Virtual Museums of Canada: Cultural Cornucopia
November 25, 2004 8:30 PM   Subscribe

The Virtual Museum of Canada has funded or collaborated on almost 150 virtual exhibits, mostly relating to Canadian History and Culture. There is great diversity, among my favourites are Nk'Mip Nation Aboriginal Childrens' Art from the Inkameep day school (a welcome counterpoint to the residential schools tragedy), the historic re-photography and soundscapes of Montreal, Haida Culture documented , and also compared to Inuit Culture, Inuit (Eskimo) games and 3-dimensional (VR) sculpture, a history of the Canadian Trucking Industry, a splendid overview of Canadian documentary film making, Canadian design in the late 20th century, and the Shipwrecks of Vancouver Island. There is also a searchable image gallery. The only thing missing is a historical whodunnit or two (or three). All sites available in both French and English, and some in other languages too.
posted by Rumple (17 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just spectacular.
posted by nightchrome at 9:04 PM on November 25, 2004

Good work, Rumple!
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:54 PM on November 25, 2004

I hate to be the contrarian but...

For those of you unfamiliar with the way things work in Canada, VMC is a prime example of what a government that annually runs multi-billion dollar surpluses does with all that extra dough. Its little minions in the federal public service get together and collectively reinvent the wheel...and then talk about how smart they were for having done so.

At a time when Canadian cities are as threadbare as funding for post-secondary education and healthcare, it begs the question why money is being dumped into what amounts to (in all of its 1996 splendour) a glorified portal: replicating what Google, museums and books already accomplish. Certainly there must be a good reason. I must have missed something. So let's consider some of the stirring prose you'll find on the "About" page that describes this bad, bad idea let loose:

"This groundbreaking gateway is the result of a strong partnership between Canada's vast museum community and the Department of Canadian Heritage."

Uh-oh. Strong partnership. In Canada, right away when you read that you know two things are true. They argued a lot over this project and this copy was the handiwork of corduroy-clad self-congratulating bureaucrats. And in case there's any doubt about what partnership really means, in the next sentence of that same para, they go on to talk about how this was all Heritage's idea.

But wait, there are more nuggets to mine in this Klondike of mediocrity:

"The VMC harnesses the power of the Internet to bring Canada's rich and diverse heritage into our homes, schools and places of work. This revolutionary medium allows for perspectives and interpretations that are both original and revealing."

Now doesn't that just make you want to scream? What perspectives and interpretations could they be talking about here that didn't already exist in books, the googlesphere and at museums? Actually, what the frack *are* they talking about here? And as for "harnessing the power of the Internet," Lord-beside-the-Jesus...what year are these people living in...1995?

"In the meantime, bookmark this Web site to enjoy the many offerings that Canada's heritage institutions are placing online. For years to come, the VMC will nurture the development of digital content that reflects Canadian experiences in all their splendour."

Oh and look...they even spell website as two words with a cap on the w in web...just in case readers confuse the word for something arachnid. As for bold hopes of what to expect in "years to come," you can bet a dozen from Timmies and a double-double that this pet project is soon bound to wind up gathering dust on some shelf, joining other bright ideas that came from Ottawa.
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 10:11 PM on November 25, 2004

You do realize that the things you find via Google have to actually *exist* somewhere first before they can be found, right?
Collecting related content into a single area so that people who are interested in it might be able to find it and take a look is hardly a waste of time. Not everyone has strong Google-fu anyway.
posted by nightchrome at 10:19 PM on November 25, 2004

Meh. He's kinda more right than wrong. What actual productive purpose does this serve?

I guess we'll find out. It's a gamble.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:40 PM on November 25, 2004

If you get rid of all the stuff out there which has no actual productive purpose, there goes a good 95% of the net...
posted by nightchrome at 10:55 PM on November 25, 2004

When you've had enough of the Virtual Museum, check out Archives Canada, a.k.a. the Canadian Archival Information Network (CAIN). It was originally conceived and developed as a "network of networks": provincial on-line union lists describing archival collections held in various archives, joined together in a national network. It still operates that way - see the Networks page - but thanks to changing priorities at Heritage Canada the emphasis has shifted towards Virtual Exhibits. The original network, at least, is probably the most useful on-line resource for Canadian historical researchers currently available.

