Museum Policy | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Museum Policy

Museum policy has to do with the legislative, financial and administrative arrangements made by governments to establish and support museums, and also with the decisions taken by each individual museum to establish its own role in the community.

Museum Policy

Museum policy has to do with the legislative, financial and administrative arrangements made by governments to establish and support museums, and also with the decisions taken by each individual museum to establish its own role in the community. The internationally accepted definition of a museum, in turn, is "a non-profitmaking, permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, and open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits, for the purposes of study and enjoyment, material evidence (either animate or inanimate) of man and his environment."

There are many kinds of museum, but to be a museum an institution must have an organized collection. It may specialize in subjects as different as fur trading or fossils or modern art. Zoos collect animals, aquariums collect fish and botanical gardens collect plants, but they are all museums. From the collections, we can learn about the cultures of people living now and their development from the past, and about our natural and physical environment and its evolution from the past. We can understand something of how our ancestors saw their world, and of the world they saw.

Not only are they different in their subject matter, but Canadian museums are very different in their scale and sponsorship. They range from very small community museums showing the pioneer history of the locality, to specialized museums concerned with particular industries, organizations, arts or sports, to major government institutions which for some subjects provide the most authoritative reference collections in the world. Some museums are housed in log cabins, fortresses, office foyers or convents; a few are in very impressive buildings designed for the purpose. There are probably about 2500 of them in Canada, but 90% of the public collections are held in about 60 of the largest ones.

Most museums were established and are operated by groups of citizens interested in preserving and making available evidence of the past. The oldest is probably the New Brunswick Museum, founded in 1842, sharing the honour with the Geological Survey of Canada which established its museum (later to evolve into the Canadian Museum of Nature) in the same year. During this period, governments typically provided support grudgingly, if at all; there was very little official interest or involvement except where government research agencies, like the GSC, built up reference collections almost as a by-product of their other scientific work. On the initiative of then-governor general, the Marquess of Lorne, the National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880, but did not have its own Act of Parliament until 1913, and was not adequately housed until May 1988. Provincial governments were equally diffident, and for practical purposes municipal governments took no interest at all. By mid-century, many Canadian museums had been established and had grown into dynamic institutions, but this largely reflected the dedication of private citizens, rather than of governments at any level. In official thinking, there was no significant museum policy.

Since WWII, and particularly since Canada's Centennial in 1967, official attitudes towards museums have become much more supportive, no doubt largely in response to changes in public attitudes to science, the arts, culture and heritage. The factors entering into these changes apply with different weights to different types of museum, levels of government and regions of the country, but a few of them may be summarized.

The country's Centennial increased public interest in Canadian heritage. This factor bears most strongly on the establishment and expansion of specialized and local history museums. People realized that the Canadian confederation had not only survived but had grown and prospered spectacularly during its first century, and there was a sense throughout the country that evidence of this accomplishment should be preserved and made available to those building the next century. The establishment or improvement of museums seemed an appropriate way to do this, and governments responded with technical advice, encouragement and partial funding. Corporations and industrial associations also saw specialized museums as an appropriate way to celebrate the success of the country and their own part in it. This trend did not disappear after the Centennial; in 1986, the federal National Museums Task Force estimated that 50 new museums a year are inaugurated in Canada. Museum policy has been in part a response to such popular initiatives.

During the same postwar period, the cultural diversity of Canada has been recognized. The various communities that make up our society - regional, ethnic, religious, indigenous, linguistic and others - have reasonably expected to find their traditions represented in our cultural institutions, including both general and specialized museums. History museums and art galleries are the targets here. There remains much to be accomplished, but progress is evident. Governments are taking the cultural diversity of Canada more fully into account, both through encouraging specialized museums and by responding more sensitively to pluralist concerns within their own institutions.

Another recent element has been the often reluctant recognition that this is a period in human history when some understanding of science is necessary for everyone and when, for the Canadian community, our capability in science will determine our future. These considerations bear particularly on museums of natural science and of science and technology where, despite the contributions of the Canadian Museum of Nature, the National Museum of Science and Technology and the Ontario Science Centre, Canadians have not been well served.

There are at least 2 dimensions to this. One has to do with the "popularization of science": the principle that scientific knowledge is interesting and accessible to everyone, if it is presented in ways that everyone can grasp. Science museums excel at this. Unfortunately in Canada only 3 or 4 have this mandate, and although they draw more visitors than the other museums in the same cities, similar opportunities are not available to people in other parts of the country.

The other dimension has to do with museum collections as scientific resources in themselves. This can involve any museum, but particularly natural science museums. In the natural sciences, and especially the biological sciences, the identification of specimens is of critical importance. This relates directly, for example, to studies of the effects of pesticides or acid rain or other environmental contaminants. The organized reference collections held by museums provide the only standard against which new discoveries or unexpected mutations can be assessed. Governments in Canada have been slow to recognize the role of museums as research resources. The Canadian Museum of Nature is authoritative in some areas, as is the Royal Ontario Museum and the Jardin botanique de Montréal, but in the battle for budget the scientists typically find it difficult to hold their own with the departments of the museum responsible for direct services to the visiting public.

In recognizing the need for museum policies governments are not, of course, influenced entirely by concern with the arts and sciences in themselves. In particular, in the past half-century, tourism has become an increasingly important industry in Canada, and a high proportion of museum visitors are tourists. People tend to postpone museum visits when they are at home, but take advantage of the fleeting opportunity when they travel. Museums are accordingly seen as cost-effective tourist attractions, and this provides an economical incentive for government support, which may complement the cultural and scientific objectives.

