Thursday, November 27, 2014

Problems at the ROM

Janet Carding, CEO of Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, is leaving her post to return to Australia near the end of her first five year term here, amid growing concern about falling attendance and a perpetual cost squeeze, and fresh angst about the museum's mission.
“Isn’t it wonderful that we’re the only museum in North America that has both dinosaurs and a stunning Chinese collection?” Carding mused during a ROM celebration earlier this year.
Well, it is. My family has had a membership as long as we have lived in Toronto, and we attend. I've seen mindblowing things just browsing the galleries, and some of its special exhibitions I'll never forget. And, yes, funding is a problem. I have written elsewhere comparing the Canadian policy of charging big entry fees to all our museums and historic sites, whereas other counties are proud to make them free to all.

But I can't help thinking that if the ROM needs to find a mission, it might discover Canada, or just Toronto, even. Apart from a pretty tired Ontario prehistory gallery and a furniture/decorative arts display, the ROM has never tried to be an Ontario museum, never an institution in and of this city and this country. Some terrific scholars of Canadian subjects work or have worked at the ROM, for sure, but visitors would hardly notice. The ROM offers visitors to Canada and Toronto little about the country they (and it) are in. Our citizens of Greek and Egyptian and Chinese origins can visit superb ROM displays about their homelands if they wish, but not much about the place they have come to.

Just saying. Not that the next CEO (no one says "director" or "curator" anymore, I guess) has to be Canadian. But someone who saw Canada as an opportunity for the museum, that would be nice.

Image: Toronto Star

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

On Someone Else's Blog

This ain't, you may have noticed, a very confessional blog.  But Eizabeth Glenn at the University of Toronto Press blog recently asked me a bunch of questions about this book, and they mostly called for first-person answers. Excerpt:
How did you become involved in your area of research?
I am a historian by training, but I have always worked as a self-employed, trade-market book writer. I cover Canadian history very widely, but I had never done anything related to legal history until I got a call from an editor in 1994. The Law Society of Upper Canada wanted its history written; would I be interested? I heard later they had approached some leading legal scholars who said it would take ten years and cost a million bucks. I agreed I could do it a bit faster, on a smaller budget.

Monday, November 24, 2014

When Stephen Lewis hasn't a clue, we are really in trouble

Just be nice?  Come on.
Apparently Stephen Lewis gave a barnburner in Charlottetown the other day when he presented the Symons lecture. According to Tom Walkom in the Star:
The one-time lion of the left unleashed a withering roar over eight years of Stephen Harper government that deserves to be moved from the relatively tiny confines of the Confederation Centre of the Arts and into a larger forum.  Lewis focused on five fronts of perhaps irreversible decline in this country, five only, because time did not allow him to get into all the factors that “scar my soul.”
Except one of his "fronts" was that  "the Harper government’s contempt for Parliament and its traditions has degraded political life and fostered voter cynicism." Lewis finds Mr. Harper is not nice, and compares him unfavourably to Bill Davis, whom Lewis once opposed in the Ontario legislature.
Lewis compared the atmosphere in Ottawa to that of the Ontario legislature where he served for 15 years, the William Davis years.  There was a respect in that chamber, he said, and that was respect was fostered by the premier. “Vitriolic nastiness in debate does not breed respect,” he said.
But a political system that depends on the niceness on the guy in charge is not a political system we should encourage or be nostalgic for.  We need a political system that controls the guy on top, that will not permit him to treat parliament with disrespect, degrade political life, and so on.

The controls are there in parliamentary democracy. They depend on the willingness of members of parliament to use them, that is all. Stephen Harper treats parliament and parliamentarians with contempt because they allow him to, and will continue until they tell him to stop.  He's more ruthless than Bill Davis, but the situation is the same.

The essential question is whether leaders are accountable to parliament, or whether parliament answers to leaders.  Parliamentarians have the power to hold leaders accountable whenever they choose to use it, whenever we tell them to , expect them to, use it. When a caucus gets sufficiently tired of being ignored, bullied, disrespected, and manipulated by its leader, it need only fire the leader and pick a new one.  (Indeed, most often it need only threaten to do that to have its way.)