Disclaimer: In my day-job I'm a professional archivist who has been involved in the development of one of the provincial archival networks, and is also responsible for several of the virtual exhibits listed on Archives Canada.
posted by e-man at 11:07 PM on November 25, 2004

Runningdog - I tend to agree with you on useless portals and on government waste but I don't think this is an example of either. The VMC takes proposals from academics, communities, First Nations, and from museums large and small, peer-reviews those proposals, and then funds the creation of on-line content such as those linked to. It is not just a portal, but a collection of links to content the VMC has enabled through funding. But it is not centralized production from the top-down - the eclectic projects are mainly grassroots or university initiatives which take research from small communities, universities and reserves and makes it available much more widely. The only requirement is they be bilingual.

I think this decentralization is why the home VMC site is so clunky and stilted (and as you say, full of out-dated jargon from 1996 inter-office memos) while the actual exhibits can be quite well put together.

Re: perspectives, take the Haida website. Books, museums, google do not necessarily present a Haida viewpoint - in fact, most books and conventional museums present an anti-Haida perspective. So their website is a real contribution to the digital world perspective, at least.

Now, you might argue that the government shouldn't be funding culture at all, but thats a different argument.
posted by Rumple at 11:09 PM on November 25, 2004

e-man - thanks for the links. Resources like the almost 100,000 historic photos of BC which are viewable online, from a searchable database here is just a fantastic resource for scholarly work and other research. For the production of new knowledge, sites like that really are best of the web. The VMC is more of a smorgasbord by comparison.
posted by Rumple at 11:28 PM on November 25, 2004

Criminy, runningdog, was it that you were audited recently or were you turned down for a Canada Council grant for your brilliant treatise on the state's refusal to respect your authoritah or what exactly?

This Virtual Museum, from what I can gather, aggregates all manner of information and artifacts and other sundry content under one roof and presents it in a pretty slick and user-friendly format. In other words, it does the same kind of thing as any museum does.

That lousy guv'mint, spendin' all your dough tryin' to edumicate and informatize people! But please, do tell: how is your dag-gum hard-earned taxpayer money better spent on the Museum of Civilization? How, that is, is the Museum of Civilization fundamentally different from this Virtual Museum? Or are you arguing against the public funding of museums?

And as to this . . .

At a time when Canadian cities are as threadbare as funding for post-secondary education and healthcare, it begs the question why money is being dumped into what amounts to (in all of its 1996 splendour) a glorified portal

. . . I know it's fashionable - not to mention easy - to argue that government spending on something frivolous detracts from its spending on much more vital stuff, and I know it looks on the surface like guv'mint spending is the very definition of a zero-sum game in which every dollar spent on glorified web portals is a dollar that wasn't spent on your nana's hip replacement, but let me assure you it doesn't work that way.

My better half worked for the Department of Canadian Heritage until recently, and I can tell you unequivocally that if she hadn't allocated several thousand of your tax dollars to avant-garde puppet troupes and theatre companies and regional jazz festivals and such, it wouldn't have gone directly to improving inner-city mass transit. The good folks at Revenue Canada wouldn't have noticed the $XX,XXX surplus from one of Heritage's regional offices and sounded a red alert that caused Parliament to reconvene to dedicate that money post-haste to finding shelter for the homeless folks collecting empty beer cans two blocks down from Heritage's office in Calgary. It just wouldn't have been spent at all. It'd've gone back into Revenue Canada's coffers to be reallocated on something else culture-related that you could easily crap all over with high-minded talk of solving big problems.

Or, put another way: short of passing some kind of law that says the Guv'mint can't spend a thin dime on anything cultural until healthcare and education and urban infrastructure are taken care of, the only argument to be made against this Virtual Museum is one of taste. You don't like it. Duly noted.
posted by gompa at 2:30 AM on November 26, 2004

Here here. This is slick and thanks for the link Rumple.

Quite often, too many people naturally assume that "wasted" (or misappropriated) funds (most often associated with cultural pursuits) will, by default, detract from other, more noble, pursuits if the over-zealous corduroy-clad self-congratulating bureaucrats would get their respective heads out of their respective asses.

