Museums in Canada from the 1960s–1990s

The 1960s for Canadian museums: 1960 — 1969

The 1960s were heady years for the Canadian Museums Association (CMA), with the infusion of millions of dollars for new museums and additions to old ones. Government supported historical projects were designed to commemorate Canada's 100th birthday, and CMA publications abounded with announcements of centennial projects and ads for new jobs. The influx of centennial money created hundreds of museum jobs — almost too many.

"Suddenly there was a shortage of talent," Donald Crowdis, a founding CMA member, recalled. People with commercial backgrounds and experience designing store windows got involved in designing Expo '67 exhibits and they continued on in museums afterwards. This change in personnel created an accidental philosophical shift in museums, Crowdis added, with objects taking a back seat to displays.

Yet, for the first time, it paid to work in museums. It was in the 1960s that working in museums became a career — and therefore, training was essential. Individual members were given voting rights in the late 1960s, which shifted the focus of the CMA to the nature of the museum profession itself. The first Museums Association Diploma examinations were held concurrently in Canada and England in November 1963.

Birthdays are also a time of reflection, and 1967 saw the CMA turn 20 years old. In keeping with the centennial theme, the organization decided to take stock of itself. Lest the original spirit of the organization become stagnant, the centennial goal within the organization became a question of defining what the CMA should be doing to further benefit its members by 1967. CMA president Loris S. Russell wrote:

"When I was a lot younger, I lived on what passed for a farm, and on windy days I used to delight in standing up to my shoulders watching the heads of grain bowing in unison as the wind billowed through them. With only a little imagination the field became an ocean and I a traveler on it, borne along by great waves. It is possible in an association such as this, to fall into the same sort of trance and to feel buoyed along by the impression of great movement. When I was a little boy I always felt a little sad each time to have to face reality - the realization that the sea of wheat around me wasn't actually moving and neither was I."

Russell suggested that an affirmation of faith in the association was in order. The CMA set up a standing centennial committee in 1964 to try and raise $25,000 to set up a permanent Secretariat Office in Ottawa. It opened in 1965 on Sparks Street with Archie Key as field director. With the office came a psychological shift for CMA members — now they had a budget, paid employees, money for projects and space to set up a reference library.

Test Your Knowledge Circa 1964


The 1970s at the CMA: 1970 — 1979

If the shift in museums in the 1960s was to look inward at the museum profession itself, then steps to strengthen the profession dominated the 1970s. The National Museum Policy was established in 1972, and with it came a steadier stream of financial aid from the government. It's initial disbursement totaled just over $9.4 million — or, accounting for inflation, approximately $55 million in 2017. This stream of income allowed the CMA to further encourage the formation of basic training programs in the provinces, as well as the development of an awards program, the appointment of CMA Fellows, and a more inclusive bilingual national dialogue. This new money also meant more control and influence by the government.

In keeping with the theme of strengthening the profession, the CMA's monthly publication the Gazette, began running monthly museological provincial profiles. Each issue detailed what was happening in a single province, allowing members from across Canada to learn more about the work of their colleagues. These spotlights crossed the country, from one coast to the other — a sure indication of a rise in the activity and development of provincial museum associations. Prince Edward Island, for example, was showcased in 1973 — the centennial of its entry into confederation.

Spring of 1975 saw the Gazette's project reach the opposite coast, as it detailed the happenings in British Columbia. Martin Segger, a museums advisor for the B.C. provincial museum, wrote that the museums sector in B.C. was experiencing tremendous growth. This development was only an indication of a much larger trend happening across the country: a rapid expansion in the number, size, and budgets of heritage conservation agencies. "Part of this growth has been stimulated by the rising tide of Canadian nationalism and the growing awareness in schools of the educational value of museums, "he wrote. "In the last eight years membership in the British Columbia Museums Association has tripled."

Training was the CMA's single largest program in the early 1970s. But already, decentralization was beginning. Basic training courses were being handed over to provincial associations wherever possible. In the long range, members believed the CMA would become a liaison and advisory body to oversee training, and encourage universities and colleges to develop degree-granting programs. Eventually, of course, that's exactly what happened.

The educational component of museums, and the partnerships that could be forged between universities and museums continued to be explored throughout this decade in the pages of the Gazette. For instance, in 1977 CMA member Louise Stevenson wrote: "The most obvious feature of most natural history museums is the extremely large specimens: few university departments have space for a mounted giant gorilla, an elephant, the skeleton of a dinosaur, [or] a large whale … What we have to offer is the museum specimen: the unique, the irreplaceable, the 'real thing.'"


