So there I was at the Bytown Museum savouring local history. I was fascinated by the plaster cast made from the hand of the very dead Thomas D’Arcy McGee after his assassination on Sparks Street April 7, 1868. I marvelled at the brass clock hand, almost a metre in length, that graced the Victoria Tower of Parliament before the original buildings were destroyed by fire Feb. 3, 1916. And then there was the slide show of Mexican Day of the Dead festivities.
Now, why, you may wonder, was such a slide show doing at a museum dedicated to celebrating the history of Canada’s capital? Before answering, take note there were more, many more, inappropriate objects, all of them Mexican, mere steps away from displays on Col. John By, engineer of the Rideau Canal, and Joseph Montferrand, the legendary Ottawa River raftsman whose surname was once proposed by Quebec bureaucrats as the moniker for the amalgamated city of Aylmer-Hull-Gatineau.
Along with the slideshow, there was a cornucopia of Mexican trinkets: contemporary knock-offs of masks used in ancient dances, embroidery, textiles, photos of indigenous people and text panels boasting of the increased trade relationship between Canada and Mexico. These words and objects are all part of a new Bytown exhibition, lasting almost a year, called Mexico Fantastico! (The exclamation mark is courtesy of the Bytown, not me.)
Now, I have nothing against Mexico. In fact, I spend part of every year there. I love Mexican art and crafts. A large percentage of my time in Mexico is spent visiting the country’s many wonderful museums, including some specializing in folk art and quality handicrafts. Every visitor to Mexico City should stop at the Museo de Arte Popular. It is a real gem and elevates gaudily painted wooden monsters called alebrijes into fascinating cultural touchstones.
Simply put, Mexico Fantastico! is not fantastico. It resembles a low-end souvenir shop at the Mexico City airport or a display at a trade show designed to lure package tourists to Mexican beaches. All that is missing is a draw for a free bottle of tequila.
In a May 3 communique, the Bytown’s executive director, Robin Etherington, seemed to anticipate some head-scratching provoked by the Mexican exhibition: “Etherington explains the reason for this exhibition in a community museum is because the Mexican community is a vibrant part of the Ottawa community that is comprised of a number of significant groups from around the world. Also, Ottawa is the Capital of Canada and its diplomatic centre that brings together international cultures and ideas to enhance the City of Ottawa and enriches the learning opportunities of our young people and deepens our appreciation for Ottawa and Canada’s crucial place in the world.” She adds that “the Bytown Museum’s mandate is the history of Ottawa and that entails the various ethnic groups and world cultures that make up Ottawa. It is the museum’s distinct honour to partner with the Embassy of Mexico and the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Gatineau to present to our community people and travelling visitors a fun exhibition to enjoy and learn about México and Ottawa.’”
How do you say “long-winded claptrap” in Spanish?
What’s next? An exhibition on ethical manufacturers in Bangladesh? The joys of surfing in Indonesia? How does that all fit with Lady Minto’s 1900-era elegant black gown tucked away in one corner of the museum?
The Bytown Museum, like most small museums, has little money to spend on exhibitions. Ordinarily, the museum does a magnificent job with a tiny budget.
Embassies, even when paying most or all costs, struggle to find venues to showcase exhibitions of art and artifacts from back home. Galerie Montcalm, Gatineau’s leading art gallery, occasionally does so-called “embassy” shows. The Canadian Museum of Civilization has developed close ties with state museums in other countries. But Ottawa’s galleries and museums are generally more reluctant to become part of the embassy circuit. Evidently, not the Bytown Museum.
The Mexican embassy deserves credit for many programs over the years introducing its country’s art, music and other cultural products to Canadians. In fact, the Mexicans are one of the more active embassies in this field. However, Mexico Fantastico! is not what we have come to expect.
Dear old Col. By must be spinning in his grave as he listens to the endless recorded mariachi music playing nearby.