There is no other solution to the problem.  And no other is needed.  This begging for leaders to play more nicely has become a hallmark of political commentary in Canada   (see here and here), but it demeans us all and the political situation we tolerate and encourage, even as we wring our hands.

Photo: Toronto Star.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Prize watch: Cundill to Blood Telegram

This story of Nixon-Kissingerian nefariousness won the Cundlll Prize in history.

I kinda was hoping for the nominee about the Congo, on the theory that if we are going to judge the best history in the world, I want great door-stopping tomes about places and topics I know nothing about, rather than things that were current events in my own lifetime. The Cundill has been pretty good for that in some other years.

But good history is where you find it, and this one has a good rep, for sure.  Hey, in the Cundill, even the losers get $10,000.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

History of Internet domains

Is this gonna be huge in Quebec?
There must be a dedicated market for this one among all the new top-level domains becoming available.

The Parti Quebecois is already, natch -- would be awkward! -- but one can imagine a change there pretty quickly. And surely a lot of much less political institutions will be happy enough to move away from or to  At one time unles you could demonstrate "national" significance, you had to take, or, or whatever.That died quite a while ago, about the time CIRA, the agency that handles this, got serious about marketing domain names.

I wrote a little a few years ago on the history of And I kinda like Apparently no one is offering dot.Alberta yet. It remains notable that is almost the only national domain in the world with almost no takeup. World wide web, meet Planet America.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

History of another corner of the field

Having been cable-cutting a bit lately, we don't actually get Al Jazeera English TV chez nous, but this does sound kinda interesting, not least as an antidote to all the relentlessly uplifting WW1 commemoration that seems to be in the air here.  Update: online here, you techno-peasant.

World War One through Arab Eyes 

In this series, Producer Journalist Malek Al Tureiki, provides a political and cultural reading into World War I from an Arab and Islamic perspective, citing the commencement date of the war as November 14th 2014, when Arabs were involved in the “jihad” against the Allied troops upon the call of the Mufti of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. This is in juxtaposition to the date Britain commemorates the war on August 4th, 2014 – the day it entered the war. The series sheds light on how colonized nations, which had no say in their own fate, ended up being forced into wars which resulted in enormous sacrifices. As a result of this, the number of victims within the Ottoman population, including Arabs, is in fact much higher than that of the Europeans. While the percentage of victims in Germany was 9% and 11% in France, it reached between 14-25 % in Turkey and the Levant.
I was reading a little about "Chanak" recently, the incident in 1922 when Britain wanted Canada to help it maintain the "neutral zone,"  namely, its occupation of Constantinople and the straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, so as to "keep the Turk out of Europe."

Update, November 19:  Meanwhile, in other news of Middle Eastern perspectives on history, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has announced that Muslims preceded Christopher Columbus to the Americas.  Well, maybe, but Erdogan works from the statement that Columbus saw a mosque in Cuba on his first voyage. That seems to depend on this passage from the record of that voyage:
Remarking on the position of the river and port, to which he gave the name of San Salvador, he describes its mountains as lofty and beautiful, like the Pena de las Enamoradas, and one of them has another little hill on its summit, like a graceful mosque. The other river and port, in which he now was, has two round mountains to the S.W., and a fine low cape running out to the W.S.W.
So, maybe not proven

(H/T Jason Colavito, who has a little history of the claim's origins.)

Prize watch: the GGs

Canada Council for the Arts | Conseil des arts du Canada

Prizes thick and fast this season. The Governor General's Literary Awards came out this morning. Congratulations to all the winners (hell, nominees too), but not much history contending this year. I note that this year's nonfiction winner, Michael Harris's The End of Absence, and the most "historical" of the shortlisted titles, Edward Metatawabin's residential schools memoir Up Ghost River, are reviewed in this month's Literary Review of Canada, which arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and good thing, because neither of these reviews are offered online.