As gompa mentioned, this never, ever happens. Personal opinions aside, money allocated is money allocated. It has to be spent, or it is lost. This is the way the government works, the way they've always worked, and probably the way they will always work.

Be that as it may, any cultural pursuit in Canada is desperately needed. This country suffers from a lack of self-identity that (and believe me, I'm not in favour of overt nationalism) a lot of Canadians could benefit from. Think of how many Canadians know more about US history than their own.

Sites like this can definitely help that situation, and for that it should be applauded, not condemned.
posted by purephase at 9:07 AM on November 26, 2004

Rumple those BC archives are awesome. I think you've just killed my weekend.
posted by Mitheral at 12:14 PM on November 26, 2004

As someone working in a public library (in Canada), I just want to say: thank you. Frankly, I'm surprised I hadn't heard of these before. FWIW these sort of sites are excellent for school assignments & I often recommend Images Canada.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:30 PM on November 26, 2004

unningdogofcapitalism: it begs the question why money is being dumped into what amounts to (in all of its 1996 splendour) a glorified portal: replicating what Google, museums and books already accomplish

Sheesh. Sounds like another another CTF spokesperson whining that a tax dollar that doesn't land in his pocket is a dollar wasted.

The sad fact is most Westerners will never travel to Nova Scotia to learn that the British made good on their promise of freedom and land for black supporters during the American revolution, despite having lost. Likewise most Ontarians will never experience our Northern heritage at Fort Selkirk, and most maritimers will never visit the magnificent people and landscape of Haida Gwaii. Initiatives like the Virtual Museum of Canada help to tie a sparsely populated nation together, which has been a government priority since the beginning
posted by Popular Ethics at 5:57 PM on November 26, 2004

Gosh maybe you're right, gompah. How small minded of me to have the gall to suggest that maybe we have far bigger problems that need tending in this country. What was I thinking? We should all just be sanctimonious like you, coming down from that limp little ivory tower of yours to occasionally roll around on our backs and make moaning sounds about how we'd change things if we could but...eeh! ...this is just the way government works. Heaven forbid that we demand of the state to rise above the mediocrity that is so gladly rewarded, protected and promoted in this country.

Just an aside--since you've chosen to make this personal--I can assure you that your highminded and facile assumptions about my underlying political views are laughably incorrect. But do continue in that vein if it helps to give you some form of reassurance and validation.

While you've made an obvious effort to couch your post with all the right academic jargon (all readers who are students of PoliSci 100 are undoubtedly impressed by your use of zero-sum analysis), the underlying argument in your retort is rather weak. I'm assuming you're reasonably bright under that smug exterior, so I need not remind you of the process by which federal budgets are made in Canada. True, once the annual Main Estimates for each department have been reviewed and passed by Parliament, then in each department it's the Deputy Minister's job (politically, if not by definition) to advise and ensure that money is spent by the end of the year. But my quarrel was not about how funds for this fiscal year were allocated. We both know that, but you likely ignored that point, sensing there was an easier, yet disingenuous route to take.

No, gompah, at issue are the bad choices that are made year after year by a Cabinet that has a confused idea of what it means to govern--be it in an activist or responsible manner (or ideally both). To govern is to choose, and those choices should be better reflected in where money is allocated and subsequently spent. How about some courage, conviction and common sense to guide those decisions, or am I asking too much? Why do we always have to be satisfied with unspectacular half-hearted underachievements?

For the record, gompah, since you're so keen to shoot your mouth off perfunctory, you should note that at year end, surplus federal monies are not turned over to Revenue Canada (which has not existed for close to a decade since becoming the CCRA and subsequently the CRA). Funds are returned to the Receiver General of Canada, located within Public Works. There, and it is presumed that it serves to pay down the federal debt...but that remains a matter of some debate.

Also for the record, I do appreciate Rumple's commendable effort in assembling his thoughtful post that started this whole ball of wax (and I should have indicated that in my earlier note), but do I think the VMC is a bad idea? Damn straight I do. A lack of convictions and poor decision-making--each helps to give rise with disturbing regularity to ill-conceived pet projects such as the VMC. Does it really add value to gather up a bunch of websites and pretend that it's some new amazing thing that harnesses the power of the Internet? Perhaps I'm in the minority on this one. Maybe I'm being too hard on poor old Heritage...and perhaps people feel they really do need to have an online portal that sits on top of existing museum and archival content that was already available. Maybe books aren't enough.

