Sunday, July 20, 2008

Say No to Canadian National Museums in Winnipeg

Some day in the not so distant future, Winnipeg will have a Canadian National Museum: The National Museum of Human Rights. This will be the country's first national museum outside of the capital region.

This is a terrible idea, and I do not intend to visit.

Despite this, I understand why someone would make a case for a museum in Winnipeg. Canada is one of a handful of countries in the world so big that centralizing everything in a capital region means that some people will live too far away to benefit from these institutions. This problem is only getting worse as fuel prices rise and airline ticket prices skyrocket. Underprivileged kids in St. John's and Vancouver will likely never get the opportunity to come to Ottawa to experience all the museums and monuments.

It's no secret that Western Canadians feel life is unfair and everyone in Toronto is trying to destroy the world, so the concept of having a national museum a little closer to home is a refreshing idea. But, is Winnipeg really closer?

Winnipeggers aside, nearly everyone else in the country - including many northern Manitoba residents - have to fly into this rather isolated community. It's so isolated, that the nearest major city (Minneapolis) is seven hours drive, just slightly shorter than the drive from Toronto to New York City.

It is actually cheaper for someone to fly from Vancouver to Ottawa, than from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

Prices for July 21, round trip:

Vancouver to Winnipeg: $914
Vancouver to Ottawa: $900
St. John's to Winnipeg: $1469
St. John's to Ottawa: $952
Toronto to Winnipeg: $710

The poor, underprivileged who live outside of Ontario and Quebec may never be able to afford to come to Ottawa to see the national monuments and museums, but what will putting one of these institutions in Winnipeg do to help alleviate that? Pardon my skepticism, but I find it hard to believe that anyone is going to spend a thousand dollars or more to fly into Winnipeg to see one museum, when they could spend the same to go see many in Ottawa, and even catch an NHL game while they're at it (too soon?).

Sure, the 600 000 residents of Winnipeg will have an opportunity to see the Human Rights Museum, but they aren't likely going to go often enough to keep it open and prevent it from being a drain on federal resources. And sure, those people who do go to Winnipeg for vacations or business will likely go. But, does anyone honestly believe putting a museum in the middle of a small isolated city is going to draw in flocks of tourists from thousands of miles away?

Tourists don't flock to Paris just to see the Louvre. They don't go to Amsterdam to see just the Rijksmuseum. They don't go to New York just to see the Museum of Modern Art. Nobody is going to go to Winnipeg just to see the Human Rights Museum.

The decision to decentralize Canadian museums has other negative effects. The biggest cost associated with most history research is getting to the resources. If the collection you need to study is in Ottawa, you've got to get to Ottawa to look at it. This is why professors go on sabbatical and spend a year far from their universities, spending travel grants paid for by tax payers.

Library and Archives Canada is in Ottawa; that means most researchers studying Canadian topics will have to make the trip to Ottawa already. Anyone studying something related to the Human Rights Museum's collection will now have to stretch their research budget further and make a trip to Winnipeg.

The only argument for decentralizing these records is that Ottawa is under constant threat of nuclear attack and if everything is in Ottawa during the attack it will be lost. Despite what the American media would have us believe, I don't think this is a real problem at the moment. If we are worried, digital copies of the records can easily be stored on computer servers across the country to make it harder to destroy all traces of our collections.

And that leads me to my final point.

If the decision to put a national museum in Winnipeg was made to make Canadian National Museums accessible to more Canadians, then we should build the museum in Ottawa, and work towards becoming a world leader in online museum experiences. There are very few exhibits, lessons and resources that can't be effectively put online, with a bit of creativity. This will bring the museums to all Canadians. Building in Winnipeg will not.


Rebecca Giesbrecht said...

As a (former) Winnipegger, I could take offence (especially as you refer to me as a Western Canadian who feels that Toronto is out to destory the world, neither of which is true), but I'll just point out that the museum is only happening at all thanks to the efforts of Winnipeggers, notably the Asper family, who have spearheaded the campaign and raised millions. I definitely agree with many of the problems you bring up, all of which have also been used as arguments against the establishment of the National Portrait Gallery outside of Ottawa. (Last time I checked, the leading candidate for that institution, whose contents are currently in storage, was Calgary). For the most part I actually agree. It's important, though, to remember that tourist dollars aren't everything. Putting a national museum in a "small isolated city" makes a strong political statement of national solidarity. The museum will be located in what is already the tourist heart of the city, and will bring in a lot of jobs to a blue collar town that is losing people like you and me to places like Ottawa (case in point: me). I don't know if it is a good idea or not, but I do know that it wouldn't be happening at all if it weren't for the concerted effort of a Winnipeg family. And I guess "drain on federal resources" really depends on how you define it.

Adam Crymble said...

Clearly you've never seen the movie, "Let's All Hate Toronto."

Rebecca Giesbrecht said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rebecca Giesbrecht said...

I love Toronto, and most of my Winnipeg friends do too. In fact, many of them have moved there. Don't believe everything you see in the movies, Adam!