – and all are of one voice – the critical need for the arts to take centre stage as we move further into the 21st century. I will continue these sessions through the fall and winter sittings of the Senate.
To round out my responsibilities, my committee work also includes a study on autonomous vehicles by the Transportation and Communications Committee, and the needed re-tooling of the Official Languages Act for the Official Languages Committee, plus the work in Chamber. And, I am just back from France and Latvia with the delegation with the Speaker of the Senate, where we discussed many of these overarching issues.
So, what IS my goal on top of these initiatives? In many ways, it is the same as that held by every museum and gallery represented here and across the country – to ensure the preservation and knowledge of our diverse cultural heritage, our treasures, to encourage new and significant research, to herald our artists of all backgrounds, and to reach wide audiences. The museum community has done an excellent job of that. The presentation of the ‘real thing’ is our forte – and one that now is more appreciated than ever before in this new world of ‘fake or alternative news’. There is nothing fake about our museological work – or indeed our collections of documents, artifacts and works of art. We know from many polls and studies that museums are the most trusted institutions in contemporary society. We must use that trust carefully and fearlessly, respecting our societal responsibility. It is indeed an honour to make our collections, exhibitions and scholarship accessible to all – to those who are able to visit us and those who cannot. Museums are a people to people business – connecting people of today to people of the past; to people from other parts of Canada and to people from other parts of the world; to people who agree with us, and people who don't; and to people who speak our language and people who don't.
The objects and art we hold in trust and with which we connect people are real things, created and used by people. They present both the direct and indirect messages of the artist and makers. Museums by their nature are in a unique position to present multiple views on multiple issues – issues which affect us as individuals and those which affect us as communities and whole societies. Our strength is the human – the hand which fashioned the object, made the work of art, or used the object. We can tell the human stories, the stories that happened to people whom we knew, touched, or preceded us. Indeed, the first of the seven entities which Peter van Mensch noted in his publication Towards a Methodology of Museology, is the curatorial responsibility to the maker, while the first of the curator’s values as articulated in the AAM Code of Curatorial Ethics is “to serve the public good”. These come together naturally in all our work.
Let me tell you briefly about my MA Curatorial Practice student last year at the University of Winnipeg. He hailed from Ghana, having earned his BA in cultural tourism. He worked in the Ghana National Museum before receiving an Elizabeth II scholarship enabling him to enter our program. For his placement, I put him with the Winnipeg Art Gallery to research the potential tourist applications and impacts of their planned Inuit Center –from Ghana to our North! The juxtaposition was great, and his research of value. But for him it was the stories behind the objects themselves which were of particular interest. The depth of connections spiritually and the similarities of the stories in each of these two diverse cultures were inspiring. The world of real objects is unquestionably an international connector. I ask, have we fully explored the full potential of these connections?
Do we have laurels on which we can rest? Yes of course we do; but simultaneously, NO, as in one sense our work is only beginning. Each gallery and museum has defined their platforms for collecting, preserving, exhibiting and educating, but societal needs are challenging us to do more, and our audiences and publics need more. That has become doubly evident to me, and encouraging, given the support I have had from every corner in the Chamber ever since my first few speeches on arts and culture. I realize even more strongly than ever before, that there IS a real hunger for the work we do as museologists. We must do this with care, honesty and directness.
So, Societal Expectations: The Future Role of Museums, what do I mean? There is no question that the changing external world order is having tremendous impacts on us all in every part of the country, and beyond, with climate change, our own challenges for reconciliation and healing between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the non-Indigenous populations, and the increased immigration from war torn parts of the world. These issues only serve to enhance our responsibilities.
I have spoken on various occasions over the past decade and more of my research on the integral role the arts play in every aspect of society. I developed an Octopus, with each of the eight tentacles representing a key issue with which every level of government of every political stripe is concerned: the economy; labour and employment; health; education; sustainability of rural communities; tourism; the environment; and crime prevention. My research over these years, both empirical and anecdotal, proves that none of these societal issues can be achieved without the arts. I will spare you details, but do want to address a few for which we as museums have the key, and likewise the ability to engage the public in meaningful dialogue. They are reconciliation and public education, introducing whole families to our history and values, as families attend museums together but do not go to school together. We can also assist in language acquisition for immigrants; and provide essential information on climate change, the environment, patterns of life, expressions of social inequities and injustices, and much more.
