Not-so-secret Identity

States have brands; our own government says so. In 1995, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs declared that a “country that does not project a clearly defined image of what it is and what it represents is doomed to anonymity (italics added).” So why does Canada’s identity remain so ethereal? And who can make it more tangible?

In August 2003, Globe and Mail columnist David MacFarlane warned that Torontonians were losing their bearings through a seemingly trivial practice: condo developers borrowing the monikers of famous neighbourhoods or buildings in other cities – “SoHo,” “The Dakota,” “The Metropolitan” – instead of using or creating distinct Canadian names. A month later, in the National Post, Lawrence Solomon declared we no longer know what it means to be Canadian. The target of his ire: a booklet produced by the federal government informing prospective citizens on what they need to know before joining our club. Its failure to value the past, he cautions, “demeans all Canadians by stripping us of our history, our culture, our distinctiveness and our values.”

We suffer from identity paralysis: able to express who we’re not – i.e., American – yet unable to express who we are. Knowing yourself is the sine qua non of effective management and decision-making in any organization, whether you’re the Canadian Museums Association, the Canadian government or Canadian Tire. Employees – and citizens – must be able to define their organization or their state and promote its vision.

Clarity about identity clarifies decision-making and establishes parameters so citizens and politicians alike know when and how to act. A strong brand is like a pilot guiding the ship of state to safety. Without it, we risk being lost at sea.

The truth is, history gives most Canadians heartburn. Life would be easier if we had, like Americans, a single founding myth. We don’t. Our past does not bind us and cannot be used as a measuring stick of our national identity. It’s not that we’re ahistorical; history simply doesn’t figure in our everyday thinking.

I’m not saying history is irrelevant. But I think our developing myths are more important. It sounds clichéd, and perhaps it is: our country is the sum of its citizens’ diverse experiences. And that trait should make us innately good at branding. Brands have to continuously reassess the identity question; those failing to demonstrate their relevance will wither. Revealing the true essence of the current Canadian experience will come only when all manifestations of identity are subject to change and evolution.

Determining the relevance of Canada’s brand requires, in short, a healthy dose of critical thinking. So, where’s the catalyst to inspire such a discussion? The answer is clear: museums. As a focal point for continuing education (they are, after all, most peoples’ only real connection to higher learning – in the conventional sense – after graduation), it should be museums’ responsibility to encourage intellectual thinking: not tell citizens what to think, but to direct their thinking through reading, reflection, and discussion.

This does not mean Canada should be distilled to a single image of a Mountie, a totem pole, a canoe or a lonely Jack pine. In Britain(TM): Renewing our identity, Mark Leonard writes that countries redefining their national brand need a range of “new stories that both reach back into our history and project forward into the future.” For Canada, this is perfect. Our collective memory is remarkably diverse, and we have museums in which the full range of Canadians can see themselves and understand each other.

You don’t stumble upon identity. It must be actively and purposely revealed. We need a national project to discuss and evaluate the Canadian brand; a campaign to reveal what ordinary Canadians believe they actually stand for, the traits that best represent Canada, and where we have, in the past, wrongly expressed what it means to be Canadian. Not a project where corporate and political elites impose decisions, but one influenced by the grass roots. After all, citizens are the ultimate custodians of the brand; they must decide.

Discover a museum, discover Canada“: a campaign all museums – big or small, national or rural- can share.

Detractors may think getting museums to collaborate on such a campaign will be like trying to herd cats. But American independent bookstores managed, and could there be a group more difficult to organize than hundreds of independent, entrepreneurial booksellers? The success of their Booksense campaign demonstrates the good things that happen when loose fish band together (in another context, Sir John A. Macdonald said the same thing more than 125 years ago). Booksense works at both local and national levels to expose the public to independent booksellers who share their knowledge and passion for reading with their communities. Collaboration has given independents the size and stature to compete against superstores, and has led to innovative marketing collaborations: the History Channel has added complementary reading suggestions from Booksense to its programs.

Are people willing to be engaged about national identity? Time and again, the general public has revealed an appetite for thinking about and experiencing what it means to be a citizen. People want history or the natural environment to come to life. They want compelling stories that engage their imagination. They want membership in a common endeavor.

What’s in it for museums? To assert their own significance, museums have to deliver meaning, vitality, and relevance. Exploring national identity goes to the heart of what most museums crave: intellectual leadership. Museums can help Canadians develop their capacity for thinking, and good thinkers are good citizens. And when museums are recognized as enhancing awareness of Canadian history and identity, they will develop a more loyal public, creating a positive cycle of benefits.

Molson’s “I AM CANADIAN” ads capture snippets of our identity and have lots of fun while selling lots of beer. But what more is there to tell? Museums know.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), January 2004)

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