Free the museums!

Theoretically next year’s 150th anniversary of Confederation is an opportunity to celebrate Canada’s history – a story of economic, cultural and technological development that has made our country one of the most peaceful and prosperous nations on earth. But that would conflict with the contemporary progressive notion that Canada’s history was a nightmare of colonialism, environmental destruction, and discrimination. So the federal Liberal government has ordained that the official themes of the sesquicentennial bash will be “diversity and inclusiveness, the environment, youth, and reconciliation with indigenous peoples.”

Prior to its defeat in last year’s election, the Conservative government had been planning a very different kind of national birthday party. It would have put much more emphasis on celebrating Canadian history, particularly our military history.  This was a hallmark of the Harper decade. It never missed an opportunity to mark major military milestones such as the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the great battles of the First and Second World Wars. It would have made a big deal about the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 2009 except separatist bullies threatened political violence.

The Conservatives also promoted Canadian history by focusing a lot of money and attention on museums and other history repositories such as archives and art galleries. Among other things, they rebranded the Canadian Museum of Civilization as the Canadian Museum of History and refocused its mission accordingly, oversaw the creation of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and partnered with the Pier 21 Museum in Halifax to give it the status of a national museum. The Tories also tried to move the National Portrait Gallery from Ottawa to an oil company office tower in Calgary, although that plan foundered amid howls of protest from the culturati.

The Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. (Photo by CNW Group)
The Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg. (Image: CNW Group)

The Trudeau Liberal government is of course making strenuous efforts to roll back, overturn or reverse many of the former government’s policy initiatives. So far, however, they have not signalled any comprehensive plan to bury or rewrite Canadian history by emptying the National War Museum of guns or replacing all the exhibits in the Canadian Museum of History with shrines to Trudeau I’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

They may well do so eventually, but in the meantime they should do for Canada’s museums what they have proposed to do for our national parks in 2017, which is make admission free. We’re still waiting for details on the free parks plan, and you can never be too certain about Liberal campaign promises, but it is a very good idea. And so is eliminating admission fees to our museums and galleries, not just in 2017, but permanently. Just don’t tell the Liberals that getting more Canadians to visit museums is fundamentally a conservative idea that would nurture a more conservative culture.

Why museums matter

Much more than interesting places to spend a Saturday afternoon, museums and galleries are the repositories of our national and civilizational heritage. They, along with libraries and churches, are institutions that make our culture accessible. They give one generation the opportunity to learn from another. Museums and galleries are thus inherently conservative institutions. Individual exhibits may lean to one side or another of the political spectrum, but they all share the common starting point that history is important and that there were meaningful events involving our ancestors. The existence of museums and galleries is a recognition that our society should not focus exclusively on the present and the future, but can learn valuable lessons from the past.

Part of the 2015-16 Terry Fox exhibit at The Canadian Museum of History. (Dave Chan)
Part of the 2015-16 Terry Fox exhibit at The Canadian Museum of History. (Image: Dave Chan)

To truly appreciate their importance, however, we need to consider the experience of a museum or gallery from the perspective of the person attending it. The act of visiting a museum represents a choice to spend time experiencing our history and learning about our culture. The very act of walking into a museum – borne of a desire to connect with our past – is therefore the manifestation of a conservative impulse, one that conservatives should wish to encourage.

It would, of course, be wrong to assume that the average Canadian attending a museum is consciously thinking in conservative terms about the relevance of historical problems to modern ones. But that average Canadian is nonetheless entering into a dialogue with the past. Every museum visit represents a strengthening of the relationship between a Canadian and the tradition of his or her ancestors. Conservatives should see this as a good thing.

Museums also help protect us from the rise of a radicalized political culture. Insofar as they remind us that human beings are part of a community of persons, encompassing past, present, and future generations, they can show that we are not atomized individuals living in a void, but that we have responsibilities to each other. Second, museums protect against extreme forms of idealism by telling the story of human experience. This supports the inherently conservative principle that ideas must never be divorced from experience and reminds us of the dangers that can arise when they are.

