Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Museum: Dirty Word or Venerable Institution?

Jul 2, 2013


Admonished by my government to get out and "celebrate our history and the achievements that define who we are" (in the words of our heritage minister), I spent part of Canada Day, and the first day of Canada History Week, marching in a parade.

The North Vancouver Museum & Archives, of which I am a commissioner, is hoping to move to a new location in a heritage shipyard building down on the Burrard Inlet waterfront. In support of this move, I joined the annual Canada Day Parade to spread the word with the public.

One of the issues that comes up time and again when discussing a new museum is whether or not the term itself is past its due date. Many people argue that the word "museum" now carries connotations of mustiness, irrelevancy, boredom and is as antiquated as many of the artifacts in the display cases. Accepting this criticism, some museums are rebranding themselves. Here in BC, for example, the museum in Prince George is now The Exploration Place, while in Abbotsford it is something called The Reach. I'm sure wherever you live you've noticed the appearance of historiums and discovery centres and exploratoriums.

Not being someone who thinks that history is a four-letter word, I am somewhat mystified by this criticism of the M word. All museums are facing the challenge of modernizing their content and presentation. Certainly the North Vancouver Museum is. But to me this means redefining what a museum can be, not replacing the word itself. Museum is a word with a fairly precise meaning and an accepted cultural purpose; it is a place where a community's history is preserved, displayed and interpreted. Of course, how these objectives are accomplished will change and improve. 

But why trade the name in for a term that has almost no meaning whatsoever?