August 30, 2007

Rewriting history? Or at least museum exhibits

at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa (via The Globe & Mail; emphasis in bold mine):
The battle's not over yet. But under pressure from Bomber Command veterans' groups and sympathetic politicians, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa will adjust the wording on a panel dealing with the 1945 firebombing of Dresden.

"The final wording has not come out," Fredrik Eaton, chair of the museum board, told The Globe and Mail yesterday. "But we expect to have it installed by October."

Many observers warn of the precedent of a public museum adapting its texts in response to political pressure. "I am very disturbed," said Margaret MacMillan, warden of St. Antony's College at Oxford, author of Paris 1919, and a consultant to the museum on the controversy. "This exhibit was a fair one."

The fight over the 67-word panel, titled An Enduring Controversy, erupted shortly after the Canadian War Museum opened in May, 2005. A group of veterans objected to its saying that "the value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested," and to its contrasting 600,000 dead with the statement that "the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war."

For two years, the museum defended its independence. So did two of a panel of four independent historians, one of them Ms. MacMillan, hired earlier this year to investigate. (All historians found the panel factually accurate, but two questioned the tone.)

The veterans weren't satisfied. One in four Canadians who served in Bomber Command during the Second World War were killed, and the survivors insist on honouring those comrades' memory. Art Smith, a former Bomber Command captain and former Conservative MP, explained: "The words said that we were responsible for 600,000 dead. I took offence that we were just helter-skelter bombers. We always had justified targets."

The veterans threatened a boycott, attempted to have a private member's bill introduced, and finally got a senate subcommittee to look into their complaints. In June, the subcommittee urged the museum to compromise.

Then, Mr. Eaton volunteered to chair the board. "I thought the museum was taking the wrong slant," he said. "It wasn't right that the museum should fight with the vets. I determined to effect a solution."

Two weeks after Mr. Eaton became chair, museum CEO Joe Geurts - a dogged defender of his institution's curatorial independence - departed.

Ever since, board members, former board member and retired General Paul Manson, and the vets have been negotiating a new text. They'll continue into September.

"The museum staff and professional historians will write the text but will be guided by feelings of respect," said Victor Rabinovitch, president of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian War Museum. "We'll find a way to incorporate the respect while remaining faithful to the historical record."

In fact, the veterans have given the museum a version they want substituted for the existing panel. But at nearly 300 words, it is far too long. Besides, one point the vets object to is true: The strategic value and morality of the Dresden bombing are contested.

No one questions the veterans' bravery, Ms. MacMillan insists. "But a museum is not a war memorial. It should allow the public to make up their own minds." She warned that the decision to alter an exhibition to satisfy the veterans could mean "whoever screams loudest can have their view made known."

Indeed, several groups are in the midst of doing just that. One, the National Association of Japanese Canadians, says that the war museum's version of the internment of Japanese Canadians underplays the racist and economic forces behind the internment; the NAJC also wants the museum to recognize that despite the treatment of Japanese Canadians, 150 volunteered to don uniforms and fight for Canada. NAJC president Grace Eiko Thomson met with Mr. Guerts four weeks before his departure.

Yesterday, Mr. Eaton said that the museum had been in touch with the Japanese Canadians. (Not recently, according to Ms. Thomson). "Everyone's knocking on the door," Mr. Eaton said.
Or in the words of Paul McCartney, "Open the door, and let 'em in, oh yeah..."

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