National Museum of the History of Quebec | The risks of a return to the “national narrative”

Last week, the Quebec government announced with great fanfare the creation of a National Museum of the History of Quebec⁠1. If we believe that museums play an essential role in the dissemination of history, particularly to the general public, we have several reservations regarding the aims of this project.



At a press conference, François Legault insisted that the museum aimed to stir up Quebec pride, particularly in the face of “our artists, our athletes, our territory and our business successes”. The story presented by the Prime Minister begins in Quebec with “the explorers”, without neglecting “the great builders” and the indigenous nations “who were there before the rest of us and who helped us over the years”.

As historian Éric Bédard, appointed to sit on the scientific committee, explains, the plot will be “unifying” and representative of the history of “a people of French language and culture”. In the press release, it is also mentioned that the museum “will bring to life in music and images the significant moments of the national story”.

What role for history?

It is very early to predict what the National Museum of Quebec History will look like, but the underlying political motivations already raise several questions. With the abandonment of Blue Spaces, what place will be given to regional history? Will the contents reflect the state of historiography or will they propose a return to the old national narrative centered on major events and heroes?

By organizing the framework around “a people of French language and culture”, the institution also risks obscuring indigenous nations and several groups – the black, Jewish, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Ukrainian communities, for example – who have contributed to shaping Quebec society.

History is certainly an ingredient of social bonds, but let us dare to think beyond the great characters in order to understand how communities, in their different configurations, influence the course of events. Because, ultimately, what is the role of history – this rigorous discipline, but always partial and one-sided, constantly updated and debated? Is it to convey “love of the nation”, as we heard during the press conference?

We believe, for our part, that history can teach us how to live collectively. Not because of admiration for ancestors, but thanks to the better understanding it offers of human societies, of what founds them, works them and distinguishes them. However, Quebec society comes from many places, not just one. If we want history to promote our understanding of the present, we must highlight this plurality of experiences and trajectories.

A plural history as the key to an enlightened present

The development of a “unifying” narrative, watered down and aimed at arousing national pride, would represent a missed opportunity to seize the potential of history to develop critical thinking. In teaching as well as in popularization, we benefit from revealing the ways in which history is constructed, from the analysis of archives to the interpretation of events. The more conflicting issues make it possible to situate the points of view of a wide range of actors and actresses.

The history of indigenous nations, for example, should be presented beyond the collaborative relationships between them and the French settlers. Above all, it should be integrated into its continuity, beyond the “first contacts”, and in a collaborative approach with the nations concerned.

Several elements of the national narrative – appropriation of territory and resources, construction of hydroelectric power stations – evoke a history of dispossession for many communities. Rather than evacuating this complexity, we believe that it must be highlighted while offering keys to understanding to the public.

Finally, let us add that history, memory and contact with the past can arouse a wide range of emotions. The encounter with the archives sometimes plunges us into sadness, empathy, indignation or enthusiasm. These feelings are part of our practice, particularly when we work on themes that are close to our hearts.

However, the writing of history and the development of narratives should not explicitly serve to provoke specific emotions, whether pride or shame about certain aspects of the past.

Our motivations should, on the contrary, be guided by a desire to reflect the state of knowledge and the diversity of perspectives, to better shed light on certain little-known parts of history and, above all, to offer tools to the public so that they can develop their own reading of the past and its representations. Several institutions have chosen this avenue. Let us think, for example, of the McCord Museum which has undertaken a process of decolonization⁠2at the Canadian Museum of History which wanted to present certain “darker chapters”3 of the past, or at the American Museum of Natural History which contextualized certain biases in the representation of encounters between natives and settlers⁠4.

Let us hope that the National Museum of the History of Quebec draws inspiration from the most recent advances in museology and history in order to offer a nuanced, rich and stimulating understanding of the past.

1. Read “A national history museum on the ashes of the Blue Spaces”

2. Read an article from Radio-Canada

3. Read about the Canadian Museum of History’s approach

4. Read “How the American Museum of Natural History addressed a dated diorama”

What do you think ? Participate in the dialogue

* Mathieu Arsenault, assistant professor in the history department of the University of Montreal; Denyse Baillargeon, professor emeritus in the history department of the University of Montreal; Jean-Philippe Bernard, assistant professor in the social sciences department of the University of Quebec en Outaouais; Gérard Bouchard, professor emeritus at the University of Quebec at Chicoutimi; Isabelle Bouchard, professor in the human sciences department at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières; Aline Charles, professor in the historical sciences department at Laval University; Christine Chevalier-Caron, doctoral student in history, lecturer at the University of Ottawa and teacher at Collège Ahuntsic; Michèle Dagenais, professor in the history department of the University of Montreal; Michel Dahan, historian and postdoctoral researcher, Free University of Brussels; Helen Dewar, associate professor in the history department of the University of Montreal; Samia Dumais, doctoral student in the history department of Concordia University; Edward Dunsworth, assistant professor in the department of history and classics at McGill University; Allan Greer, professor emeritus in the history department of McGill University; Steven High, professor in the history department of Concordia University; Rania Iraqi, master’s candidate in history at the University of Montreal; Alexandre Klein, adjunct professor at the School of Nursing at the University of Ottawa; Lauren Laframboise, doctoral student in the history department of Concordia University; Andrée Lévesque, professor emeritus in the history department of McGill University; Benoit Marsan, PhD in history and lecturer in the department of industrial relations at the University of Quebec en Outaouais; David Meren, associate professor in the history department at the University of Montreal; Melissa Mollen Dupuis, Innu activist, author and host; Philippe Néméh-Nombré, assistant professor at the Élisabeth-Bruyère School of Social Innovation at Saint-Paul University; Aly Ndiaye, aka Webster, hip-hop artist and independent historian; Martin Pâquet, professor in the historical sciences department of Laval University; Mathieu Paradis, master’s candidate in history at the University of Montreal; Catherine Paulin, doctoral student in the history department of the University of Montreal; Martin Petitclerc, professor in the history department of the University of Quebec in Montreal; Isabelle Picard, ethnologist, speaker and author; Paul-Etienne Rainville, PhD in history and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montreal; Désirée Rochat, postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Oral History and Digital Stories, Concordia University; Daniel Ross, professor in the history department of the University of Quebec in Montreal; Luca Sollai, PhD in history and lecturer at the University of Montreal; Frantz Voltaire, president of the International Haitian, Caribbean and Afro-Canadian Documentation and Information Center (CIDIHCA); Dorothy Williams, associate professor at Concordia University, historian and author


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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