Some of you heard my Manitoba senate colleague and Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the honourable Murray Sinclair, at the CMA conference last April. His Fellows’ Lecture was a heartfelt, passionate call for the Museum community to lead the way in reconciliation. He posited that it is museums, with the public coming into our institutions, which have the responsibility to tell the real truth about our past, including residential schools and murdered and missing women. He felt museums should open the way to a future of reconciliation based on the knowledge, understanding and acceptance of that past. Unless we do, we cannot move forward as a society. I was struck by the words of one of the commentators at the raising of the Reconciliation Pole at UBC this spring who expressed her sorrow for non-Indigenous people who have yet to accept the truth, as she clearly said we cannot move forward without acceptance of fact. She noted that as a result of the Commission’s hearings many Indigenous peoples who have told their stories, have come to a basic acceptance of that truth. Now they are able to build. It IS acknowledged by many Indigenous leaders that this will be a long, hard process, but one that is beginning.
However, first we as a society must stop compartmentalizing and shielding ourselves from past realities. We must listen, see, understand, present and encourage dialogue. Senator Sinclair underlined the critical importance for museums to start and be actively engaged in that work.
Artists have defined so many critical issues for us, long before they were seen or even acknowledge by wider society. Do you remember Joane Cardinal’s installation The Lesson, a work from the early 1990s, which we presented at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria several decades ago now? This work, seen in various galleries across Canada, certainly gave voice to the deeply concerning impacts on First Nations education, our understanding of Residential Schools and the need for reconciliation. Or, did we listen to the heartfelt message in Faye Heavyshield’s Sisters, her 1985 poignant work of the outward facing circle of gold shoes? It took decades after she created that installation before the Commission on Murdered and Missing Women was established. These are only two western Canadian artists who viscerally brought the issues of residential schools and murdered and missing women to the fore, long before they were topics in the contemporary lexicon of issues with which we must deal.
Another is Trace, the compelling work by Rebecca Belmore commissioned by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights which hangs through the many stories in the middle of their building. This ‘blanket’ was made from hand-formed beads of Red River clay, shaped by people of all ages and diversities who attended her many public workshops held throughout Winnipeg. This compelling piece hangs through the floors as a towel does on the back of a bathroom door. Its meaning is multiple: The ‘blanket’ aptly refers to the HBC blankets which spread small pox through so many First Nations communities, virtually wiping out thousands of people; a ‘blanket’ also wraps around us to keep us warm protecting us from cold; or like the towel on the bathroom door, it evokes cleansing.
Theatre and music are equally compelling in drawing issues to the public’s attention, as showcased by the National Arts Centre in their Canada Scene festival last spring. It included Café Daughter, about the life of my colleague Senator Lillian Dyck, from Saskatchewan, of both Chinese and First Nations’ descent. You can imagine the double discrimination she faced as she fulfilled her dream against all odds to be a doctor. Winnipeg’s Camarata Nova’s work, TAKEN, composed and produced by first Nations composer and musician, Andrew Balfour, portrayed the realities of the residential schools and the history of Sir John Franklin taking Inuit people to England to prove that he had found Asia. All died in the hold of his ship. The power of these works and Children of God was visceral – and the truths inescapable.
Museums also have increasing responsibility to be a leader in the education for all our publics, giving voice through our collections, research, exhibitions, publications and programs, to showcase Canada’s many immigrants, and in turn to tell them our stories. Society expects us to enable the understanding of the multi-cultural dimensions of our country. While we have all presented exhibitions showing aspects of many of our immigrant cultures, are we reaching out to recent refugees and immigrants as we might, both showcasing their roots AND giving them an understanding of Canada, our history and our values as a nation? Are we presenting stories in a way that have currency to those who may not speak either of our official languages? Are we in fact presenting opportunities for language acquisition?
We naturally like to show the positive developments of Canadian society and how far we have come, but we should not be fearful of giving witness to societal injustices and the darker side of our history and present– whether that within our prisons, or our treatment of trans-gendered people, the issues of murdered and missing women, or of those living in conditions far below the national norm who lack running water, insulated houses, whose food is far more expensive and with less security than that in cities, or for whom milk costs more than alcohol. The list goes on.
Indeed, I believe museums can and should take a positive role in coming up with solutions to some of our contemporary problems, both by presenting and defining the issues and by suggesting resolutions. Providing increasing foundations to engage audiences in discussion and debate is important – often more poignant and compelling than just reading about current issues. Our ‘language’ of material history and art IS an international one.
How many of us learned about the Holocaust in school? In books? From the stories told by those who survived? From exhibitions? Here or abroad? Our experiences obviously differ given our respective ages. Suffice it to say, we learn from multiple sources, and true learning is life-long learning. Museums afford our publics the opportunity of lifelong learning through our multi-dimensional means – artifacts, didactic panels, digitally, through books, catalogues, films, talks, interviews. We must use every possible way, actual and virtual, to provide for meaningful engagement. In some cases our individual mandates may overlap – and that is fine –it serves to deepen the substance of the engagement. The Royal BC Museum, the Vancouver Art Gallery, the Vancouver Museum, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria and Campbell River Museum, for instance, each delve into some of the same issues, though with differing perspectives and for differing reasons. Through collaborations we can further enhance our ongoing reassessment of history as more information comes to the fore – I am not speaking about revisionist history, but the adding of newly realized facts to what we have already known. Are our dioramas correct? Are our installations of decades past still relevant?