The 1980s at the CMA: 1980 — 1989

The 1960s and 1970s were marked mostly by prosperity in Canada's museums, but a new age was ushered in with the 1980s — government cut backs. In 1982-3, for various reasons, over half of the directors of the major museums in Canada left their positions. And while an optimistic hope percolated — that fresh faces would also bring fresh ideas and healthy change — the CMA also faced the prospect of being the voice of continuity in a time of rapid change.

Muse Magazine began its run in 1983, replacing the Gazette. This latest incarnation of the CMA's national publication made issues its top priority, and worked to establish a dialogue within the museums community. The magazine began publishing a regular feature entitled, simply, Conversation. One notable such tête-à-tête was to be had between CMA staff and Gérard Pelletier to discuss the nuances of the National Museums Policy and his thoughts about the Applebaum-Hébert Report. Another notable Conversation was had with Canadian culture minister Flora MacDonald.

Around the same time, the CMA shifted more of its attention to advocacy, and more than ever before became the countrywide voice for the advancement of museums and museum professionals. In 1983, John McAvity, CMA's executive director, wrote: "The era of growth and expansion of the last two decades is clearly over and today we face the realities of a new era — cutbacks in grants and donations, mounting museums deficits, reductions of programmes and the shelving of very deserving plans. It is ironic that these are happening without any apparent reduction in our attendance."

All of the fiscal cutbacks gave rise to a renewed dialogue on the marketing of museums. On one hand, many heralded marketing as a way to look to consumers as a source of much-needed funds, while for others, marketing carried a negative cachet — associated with outright manipulation, exploitation and hucksterism. Entire issues of Muse were dedicated to exploring if and how marketing and museums could fit together.

McAvity also placed a high priority on the role of communications in the CMA. "In a country as large as Canada and with a profession as small as ours, an effective communications system is essential to unite us, for the sharing of news and ideas and for the advancement of our community."

Theme issues were introduced in the mid-1980s and eventually became the norm. In the summer issue of Muse in 1988, for example, the hot topic of discussion was Bill C-54: eroticism versus pornography. Numerous articles were submitted exploring this tenuous issue, and its potential influence on museums and art galleries in Canada: "the debates about Bill C-54 have tended to polarize people into either the pro-censorship or anti-censorship camp," wrote Miriam Clavir, a conservator at the UBC Museums of Anthropology. "If the bill becomes law museums/galleries will be faced with displaying work of art behind warnings or opaque wrappers, and artists will face guidelines of what is or is not appropriate to create."


The 1990s at the CMA: 1990 — 1999

The 1990s saw a continued cycle of repression in the Canadian museum landscape. The CMA had to face cut after cut to its funding, as did individual museums. The Museums Assistance Program was to suffer a 38% cut for the 1995/6 fiscal year — to its lowest level of funding on record to that point. For the first time in history, museums became painfully aware of their status as a business and the age-old dilemma of art and economics emerged with unprecedented urgency. CMA members used their magazine to dialogue about possible resolutions covering the widest range of options imaginable from "museums as theme parks" to "temples of knowledge." The question on tips of tongues was whether museums would maintain their status as producers of knowledge, or if they had become simply disseminators, more in keeping with the information society.

In the face of record layoffs, mounting deficits, fewer exhibitions and in several cases, permanent closure, the CMA began to offer insurance group plans, group discount ad rates, a mail-order catalogue, professional seminars and bursaries. Sadly, the waiving of membership fees for those members who lost their jobs due to cutbacks became a reality.

"Advocacy Alerts" also began in the 1990s, to let members know when there was an opportunity to speak out for museums: "We want to give the good and bad news, the moment it breaks," said John McAvity.

In 1996, reminiscent of 1982/3, there was again another great turnover in the directorship of Canadian museums. The number of departures from prominent managerial roles was far higher than normal; being a director was a very tough job in the new economic reality, and became primarily about economic development instead of new programs, research opportunities and new acquisitions.

The CMA managed to remain optimistic in such dour times. In 1997, the year that the CMA turned 50, new strategic alliances were formed as a way to create a stronger voice coming from the cultural sector. The CMA joined forces with Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA), the Canadian Federation of Friends of Museums (CFFM) and the Canadian Council of Science Centres (CCSC). The CMA also built administrative partnerships with ICOM-Canada, and the Canadian Art Museums Directors Organization (CAMDO).

These alliances allowed the CMA a stronger voice in advocacy, and an opportunity to speak in concert with related national organizations and respond to the new globalized economy. Seen as a way to mobilize people with specialized knowledge and expertise, they became a forum for networking, information sharing and peer support.