Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres - Brian Young, The Making and Unmaking of a University Museum: The McCord, 1921-1996

Book Reviews / Comptes rendus de livres

Brian Young, The Making and Unmaking of a University Museum: The McCord, 1921-1996

Delphin A. Muise
Carleton University
Young, Brian. The Making and Unmaking of a University Museum: The McCord, 1921-1996. Montreal and Kingston: McGill/Queen's University Press, 2000. 224 pp., illus., paper $24.95, ISBN 0773520506, cloth $65, ISBN 0773520491.

1 History has become part of Canada's everyday public discourse. Most discussions revolve round the capacity of schools, universities and other public agencies to render our past significantly enough to ensure the nation's future and advance various political attitudes or reflect Canada's diverse experience. Who owns history and how ownership is to be exercised for transmission from generation to generation underlies much of the discussion. Everyone acknowledges heritage has the potential to contribute to the nation's political future. How much it will pander to popular notions of suitable delivery systems and who will determine the content is at the core of many of these discussions.

2 Much of this debate is conducted in public, but much of it is a private process. This interesting historical polemic by McGill University history professor Brian Young offers an insider's account based upon his role as a participant in a major exhibit and as a university representative on the McCord Museum's Board of Directors. It is also partially a history of the institution from its inception, largely a reworking of an earlier publication, namely P. Millar, B. Young, D. Fryson, D. Wright and M. T. McCaffrey, The McCord Family: A Passionate Vision (Montreal: McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992). All in all, it provides an interesting perspective on the subject of much museological speculation concerning virtually every museum in the country over the past decade.

3 The McCord Museum, like many other history museums founded earlier in this century, originated with the eccentricity of urban elites with disposable income and time, in this case of a member of the Montreal bourgeoisie/rentier class. In the latter years of the nineteenth century David Ross McCord began to gather material that he found interesting regarding Canada's history, concentrating particularly on Montreal's elites and their imperial reach during that city's heyday as Canada's economic engine. In the best tradition of nineteenth century eclecticism, his collecting featured everything from native keepsakes to material and documentary remnants of Montreal's successive transformations into Canada's foremost multicultural and multidimensional city in his day. Finding a home for that material would prove problematic. But, with help from well-placed friends, he eventually cajoled a group of philanthropists to fund its lodgment under its own roof, somewhat reluctantly cared for by McGill, where it mostly languished, closed to the public and gradually deteriorating for its first half century and more of existence.

4 The great heritage clambake surrounding the 1967 centennial of Confederation combined with the indomitable energy of Isabel Dobell, another descendent of that same Montreal community of wealth and talent, to transform the McCord into its modern incarnation located in the former student union building on Sherbrooke Street, close by the McGill campus. In the process the university gradually passed financial responsibility over to a new system of grants in aid of museum activities administered by federal and provincial governments. Determined to use heritage as an instrument of state-making during the identity politics of Quebec's pursuit of distinctiveness within Confederation, those two levels of government, for a time at least, competed with each other to make the McCord participate in the pursuit of a new vision of Canada.

5 Manoeuvring around various traps associated with hunting down funding to support a lofty mission of research and teaching associated with McGill scholars provides the core for the most interesting part of the book. Young deals deftly with university administrators seeking to abandon the museum in the face of their own financial crises, but does not deal with the dynamism associated with the "democracy and dissemination" themes developed by Gerard Pelletier and others during the Trudeau years. Along the way we glimpse the interplay between Montreal's variously layered English elite and the imperatives of a university in transition. Isobel Dobell is paramount in his discussion. Her zeal in support of the McCord's collection and its transformation into a respectable museum is cast in heroic light; a grand knight/dame fighting the intransigence of the disbelieving university and manoeuvring the intricate politics of heritage within the context of the crises of Quebec in Canada. In fact, her connections to community and political elites facilitated a range of financial and other transfers of artifacts, etc. to the museum over her years as director from 1970 to 1975. She was instrumental in all museum activities not just for that short period of her directorship, but had become a well placed volunteer and advocate from the 1950s and continued until her retreat from active involvement in 1981.

6 Concentrating on Dobell and the cadre of volunteers and staff she attracted to the museum allows Young to set up an interesting dichotomy between a female dominated museum staff and the male dominant university administration and faculty. He stretched the analogy a bit to discuss relations between a hard political orientation of male university professors and the curatorial preoccupation of the museum's social history orientation, conveniently ignoring much of the inherent political content of the document and artifact selection that had determined much of the McCord's activities reflecting the lives of the Montreal elites. But it does allow for a convenient characterization of power relations within the museum's troubled connections with not just the university but broader communities as well. Elliptically suggested is the true relation between economic power and control over the making of memory. Dobell was tolerated by both the university and the various government agencies providing funding so long as her museum did not challenge existing power relations between the community and the university. It never did; and continued to largely languish following the initial impetus associated with the move to the new quarters and the establishment of its profile as a vehicle for projecting the history of Montreal's past greatness as a centre of English Canada's elites.

7 What is curious is how and why the McConnell Foundation arrived on the scene following Dobell's departure to resuscitate the McCord, in the process further reducing McGill's role in its financing and management. Dobell had continued pursuing patronage and the McConnell's seemed to appear out of nowhere with a gargantuan bequest that would further transform the museum into a more public institution with drastic implications for its curators. It was part of a process occurring across Canada's museum community and continues to be the most significant issue of the past two decades. Stripping programming away from curators allowed transfer of policy and exhibit making to interpreters and programmers conditioned to maximize public participation and to please corporate sponsors. Young rightly characterizes this process as a sellout of the McCord's intellectual mission, an easy conclusion to draw from the circumstances. Young's direct involvement both as a visiting curator and as a member of the advisory committee who lost in the power struggles that established the new regime colours this discussion, which climaxes the book.

8 There has been too little serious analysis of relations between museums and their various constituencies in this country. University museums are something of a special case and there have been ongoing crises regarding governance and mission statements, exacerbated by the financial crunch that so many universities have faced. At bottom, who pays the piper in calls the tune, but the tune has become much more expensive to play. The McCord struggled under Dobell's direction to find a sponsor who would allow it to remain a somewhat eccentric institution reflecting its creator's imagination. Its rather topsy growth and development after 1967 left it with no clear mandate in an era when the costs of running and maintaining the objectives became prohibitive. As the university withdrew, Montreal's English patrician community adopted it as its project, in the process transforming it with its own version of efficiency and relevance. The costs were prohibitive for the curators who lost their jobs and influence.

9 But the cause may not be entirely lost. The newest director, a proven and experienced museum professional in the person of Victoria Dickenson, gives promise for renewed integration between the museum and the university, a process pushed along by the continued strains of national unity. We can only hope that the future will provide scope for a renewed mandate that will encourage the return of the curators.