Museums provide time and space for reflection, nostalgia, learning, hope, fun, visioning, and for dialogue and meaningful engagement. Our work also has a positive impact on well-being and health. Decades of cumulative research has shown that those who participate in the arts –including museums—live two years longer and cost the health system less, and they get out of hospital a day or two earlier after elective surgery. I am delighted to say that museums have changed their perspective on that involvement over the past few decades. I well remember the rebuking I received from colleagues for the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s award-winning program for the blind which we launched in the early 1980s! I was told many times that I was just “jumping on the socialist bandwagon”. In initiated that program we were endeavouring to provide accessibility to those who for various reasons could not participate or benefit from traditional museum programming. It was a huge success and it has subsequently been copied and further developed by many institutions. I can also say that when we started our pioneering public Buhler Gallery at St Boniface Hospital, exactly ten years ago, we more than met our wildest initial goals within our first year! We therefore shifted and pushed our expectations and I am proud to say our impact has been transformational for patients, their families, hospital staff and volunteers and the wider public.
Likewise, international studies have proven that active participation in the arts has had a hugely positive impact on reducing arrest rates for youth, and on reducing recidivism rates for those aged 11 to 14. The youth take on responsibility. It is certainly more productive and rewarding to work as a team on something creative than being part of a gang. Given the public’s trust in our work, and the strength of our resources in our collections, staff and spaces, I think museums can take a more active role in this work too – especially as we are not a ‘school’. 15 Professional training is also critically important and I believe museums could, and should, increasingly partner with our universities to allow for the balance of theory and practice so those entering the field will be able to fulfill their potential. I know museums hire students, and have interns and practicums. But we can do more. Experiential learning has been the corner stone of the University of Winnipeg’s MA in Curatorial Practice. The students have year-long placements – which have included the Manitoba Museum, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Buhler Gallery, Plug-In Institute of Contemporary Art, the Royal Aviation Museum, and the Hudson Bay Archives. Undergraduates in the program undertook a year-long internship in the Buhler Gallery. All the graduates from the program have either gone on to do PhDs or have work in the field.
Looking ahead, it is also my hope that museum researchers will play an everincreasing role in research across Canada in all fields. Contributing solid research in partnership with other agencies as we raise difficult societal issues, will strengthen the impact of public discussion and debate. We know that museums have the expertise to lead research teams in many fields, building on past museological accomplishments in so many areas, including science, aviation, transportation, technology and human and natural history. Canadian artists do too as they create their work, giving voice to their insights and visions.
In meeting with the Minister of Natural Resources the other day, he underlined the responsibility of the Federal Government to protect our environment and do ongoing scientific research on climate change and the preservation of our environment. Last week the government announced the appointment of Canada’s new Chief Science Officer, Mona Nemer, who has been Vice-President of Research at the University of Ottawa. As Prime Minister Trudeau said in making the announcement, “Scientists need to have a voice.” The mandate of the office includes “providing scientific advice to government ministers, helping keep government-funded science accessible to the public, and protecting government scientists from being muzzled.” I challenge us to contact Dr. Nemer and to enter into the dialogues even more fully that we have to date. I believe we are past the time when our scientists and university and museum researchers were silenced. Museum researchers are rightly part of the conversation, and do work not being done elsewhere.
I had an interesting visit last month to a relatively new seasonal museum in Telegraph Cove – the Whale Museum. Its mandate? Among other things to tell the story of climate change and environmental issues so people take charge. The ongoing critical research on sea ice, led by the University of Manitoba, and that at Dalhousie University on the traditional routes of Inuit mobility links are vital in this time of melting sea ice. I hope museums are at the center of all this work too and not just on the periphery.
There is much more – but time is too short – so suffice it to say in conclusion, as I have always said, museums connect creators and community, and provide access between artists and audiences. We do that more now than ever before. The ‘I’ in the word society heralds innovation, inclusion, integrity; the ‘E’ tying the two syllables in the word Museum together, evokes engagement, experimentation, excellence, exploration and ethics.
Thus, as we seek to meet the societal expectations before us, and fulfill our roles as museums, regardless of our individual fields of endeavour, we must present ourselves as we are, ensuring our audiences leave having learned something, participated in something, and had fun doing so!
I would be happy to take questions or comments. But before we close, please know that I am sincere in asking for input and feedback on my work in the Senate and let me know of issues or concerns that I might be well advised to take forward. Remember, my gallery past is engrained in me, as is my ongoing research and writing on Western Canadian artists.