I have no idea why the Bytown Museum thinks anyone should care if John McCrae, author of the touchstone poem “In Flanders Field,” was gay.
On the day New York State finally allowed gay marriage, on the eve of the American military finally dismantling its infamous “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, this little museum on the banks of the Rideau Canal decided it was necessary – important – to make something that shouldn’t matter sound scurrilous.
If someone else wants to tell that story, then let them — but not the Bytown Museum, it’s not their story. Sadly, it is trying to make a name for itself by being salacious and might as well hang up a sign: “We have to resort to these tactics because we’re a poorly-managed organization and in trouble.”
The Bytown Museum, housed in Ottawa’s oldest building, is a small but potentially-important museum on the banks of the Rideau Canal at the famed Ottawa Locks. It’s collection has a unique focus: pre-Confederation, 19th century Ottawa, a time when the town – then city – was more notable for being a rough-and-tumble timber town than a political capital. No one else tells this story, but the Bytown Museum has never been able to figure out how to mine its potential. Now, rather than telling its own story effectively – one that might actually make it seem like an engaging and useful organization – the museum is hoping a gimmick attracts attention. Larger museums do the same: importing blockbuster exhibitions that have no connection to their core purpose. And this exhibit on John McCrae — a doctor from Guelph, west of Toronto — has nothing to do with the Bytown Museum’s mandate or permanent collection; just a crass attempt at attention-seeking.
If the Bytown Museum has long been overlooked and deemed unimportant its not because of a lousy location, or any failing of its subject matter: it’s because its managers have failed to effectively tell its unique story. Telling a gossipy story that (a) is irrelevant and (b) doesn’t concern the museum is no way to attract meaningful attention. The museum needs to stick to its knitting: bring some imagination to broadly promoting a sense of importance about its core focus. That’s how to build and maintain a community that will see value and support its work.