While the reasons may vary among regions and from one museum to another, governments of all levels have accordingly been brought to take a much more active interest in museums in recent years, and museum policies have been developed in the federal and all provincial governments and in some municipalities. The change in attitude is illustrated by the fact that in 1968 only one provincial government (Québec) had a minister with serious responsibility for museum affairs; 10 years later, no provincial government was without such a minister.

Policies differ in detail in each jurisdiction but all of them make a primary distinction between those collections which are owned by the government, those which are owned by municipalities or nonprofit institutions like museum societies, and those which are in private hands. In the nature of things, with the passage of time and whether intended or not, governments accumulate a great many things which turn out to be museum material. The collections of the Canadian Postal Museum in Ottawa, and of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Museum in Regina are examples. As good stewards, governments have increasingly recognized that they have a responsibility to conserve and organize the collections they own, and to encourage the public to visit them.

For the nonprofit museums that they do not own, the federal and provincial governments provide modest financial support through various granting programs, as well as professional advice and assistance in technical aspects of museum management including, for example, help with the preservation and conservation of the collections (see Conservation of Movable Cultural Property). Often, this assistance is channelled through national or provincial museum associations, which provide essential support especially to small local museums. Government programs also encourage the organization and circulation of travelling exhibitions, so that people in one part of the country may have opportunities to experience the cultural heritage of other regions.

For that important part of our heritage in private hands, there is not very much that governments can, or perhaps should, do. Through a system of export permits supported by purchase grants, the federal Cultural Property Export and Import Act of 1977 has been effective in assisting public collections to acquire important artifacts if and when the private owner decides to sell, but in general governments have not become involved.

The most important federal government collections are held by 4 institutions: the National Gallery of Canada (fine arts), the Canadian Museum of Civilization (human history and pre-history), the National Museum of Natural Sciences (all of nature except man), and the National Museum of Science and Technology. By the National Museums Act of 1968, these 4 were brought within a single corporation which subsequently assumed responsibility also for the Canadian Conservation Institute, the Canadian Heritage Information Network and a number of programs providing financial support to nonprofit museums across the country. Over the years, this consolidation proved difficult to operate effectively, and in 1987 the government announced its intention to re-establish the 4 museums as operationally independent institutions, and to assume direct responsibility within the then Department of Communications for federal assistance to other museums (now the Department of Canadian Heritage).

Canadian museums are recent arrivals on the international scene. The major collections in other countries, especially in Europe, include works of art and other valuable and interesting objects accumulated over centuries of imperial, religious or dynastic history. One of the continuing policy issues in Canada turns on how far we should go in trying to build up similar collections, necessarily through the purchase of increasingly scarce and expensive items from abroad, instead of concentrating on our own natural history and our own much shorter recorded social and artistic traditions. The reasons for stressing Canada are obvious, but there is also a case for building international collections, especially in the fine arts. Many of the roots of Canadian painting and sculpture and applied arts are in "older" nations, and contemporary work in this country is part of the world scene.

This line of argument holds that museums - art museums in particular - should encourage Canadians to experience the global and historic dimensions of our modern civilization without having to travel abroad. On the other hand, museums in other countries cannot be expected to specialize in Canadian art; this must be done in Canada or not at all. In addition, classic works of earlier centuries are very costly. Buying them, on those rare occasions when they come on the market, means that much less contemporary Canadian work can be acquired.

A second range of policy issues involves collections of artifacts, often representing the cultures of the original peoples of Canada, which are held by major history museums. Some of these collections, including, for example, material confiscated early in the century from West Coast potlatch ceremonies, were acquired in circumstances which are now recognised as odious. Others were accumulated perfectly legitimately, at a time when their long-term significance was recognised only by a few specialists; if they had not been collected, most of them would almost certainly have disappeared. In light of their cultural and sometimes spiritual significance for the people who keep alive the traditions that produced them, should they now be sent back?

This question was in fact addressed as part of a major set of recommendations made by a task force jointly established by the CMA and the Assembly of First Nations in the late 1980s. Following extensive consultation with aboriginal communities and museums, the task force made a series of recommendations that have become international standards. These include the full repatriation of all human remains, ceremonial and spiritual collections and the commencement of a new spirit of co-operation among museums and first peoples. Unlike in the US, Canadian museums were able to negotiate on a moral basis, not a legal basis. The Nisga'a Final Agreement, passed by the British Columbia Legislature in 1999, extended cultural matters further, requiring federal and provincial museums to return artifacts as a condition of the treaty. It will surely set a new standard for the future.

A third policy issue - and the one which preoccupies museum trustees and directors more than any other - turns quite simply on money. Not only is there never enough, which is normal, but what money there is cannot always be devoted to the most pressing purposes. Raising money is never easy, but generally speaking it is easier to raise money for new museums, new buildings and impressive special exhibitions than it is for the humdrum, essential work of keeping the doors open, and conserving and presenting the existing collections for current audiences and future generations. Every year, more material is probably lost through disintegration than is gained through acquisitions. A good case can be made not only for better funding but also for changing the financial policy emphasis from capital to operations, which would suggest slowing down the rate of establishment of new museums and of expansions, in favour of better conservation and presentation of the collections already held. This issue appears differently to museum trustees and professionals on the one hand, and to politicians and their officials on the other, and no doubt public opinion will determine the outcome.

Ultimately, museum policy is an aspect of public policy, and like all public policy it will finally be set not by deliberations in boardrooms and government offices but by what the public wants and is prepared to pay for. Canadian museums are good museums, and can be much better museums, but whether they achieve their potential depends finally on how much the public comes to care about the values they represent.

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