It begs the question of how the museums in Canada see this whole matter. Somehow, I suspect they'd much prefer to see adequate direct funding rather than having to noodle around and be held hostage by its "strong partnership" with Heritage. As a matter of fact, that's pretty close to what they did say about the matter earlier this week. Holy cow...that link is really worth a read. Here's a morsel: "The desperate need for increased museum funding is not news. Federal support for Canada’s museums stands at approximately the same level it did in 1972." Equally telling is how the Canadian Museums Association doesn't even mention the VMC in its annual report (2003-2004). The best they could muster was some vague words about partnership (and as per my earlier note, we know what that means). Then again, I guess they, too, are just crusty and suspicious of authoritah.

At least we'll have our little portal, lovingingly maintained by the largess of Heritage, while many museums continue to struggle for air and archivists complain about how original documents are being lost for good. And they'll be able to count on you, gompah, to protect the status quo and to pontificate at will when someone dares to suggest maybe it's time to set the bar of expectations a little higher.

Before I sign off, one more note about your remarkably flippant comment about heritage. I happen to think there is a valid role for government to play in that respect. I just don't think they perform that job very well when the choices they make (e.g., VMC) come at the expense of more important and fundamental undertakings. You may choose to disagree, and I welcome your point of view, minus the tiresome and rather empty rhetoric.

P.S. By the way, since you mentioned heritage--and with hindsight being what it is--I'm eager to hear your defence of the virtues of federal sponsorship funding concerning said "avant-garde puppet troupes," theatre, and "regional jazz festivals..."

Oh wait. There I go again complaining about the government...
posted by runningdogofcapitalism at 2:24 AM on November 27, 2004

an online portal that sits on top of existing museum and archival content that was already available. Maybe books aren't enough.

Please. The VMC funded that content. It was not already available. Some is hosted at and some is hosted locally. It's not just a "little portal." It is a tendering process.

And the content that it funds is overwhelmingly of local, regional, or semi-obscure topics that did deserve a wider audience and probably never would have got one otherwise. Have you been to the Osoyoos museum lately?

And not all of the content is, in fact, from museums - for example the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, the Sun-Yat Sen Memorial Gardens and the Doig River First Nations have been funded.

Having said this, the VMC, as much as I like the general idea, is not the only way to achieve this. I would like to see more travelling exhibitions of the kind which could be put into shopping malls and schools - not the Mummies of Egypt blockbuster stuff. Take real things to the people. And make museums free.

I agree with you conventional museums, archives, etc. also deserve greater funding, but is unfortunate you misunderstand the VMC's role in the museum world, which does legitimately include internet displays. So runningdogofcapitalism, if we accept that the VMC may have crappy language (and a firefox-unfriendly design), do you or don't you favour federal funding for the creation of internet-mounted museum and historical displays?

My opinion? At least there is something to show for this money. Health care is a bottomless pit. Both it and post-secondary education are primarily provincial responsibilites. Cities are, by definition, primarily a municipal responsibility.

For the record, I think gompa's post was un-necessarily personalizing (I suspect s/he was responding to the snarky tone of runningdog's first comment) but thank him for the underlying message of support nonetheless.
posted by Rumple at 12:16 PM on November 27, 2004

I think gompa's post was un-necessarily personalizing

I was just tryin' to have a little fun with the self-righteous condescention in runningdog's first post. If you're gonna try to score big rhetorical points by mocking the vagaries of bureaucratic language, I'm gonna see that as license to take the piss right back.

Anyway, I apologize for getting in any way personal, and I hope that no one feels the need to drag any more links to the sponsorship scandal or further misspellings of my username into this.

And I stand by my original point, which was that using a well-meaning and even in some ways quite well-executed and most definitely not-terribly-expensive Heritage Dept. project as a stepping-off point for an attack on the errors in federal govt spending generally is kind of disingenous.
posted by gompa at 7:11 PM on November 27, 2004

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