Thursday, June 15, 2006

Specific problems with The Current


Yesterday, I wrote that what the CBC radio program The Current broadcast on museums was balderdash. I've had a chance to listen to it again (you can too, by clicking on this. RealPlayer required, sorry)

To set the table, they spoke with Dr. Randell Brooks, the Director of Collections and Research at Canada's Science and Technology Museum, John McAvity, the Executive Director of the Canadian Museum Association, Mike Robinson, the President and CEO of the Glenbow Museum, and Linda St. Thomas, Smithsonian spokesperson (who's name was misspelled).

And then to begin... First off, none of this is new, museums have complained about a lack of funding since there were museums. Dr. Brooks wants to get his museum into a brand spanking new space, or as they wrote in the 2004 Annual Report 'the Museum clearly needs a new home if it is to reach its potential as a key component in Canada’s strategy for investing in the development of a modern post-industrial economy.' So what does he do? He gets on national radio and whines.

My basic point is that there are too many darn museums. According to John McAvity's organization, there are 49 museums in Ottawa and another nine in Gatineau, for a total of 58 museums that should be visited on your next school trip to the Capital region. Three per day, means that your school needs to spend about three weeks in Ottawa to visit them all. Like any school board is going to do that. Heck I betcha dollars to doughnuts that even the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board doesn't get their schools to visit all 58.

At 3:57 in the recording, Anna Maria Tremonti asks 'how common?' in reference to Dr. Brooks' statement about wanting a new museum being a fairly common occurrence. Well, here in Montreal, I know of at least a dozen museums that would love a new building, and if I spent more than 10 seconds thinking about it I probably could come up with a short list of 40 or so, the only ones who wouldn't want a new building, are those whose newest building is less than five years old.

Dr. Brooks then goes on to explain that they need a new building because of 'archival issues.' Once again, there are always going to be 'archival issues,' up until the 1980's it was common practice to store paper things in folders with acid, which is why all things used to save and store paper nowadays shout 'acid-free!' on their packaging. You would be amazed at how things were stored and saved 100 years ago. In 100 years they will be horrified at how we store and save now.

They then start talking to Mr. McAvity, and he states that there are 2,000 museums in Canada. In fact, according to Mr. McAvity's organization there are 2,801 museums in Canada. According to the Ontario Museum Association there are 719 museums just in Ontario.

He states that there are about 59 million visits to museums in Canada, each year, like this is a bad thing. That's about two visits per person each year. In England they just recently stated that they have as a goal to get every child into a museum once per year. If you're just scanning, that means that Canada is doing better than England in getting people into museums, or (and I think I believe this one more) the method of collecting statistics is flawed.

Mr. McAvity then proceeds to whine at the 5:36 mark, that there are many museums that are closing, and that if the Federal Government doesn't cough up some more money then many more museums will be forced to close. I'd be heartbroken if the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum in Almonte, Ontario closed because it is a completely different museum than the Keillor House, Coach House and St. James Church Textile Museum in Dorchester, New Brunswick.

Ms. Tremonti then shows off her tremendous skills as an interviewer by asking why the public isn't aware of this chronic lack of funding - somehow she completely forgot that every person in Canada goes to visit two museums per year, and that when they are at those museums they somehow completely and utterly miss all the pamphlets, signs, posters and other methods cultural institutions use to ask you for money. Personally, I can't think of a single article written about a museum that doesn't mention funding difficulties. Heck! They even manage to fit it into today's article about the Emily Carr portrait. Mr. McAvity then wanders off into a world of his own making where he is worried about scaring volunteers and how he heard Ms. Termonti talk about lovely lobbies.

It goes on for a bit where he whines about needing 'operating funds' and the folk at the CBC were able to find a 'quote' from Bev Oda, the minister for Canadian Heritage, where ostensibly she waffles on funding because the 39th Parliament is a minority government. However, if they had bothered to roll the tape back a little, everybody would have been able to hear the honorable Ms. Oda say, and I quote:
Certainly we have initiated looking at the museums in Canada. Our first responsibility is to the national museums under the purview of Canadian Heritage, and in that regard we've also looked at the Auditor General's report and the recommendations she has made regarding those museums, and I've asked the department to prepare responses to those recommendations.

I've had the pleasure of visiting hundreds of museums as I've travelled across the country. As you know, many of those museums, small or large, are private. Some are provincial, some municipal.

We want to make sure the culture and the heritage of the country are maintained and respected. So part of the question is--and I don't have a response yet--how can we help the museums outside the federal purview, and to what extent.

Historically, different programs have come along depending on the needs of specific museums, and a great effort has been made to try to help every community...
Which is a lot more positive and upbeat as a response than the bit that the Current and Ms. Tremonti chose.

Mr. McAvity goes on to say that he isn't worried about Federal funding (so, what exactly is the issue, then?) because 'previous conservative governments have been very supportive.' I'd like to remind Mr. McAvity that the last time there was a conservative government here in Canada, there was no EU, Los Angeles had two football teams, Kurt Cobain was still alive, The Late Show with David Letterman could be seen on NBC, and the internet had not been invented. Saying previous conservative governments have been supportive is as relevant to museum funding as my weight.