Head of a Baby by Ron Mueck at the National Gallery of Canada, part of the Human Scale exhibition in early 2016. (Photo by Sandra Abma/CBC)
Head of a Baby by Ron Mueck at the National Gallery of Canada, part of the Human Scale exhibition in early 2016. (Image: Sandra Abma/CBC)

Certainly there are some who suspect museums are bastions of liberal dogma, but experience does not bear this out. Most display history and culture accurately and fairly. The tendency of conservatives to be suspicious of museums is the result of reacting too much to the particularities of certain exhibits, rather than appreciating the overall function of museums in our society. For example, the Canadian Museum of History provides a critical service in joining the living generations with their ancestors, even though some have argued that Aboriginal history has been over-represented in its exhibits at the expense of other, equally-important aspects of Canadian history. We should not, as the saying goes, fail to see the forest for the trees. While it is important for conservatives to tell their stories, it is even more fundamental to the long-term success of our movement that Canadians strengthen, even in the most general way, their relationship with the tradition of past generations. Museums are allies in raising the importance of our history and tradition in the consciousness of Canadians. We should start treating them as such by eliminating as many barriers as possible to the opportunities for Canadians to be enriched by them.

The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization. (Photo by Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout).
The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization. (Image: Marie-Louise Deruaz/Handout)

Little cost for big cultural returns

The first and most obvious barrier that should be eliminated is the admission fee to our national museums. Ranging from $11 to $18 per adult, these fees often exceed the cost of going to a movie. It is not hard to imagine that, when faced with the choice of spending the afternoon perusing the latest exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History or spending it at the movies, that many would choose the latter.

The museums and galleries in the National Capital Region have made a modest effort to compete with other forms of entertainment by making admission free on Thursday evenings. This tacitly recognizes that admission fees are dissuasive, but waiving them from 5-8 pm on a ‘school night’ is hardly throwing open the doors. If the museums were serious about providing free access, they could have chosen a weekend afternoon when families are more likely to visit. Furthermore, the fee structures of our museums and galleries also amount to tacit recognition that fees may be dissuasive to certain populations including seniors and students on fixed incomes.

Pier 21 Museum in Halifax. (Photo by Aleela /
Pier 21 Museum in Halifax. (Image:Aleela/Dreamstime)

The cost of eliminating general admission fees at our national museums and galleries would be quite modest. According to the most recent annual reports of the Crown corporations responsible for the national galleries and museums, forgone revenue for eliminating general admission fees at all seven of these institutions would total approximately $15 million annually. In fact, admission fees generally form a small portion of the national museums’ revenues. For example, the revenues for the corporation that runs the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of History, including the funding provided by Parliament, were $89 million during fiscal year 2014-15, of which $5.2 million (less than 6 percent) came from admission fees and memberships. The majority of operating revenue came from other sources such as rentals, the boutique, restaurants and parking. At the National Gallery of Canada, admission fees and memberships count for $1.8 million (less than 3 percent) of its total revenues of $63 million. If admission were free we could expect offsetting increases in museum revenues from more patrons spending more money in on-site gift shops and restaurants.  Their excellent venues could be further leveraged for special events such as wedding receptions, as is already being done by the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, featuring views of the iconic Halifax Harbour.

One piece of a national history strategy

Eliminating admission fees to the national museums and galleries should be but one part of a larger strategy for connecting Canadians with their past. We should also, for example, put more emphasis on history instruction in our school system. Education falls within provincial jurisdiction, of course, but Ottawa could set an example about the national importance of history education with a free museums initiative.

Maman by Louise Bourgeois at the National Gallery of Canada. (Photo by Robert Linsdell)
Maman by Louise Bourgeois at the National Gallery of Canada. (Image: Robert Linsdell)

We should not take lightly the criticism that the national museums and galleries are concentrated in Ottawa, apart from the two relatively new ones in Winnipeg and Halifax, and that Canadians outside these centres would benefit less from this proposal than those who reside there. We could hope that provinces and municipalities would follow Ottawa’s lead and offer free admission to their many fine museums and galleries too. It is not an uncommon practice in other parts of the world – the Smithsonian Institution in Washington being a prime example. And perhaps the relationships involving travelling exhibits that already exist between the national museums and other Canadian museums could be made even stronger with a view to increasing public access to our national collections.

Ultimately, the case for eliminating admission fees to the national museums and galleries comes down to recognizing that these institutions are places where Canadians encounter their history, their culture, and their heritage. Moreover, the federal government does not own these things; Canadians do. So we should have unrestricted access to them. Conservatives especially should be champions of museums and galleries, since we desire the same thing: a stronger connection between the past and the present, with an eye to the future. If freeing the museums also predisposes more Canadians to be more receptive to conservative ideas and values, so much the better. Just don’t tell the Liberals.

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