This post originally appeared on ActiveHistory.ca in June 2016.
Last month I spent two weeks working in one of my favourite archives: Le Centre de référence de l’Amérique francophone. This archive – run by Quebec’s Museum of Civilization – is one of the oldest in the country, not only holding the records of the Quebec Seminary (which begin in 1623), but also many important documents related to New France and the early relationship between the diverse peoples of northeastern North America, the French Empire and the Catholic church. The archive holds unique Indigenous language documents and is critical for anyone interested in understanding Canada’s early history. With the Centre located in the seminary buildings themselves, the archive remains more or less in situ since the French regime (bearing in mind that the complex has expanded considerably over the intervening centuries). It is these qualities that led to the collection’s 2007 registration in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program; a recognition closely linked to Quebec City’s own place on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.
It came as a shock then that upon my arrival at the Centre in early May I learned from the reference archivist that this might be my final visit to this important archival collection. On 23 June this archive is scheduled to close for an indefinite amount of time as the Museum of Civilization struggles to meet its budgetary needs.On 24 May, I wrote a letter to the museum’s director, Stéphan La Roche, outlining my concerns about these changes. In his reply, M. La Roche indicated that the decision was a result of a lengthy period of funding cuts combined with increases in the museum’s operating costs (municipal taxes, energy, and collective agreements) and that the museum is currently working through a number of funding scenarios to keep this important institution open in addition to ensuring that key collections are available online. Until a solution is found, however, the archives will remain closed for in-person consultation.
This closure builds on a fairly widespread culture of institutional retrenchment in the research capacity of our most important and cherished cultural institutions. Though there have been some improvements in recent years, following the devastating cuts inflicted on federal institutions by the previous Conservative government the story of funding for our libraries, archives, and museums has been one focused on front-end ‘wow’ factor building projects, while research units have slowly (and in some cases quickly) atrophied. According to the Globe and Mail, Canada’s museums are underfunded by about $20-million each year, while, at the expense of research and curation, facilities costs are taking an ever larger piece of the pie. The fact that M. La Roche and the museum’s board felt compelled to close one of Canada’s most significant archival collections in order to maintain their institution’s overall financial viability is testament to the systemic nature of these problems.
The Centre de référence de l’Amérique francophone is one of this country’s archival treasures. It holds documents that cannot be found elsewhere, such as original manuscript copies of the Jesuit Relations, early accounts of missionaries visiting places and peoples throughout North America, and maps and legislation like the two documents included above. As such, the expertise of its staff, six of whom have been laid off as part of this retrenchment, is similarly specialized. The loss of their knowledge about the collection and how best to navigate it will also deeply affect how researchers interact with the collection in the future. On a personal note, reference archivist Peter Gagné’s expertise has made a tangible difference in my own academic work, pointing me towards documents that I might not otherwise have consulted and shaping my interpretations through our discussions about them. I am sure that many historians will identify with me in pointing towards archivists like Peter, without whom our work would be substantially more difficult.
Below you will find a translation of a letter written by Martin Pâquet, the president of the Institut d’histoire de l’Amérique française, outlining his organization’s response to this closure. The IHAF is solicting additional signatures through this Google Document until Tuesday. Currently (June 5 2016), the petition has 130 signatures. In addition to signing this letter, I encourage you to write letters to Luc Fortin, Quebec’s minister of Communication and Culture, Régis Labeaume, mayor of Québec, and Mélanie Joly, Minister of Canadian Heritage objecting to this type of institutional retrenchment, and encouraging sustainable funding for the Centre de référence de l’Amérique francophone and similar struggling museums and archives. After all, these types of decisions are just as political in nature as they are budgetary. I would also encourage you to use the comments section on this post as a place where we can aggregate and demonstrate the widespread concerns over the impending closure of this important research centre and the broader damage that this type of decision-making has had on our national, region and local museums, archives and libraries.
