Culture  A glimpse of war

The struggle with presenting Canada's military past

Dean Oliver is the Director of Research and Exhibition at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. He is also an adjunct research professor in the History department at Carleton University.

The McGill Daily: In representing Canada’s military past, the museum has two primary aims: to correctly represent history, and to respect those who have participated in the conflict. How do you work to balance these sometimes conflicting goals?
Dean Oliver: The museum has a very clear mandate and mission as the national museum of Canadian military history, and each of the components of that mission and mandate are terribly important. That it is a Canadian museum, for example, we aren’t mandated to tell military history or commonwealth military history. That it is a military museum as opposed to a civilizational museum or a political history museum, in other words, we focus on the raw material of the country’s military past and we make nods and allusions where necessary, and important to other things. … And finally…we’re a museum of history, which happens to have as its principal mandate the study of Canadian involvement in organized conflict…so the primary litmus test for what goes in the galleries…is whether or not it helps…proceeding from the basis of scholarship, to inform Canadians and assist them in understanding the nature of their own military past, and its relevance to their own lives.

That said, there are many other things we need to pay attention to. Clearly as a public cultural institution, as a opposed say to a private cultural institution….we must be at a very basic level responsive to the needs, demands, critiques, complaints, requests, of those members of the public that we serve. … So in any dispute…the basic approach always proceeds from what in our estimation as scholars of the military past and interpreters of it in the present day, will withstand reasonable scholarly inquiry or invigilation. In other words, what’s history and what’s not, and in particular, what’s important in history and what’s not. … All of these things are as much subjective as they are objective…they are all subject to negotiation.

MD: What then are the requirements for a piece of art that gets shown in the museum. Is there another process for selecting those more creative pieces?
DO: We are essentially a storyline driven museum. So all of the objects that we have, from an Alex Colville painting to the smallest military medal, are all deployed as essentially story-tellers or story-telling aids in a whole series of broader narratives. So what we have…will get across relatively simple messages that will allow the public to understand. … Then all kinds of other tertiary but important things come into play, principal of which is, “Is it good art?” Is it a trenchant, lovely, fantastic picture, or is it just representational? Does it say something about a particular artist or branch of art? Does it speak to both genders? Will it say something to French Canada? Does it have something in it around which we can tell a hugely interesting story?
MD: How is what gets represented in military history shaped by what tools are available to document history?
DO: At one level, [it’s] easier to do any kind of cultural display or interpretation in the 21st century probably than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. The toolkit that one has available now is vastly larger and more complicated and more potentially rewarding and flexible than would have been available to my colleagues…in the old army building downtown in 1885. However, it is also extraordinarily easy to be seduced by technology, into thinking that newer is better, or wiser, or faster or stronger. … People continue to come to museums or similar institutions like art galleries, for two principal reasons. … [Firstly] to see what they would describe loosely as, “The Real Thing”, and secondly they come because somehow or another, in particular in museums, they believe that museums are telling the truth.

MD: When the museum told the story of Afghanistan in the display “Glimpse of War,” I noticed a fairly obvious one-sidedness. … Tell me about the struggle of representing a war that is ongoing, and that is still heavily debated within Canada.

