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Museums facing Trudeau’s challenge: teaching of history

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Dr. Victor Rabinovitch
President and CEO
Canadian Museum of Civilization

This article was originally published in Canadian Issues / Thèmes canadiens (October 2003), a publication of the Association for Canadian Studies. Reproduced with permission.

(My warm acknowledgement to museum colleagues, notably Stephen Alsford, for assistance in preparing this article.)


It is worthwhile to start with the words of Pierre-Elliot Trudeau, written shortly after his election as Prime Minister of Canada.

“In the past the teaching of history in our schools has been dominated by traditions inherited from Europe. On that continent history has been filled with battles, and the lives of national heroes. In Canada we have had few decisive battles and not many dominant leaders. Much more important to our history has been the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment. This struggle has produced its share of adventure and heroism. But perhaps this lesson is best learned outside the classroom.” 1

How ironic that Trudeau’s words contradict his own evolution as he later became the type of leader he said Canada does not produce – a leader of mythical proportions, a national hero to many, a political villain to some. Soon after Trudeau, Prime Minister Mulroney also became a leader of historic proportions, with a profound impact on Canada’s relations with the world, especially America.

Do we therefore conclude that Trudeau’s populist version of Canada is simply untrue? Clearly, this country in its pre-Confederation days and its more recent configurations has been shaped by many exceptional leaders – political, social, aboriginal, military, labour and industrial. The real challenge in Trudeau’s words is aimed at how we learn about the past, whether such learning should be focused on ‘heroes’, and what role informal learning should play in our education.

Trudeau expressed a view that very much reflected the spirit of the 1960s. He believed Canada had evolved a unique identity that was more than the sum of values and traits inherited from Europe. He felt that in Canada – a nation reliant on immigrants and pioneers, rather than on dominant aristocrats and military adventurers – the history of the common person is central to our national narrative. Trudeau also challenged the dominance of old-fashioned school-room teaching, favouring instead a process of learning through in-the-field experiences.

In the late 1960s, as well, the teaching of history in both formal and informal settings moved towards the theme of social movements. The stories of great heroes and pivotal events were downplayed in favour of the narratives of communities, social conditions, lesser-known individuals and movements of many kinds. Those historians who continued to espouse the “great man” view of history sometimes saw themselves as voices in the wilderness.

There is a current perception of Canadian youth lacking a knowledge of their country’s history (a problem which has also been noted in the United States and the United Kingdom). Perhaps what we see is not a lack of interest in history, as such, but a lack of interest in learning history in the schoolroom. Informal learning experiences are increasingly sought out, as is seen in the growth of tourist-oriented attractions – such as heritage centres and heritage theme parks. Museums have also benefited from expanding public interest, and the competition from commercial attractions and their high quality of visitor relations has defined new standards for “client service”. Museum popularity among Americans has grown along with tourism as a whole; about 60% of Americans now report visiting a museum annually, compared to 25% in the early 60s. 2 Museums are perceived as reputable places for learning trustworthy information, and for doing so in an entertaining way. That there has been a corresponding growth in the use of engaging heritage interpretation techniques (such as re-enactments, reconstructed historical environments, multimedia presentations) suggests that Trudeau was right in his belief that most people prefer to learn about history experientially, and in easy doses.

The purpose of this article is to look at what museums do in providing opportunities for learning Canadian history. In particular, what can a national museum do in responding to the challenge of providing quality learning experiences for a wide range of age groups? The educational role of a museum is mainly informal. Museum-visiting is not an obligation or a necessity; the motivations for coming and learning are quite different from those in a school situation.


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