The Museum of Civilization: A Public Institution or Digital Warehouse?
Can a public museum without a research service and whose archives are inaccessible to researchers actually call itself a museum? Without dedicated staff and researchers to interpret the value of museum collections, would it not merely become a simple warehouse of collections that, while remarkable, would slowly be forgotten?
These questions must be asked as Quebec’s Museum of Civilization (MCQ) began, on 1 April, the complete dismantling of their research service; they are currently preparing to close their archival reading room on 23 June. In the latter case, the MCQ has indicated that the closure will be temporary, though they have not indicated when they expect the archives to eventually reopen.
A Clear and Explicit Mandate
The National Museums Act (LQ, c. M-44) is clear, section 24.1 assigns the MCQ three principle functions: “to make known the history and the various cultural elements of our civilization… to ensure the preservation and development of the ethnographic collection and other representative collections of our civilization; to ensure the participation of Québec in the international network of museological events through acquisitions, exhibitions and other cultural activities.”
Additionally, MCQ policies state that the museum “takes an active role in the development of museum sciences and skill sharing as well as in the delivery of collaborative programs.” Much of this mandate was met through the work of researchers, curators and archivists. Many of MCQ’s successful permanent exhibits were the result of investment in these highly qualified staff members. Specifically, think of the reference exhibits such as This is Our Story (on First Nation’s history), People of Quebec… Then and Now, and On the Road, which are convincing proof of the crucial role of research within museums.
The archives at MCQ are exceptional, as UNESCO has recognized. The museum’s National Collection includes Quebec’s ethnographic collection, First Peoples collections, the collections of the Seminary of Quebec, and many old and rare books. Professor of Museology and Heritage, Yves Bergeron, underlined this collection’s profound social relevance: the Seminary Museum’s 1995 integration with MCQ was to further a mission that aimed “to compile collections to be used in the pursuit of knowledge and education.” These rich cultural resources comprise about 625,000 objects and documents.
The Depletion of a Public Institution
As a public institution, the mission of the MCQ has come under threat by recent administrative decisions. It is difficult to understand the dismantling of a research unit and the laying off of six professionals, two of which are conservators and one an archivist. It will now be much harder for the MCQ to contribute to the development of museological knowledge using resources from within its own walls, and to share its expertise and actively collaborate with other institutions around the world. This decision will bring about a major loss for the MCQ, depriving the museum of the expertise it needs to accomplish the functions bestowed upon it through the National Museums Act.
The temporary closure of the archival reading room is especially worrying. Blaming financial troubles, the MCQ proposes to put their archival collection online without assuring the ability to physically consult the collection. Of course this digital initiative is positive and will allow the MCQ to keep up with the times and reach new publics. There are, however, many additional concerning questions which arise from this decision: When will the digitization be complete? Which documents will be digitized? Will it be all of the collection, or just a selection? Why must the reading room close at the same time as this initiative begins? As other institutions have demonstrated, by acting on both fronts, these are many avoidable worries. The British Museum, the French National Library, the Library of Congress, and even Quebec’s Augustine Monastery have put millions of archival documents online over the past few years, while continuing to guarantee researchers access to their reading rooms and archivists.
Similarly concerning is how this decision threatens the international and special recognition that one of the treasures of this collection has received. In 2007, UNESCO registered the Quebec Seminary’s archival collection (1623-1800) as part of its Memory of the World Program. One of the predominant criteria is the authenticity of the documents consulted. Digitization of archives does not guarantee this authenticity.
The Relevance of the Mission
The MCQ is a remarkable museum. It defines its existence by developing knowledge through its expert staff and consultation with its exceptional collections; these resources belong to all of Quebec society. The recent administrative decisions taken by the museum’s management will have a significant impact on this foundational aspect of the institution’s future. We therefore wish to express to the directors of the MCQ and the Minister of Culture and Communication our deep concerns about this decision before it threatens the very relevance of the MCQ’s mission.