DO: The contemporary stuff is a whole other challenge for museums, in particular for history museums. … You have to be very clear with your public where you are speaking from in historical perspective and where perhaps you might be speculating, and there better be very few times in [which] you’re speculating, because the public – whether it’s a service members’ family or a member of peace church or just John Q. Public – will tell you immediately whether they think your story is soft or weak. So in the case of Afghanistan… the exhibition included a large wall display, for example, that compared the information available to students of the Afghanistan war with the information available to students of World War Two. … [In addition], the subject material at the time we did the exhibit [was] extraordinarily limited…[so] what we tried to do was to present the war through the perspective of two guys who we knew had, in great measure, witnessed [the war] personally – the two [freelance] journalists, [Stephen] Thorne and [Garth] Pritchard – and we organized their material not in response to any metanarrative that we at the museum had constructed on the nature of the war or what was important, or what one might say about particular campaigns, but very largely, more or less episodically, around what we would call vignettes on their own experience of their own time in Afghanistan. … And then there was the process of grouping those images, thinking about what the material we as a museum might have available to modify or enhance them with, and in fact with Afghanistan – given that most soldiers from there are still in service. … What we did, and this may be part of the subtext of the question, was to provide all sorts of opportunities for people in the exhibit to leave us the museum feedback on what they thought about the war. So we had very simple things like tables set up in the exhibit where we asked relatively open-ended questions, and then allowed people to fill this. The table stood about 3 feet high, maybe higher than the average kitchen table, and it had a large plexi erected in the middle of it, and on the plexi was a question and it was facing a poster answer. And it was questions like, “Do you think we should be in Afghanistan,” “Do you think we should get out of Afghanistan,” “What do you think Canada should do for Afghanistan, if anything.” And people left hundreds if not thousands of comments through the course of the exhibit about everything that we had asked and more. … We also included the newspapers themselves about every day or so; we had a little section in the exhibit that updated the principal news stories, the op-eds, the for and against, the criticism, and [for] some of the more telling moments in the history of the war we actually had the front pages from various pages framed [and] mounted in the exhibit as well. And in the last portion of the exhibit we had another series of boards where we asked people: Ought Canada…stay, leave, or some[thing] in between? And again, allowing people to leave their own comments, post them on the wall, and debate with one another as they went through the space. But all of that stuff, those interactive techniques, the use of newspaper media, were designed to acknowledge the full gamut of people’s views of the war and allow them to actually talk about them in the exhibition with one another. So it was very much a social dialogue as the war unfolded, and the exhibit sort of wrapped around that. Not just the [Department of National Defence] story or, the DND tale. … And in terms of public feedback it was widely more successful than we had ever thought the exhibition would be. It brought in nearly 200,000 visitors to the museum. … I don’t think I received a single formal complaint from anyone left, center or right of the political spectrum about our coverage in the exhibition of the Afghanistan war, so I’m very interested in your feedback, because yours would be among the first…that found it imbalanced.

MD: I found an imbalance in one photo called “The Legacy of War,” of a child who was the victim of a landmine, and then the caption beneath explained that soldiers were trying to remove the landmines. And it made me think of what the other causes of these injuries to Afghan children might be, and what Canada’s contributions in that respect might be. I was a little stopped, I think also because of the powerful emotional impact of seeing a child looking into a camera so directly.

DO: I know very well the image. … It’s an interesting point that you make about being aware of the power of the medium, media, that you deal with. We tried also in the exhibit, where possible – and you know, knowing that you’re dealing with war, which is, you know, death and injury, grief, and all these other intense human emotions – we tried not to be as emotionally leading as some of the material might otherwise have lent itself to. So there were places in the exhibit, for example, where we had the option, given the media that we were deploying, of using sound or music. And sound or music as an exhibition technique can be extraordinarily effective and can also be extraordinarily leading. … And there were a number of places where we thought that it would be doing a disservice to the material, which was very contentious and hotly debated, to try to impose over it any kind of musical score. … People immediately smoke you out: “Oh, I’m supposed to feel sad here.” But what if in fact I walk through the exhibit and I believe Afghanistan is a waste of time? And all these poor young men and women’s lives were squandered for no purpose. Why am I hearing sad or patriotic music that’s supposed to make me feel happy…or alternatively I’ve lost my son, why is the music supposed to be making me feel like this was all a great waste of time? So we eschewed it everywhere…and very much we used the photographs…essentially as interpretive portraiture. … It’s a very astute observation to talk about the way in which emotion can be deployed, used, and, frankly, manipulated. There are always times when you want to employ your full arsenal…[but] you have to be respectful of the whole range of [potential] reactions. … particularly in an unfinished story.

MD: What are you working on right now?
DO: Right now, the quick range of things, there’s something finished that’s coming back to us in December, so we opened the Navy show yesterday. There’s a small show…it’s called “A Brush With War,” that’s on military art in Canada after the Second World War, so Korea, peacekeeping, Gulf, Afghanistan. That show comes back to us in December. … Then the big ones for the next couple of years are as follows. In 2011, our big projects are one on War and Medicine…[which] is essentially about the relationship in war, this incredible, torturous, intertwined relationship, between man’s ability to harm and man’s ability to heal. It talks about all the challenges the hideosity of war poses for the healing arts. … Then there’s the second major project we’re working on, which is on the history of peace advocacy in Canada, and that show is also one that deals with a very, very big subject, and one that employs everything from Raging Granny protest signs, right through to the recollections of folks in the world wars who understood implicitly that they were in their own hearts fighting in support of peace. And everybody in between: conscientious objectors, anti-nuclear protestors, people wearing blue berets in godforsaken parts of the world. So how have Canadians chosen, thought, acted, deployed their own talents and resources in support of what they understood to be peace. And after that, two very,very large projects: for 2012, the [bicentennial] of the War of 1812, and for 2013, a project on – working with international partners – Medieval warfare.