The winning book seems to be kind of an internet apocalypse book, but stylish and funny. You might recognize this feeling it describes (from a National Post review):
“Thoreau was right,” writes Michael Harris in The End of Absence, the newest meditation on the digital age. “Whenever I am frustrated, miserable, thwarted, I’ll open my in-box twice as often.” Harris, of course, is responding to a line from Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s most famous work: “In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office.”
Laureate Michael Harris seems not to be the Michael Harris whose Stephen Harper apocalypse book, Party of One, is hot right now.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Cundill History prize shorterlist

The $75,000 Cundill Prize, now down to three nominees, will be announced on November 20. Still standing, should you want a lot of reading in the next week:

·         Gary Bass The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf)
A horrifying story of the Pakistani state’s genocidal war on the people of Bangladesh – and America’s sad record of complicity.
·         Richard Overy – The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45* (Allen Lane)
An extraordinary survey of aerial warfare in every theater of World War II.
·         David Van Reybrouck – Congo: The Epic History of a People (ECCO)
An intensely personal examination of the self-destruction of the Congolese state.

From the Cundill press release:
The winner of the 2013 Cundill Prize was Anne Applebaum for Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956. On winning the prize, Applebaum said: “It’s wonderful that this prize is not just for ‘non-fiction’ but for well-written, deeply researched history, which is one of the most difficult and time-consuming literary forms that exists. It's also wonderful that the award is generous enough to be of real help to the historians who win it. I am enormously honored to have been last year’s laureate." 

Have blog, get media

When a journalist asks. 'In your view as a historian, what does this say about us as a nation?" I really try not to be quotable at all. Did not quite succeed in this Post story on why sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers is so modest, private, and spotlight-avoiding.

Story is somewhat spoiled, in any event, by Vickers in Israel being celebrated by Benjamin Netanyahu for killing a Muslim.

Maclean's on leadership

Maclean's has its own views on the democratic deficit in Canada, so it's probably inevitable it skews my views to support its own in its editorial on the crisis of confidence in the Manitoba government. I did say:
As Canadian historian Christopher Moore points out in an interview, “An executive which lacks the confidence of a majority of the people’s elected representatives is no longer a legitimate government.”
But that hardly means that a general election is required in Manitoba, as they claim I propose. In my clearly expressed view, the NDP caucus, which still forms the majority of the people’s elected representatives in Manitoba, has the right, and indeed the responsibility, to remove Mr. Selinger by majority vote and to choose his successor as premier by the same process. That would truly empower Canadian legislators to represent us effectively.

Maclean's, however, prefers a "never do anything by halves that you can do by quarters" approach.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

We may not know much but we know what we don't know

At Active History, Raphael Gani speculates that the one thing every Canadian claims to know about Canadian history is that no Canadian knows anything about Canadian history. He calls this claim about universal ignorance one of the "sites of memory" we cherish and routinely reaffirm. Even it is is mostly mistaken.

He then brings his discussion around to the analysis of Canadian engagement with Canadian history undertaken by the group that produced the book and website Canadians and their PastsHe highlights a well-worth-reading review of the book by Daniel Francis. The Canadian confidence that Canadians are uniquely ignorant about history just does not stand up to serious analysis -- something I also commented on once.
Inevitably we compare ourselves unfavourably to the Americans. But Americans think themselves uniquely ignorant of their own past, looking to the British – where the new Cameron government recently appointed celebrity historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama to revive the dying subject of British history. The British look to France for models, but in France ignorance of the national epic is perpetually une crise nationale.
What's also clear from Gani, however, is the vested interest most people professionally engaged with Canadian history have in encouraging the sense of crisis over historical ignorance.  Complicated!

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Great black historians

At The Root, Henry Louis Gates ponders who are the great black historians.  He means American, natch, and he means professors. But his candidates make a pretty interesting set of biographies.

I wonder who could make a list of the great minority historians in Canada.  (Is this one of those "shortest book in the world" things?) Afua Cooper? Georges Sioui?  Blair Stonechild? To get a long list or to go back very far, you would probably need to expand beyond Ph.D, tenured types.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Confederation at the Museum of History CORRECTED!!!!!

There is an old table from Regina making its way to Ottawa-Hull -- the table (if the provenance holds up) around which the Quebec Conference of 1864 was held and the 72 Resolutions, the bones and basis of the British North America Act, were approved.

It's part of the Confederation exhibit currently under preparation, opening November 28 for a run of just over a month -- which seems kinda brief, considering...

CORRECTION: Okay, your blogger is blind and illiterate sometimes.  The Confederation exhibit runs until January 2016, not January 2015.  Sheesh.