I'll gloss over some of the other not so smart comments that Mr. McAvity made ('we don't think new museums should come into being unless they have a sustainable business plan in place.' Like, I'm all for museums with unsustainable business plans!) so as to get to the first factual error he makes (in my post of yesterday, I referred to them as lies). He says that there was a large uproar in Britain when they instituted admission fees for museums. In December 2001, the British Government passed a law that abolished admission charges for museums. And in case you want to double check me, he says it at 11:50 into the recording.

Thankfully Mr. McAvity doesn't spend much more time on the program and he ends his time with a line about how he is extremely concerned with 'small museums' and how the small museums 'are history at its finest.' While on the face of it, that statement sounds mighty nice, like something that everybody should believe, when you actually go look at some small museums you can see that in fact it ain't the case. For example, in Mississauga there are two of these 'small historical museums.' Benares Historic House, which is supposed to look like 1918, and the Bradley House Museum which has been restored to look like it was supposed to look like 1840, or so. I can't imagine that there is such a significant difference that Mississauga really needs two historical re-creations especially when there is the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse (1848), Fort York (1812), George Brown House (1880), Riverdale Farm (1860-1920), Spadina House (1880) and Todmorden Mills (years unknown) all in Toronto already. The Bradley house has already been moved once from its original location so it isn't like anyone is insisting on accuracy.

But unfortunately, Ms. Tremonti and the rest of the people who work at the Current decide they are going to talk to Mike Robinson of the Glenbow museum. I don't think they should have. At 13:45 in the recording Ms. Tremonti asks Mr. Robinson how much money the Glenbow museum receives from the government. He replies 'about $3.5 million.' In their annual report, the Glenbow museum states that they got a $5 million gift from the Alberta Government that they use as part of an endowment, it also says '$4 million dollars of funding for this project was secured through the Province of Alberta’s centennial legacies grants program. Negotiations for a further $5 million from the Government of Canada’s centennial program are well underway,' and for some reason that I can't quite understand they put money received from the Federal government in the category called 'fundraising' like it was the same as if I had written them a check.

At 14:04 he states that the Glenbow museum is the only 'independent museum' (I assume he's talking about the whole country) because they are a 'non-governmental organization.' I have no clue what he means by that. Obviously he has never inquired about the Musée des beaux arts here in Montreal, it is a private organization. He obviously is confusing the Redpath and McCord museums here in town with something I can't quite comprehend, as both of them are not government organizations, and I'm certain that if I put my mind to it I could come up with half a dozen museums in each province the are not government organizations (this is the second mistruth that I referred to as a lie yesterday). I'd also question his definition of 'largest museum.' Is he talking square feet, attendance figures, operating budget, or something else?

At which point I pretty much stopped believing anything that Mr. Robinson said. He babbled on about how he was quite proud of how they had lightened the exhibitions (ie they weren't so heavy). That sure as shootin' makes me wanna rush right down and see a show there. Apparently he believes that the museum should pander to the lowest common denominator in Calgary so as to make sure that those attendance figures are as eye popping as possible.

Somewhere around 17:45 in the recording, Ms. Tremonti started asking about the differences between a cultural institution and a commercial institution, as if they were opposites. Ms. Tremonti it is possible to be both (have you not heard of the Cirque du Soleil?) and there is lots of gray space in between them as well (not for profit, charity, and government, just to name a few possibilities). Mr. Robinson's answer was a beaut! Apparently the reason why the Glenbow won't become a commercial institute is because the employees there would leave, and they could not function without their staff. This is after stating that the Glenbow paid less than industry standards (15:38 on the recording). yeah, right. Someone leaves, because there's a better paying job and the whole frickin' museum grinds to a halt?

And then finally, 'cuz this has gone on for too long. The folk at the Current, decide to toss in a finale about the fuss over Showtime's exclusive deal with the Smithsonian without quite explaining a darn thing.

A) $99 million over 30 years, is $3.33 million/year. Apparently The Current's staff think this is a humongous number. It represents less than 1% of the Smithsonian's operating budget.

B) To quote from the New York Times article on teh subject:
As part of the deal, Smithsonian Networks was to get the right of first refusal on commercial documentaries that relied significantly on the museum's archives, curators or scientists.

The underfinanced Smithsonian has argued that while the agreement might restrict some commercial filmmakers from selling their handiwork elsewhere, it would affect only a limited number of projects. A Smithsonian official has said that incidental use — a lone interview with a staff member or a few minutes displaying the riches of the Smithsonian collections — would not mandate offering that particular project to Showtime.

But the idea of a public institution's granting preferential treatment to a commercial entity has alarmed many in the documentary and academic worlds, who worry that the venture will discourage independent filmmakers from taking their projects to other outlets or from putting their work on the Internet on a noncommercial basis.
Next time the Current decides to do something on culture, I hope that they spend a little more time trying to get some things correct instead of slapping something together and hoping that nobody will notice.

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