Artful Blogger

The Artful Blogger: Museum of History skips Canada’s past in Viking

So, why the snub of Snorri and his mom? Snorri Thorfinnsson, of sturdy Viking stock, was the first European baby ever born in the Americas. That was around the year 1000 C.E. His place of birth was at or near L’Anse-aux-Meadows, on the island of Newfoundland.

The Viking exhibition currently running at the Canadian Museum of History says not one word about Snorri, who later moved to Iceland, became a successful farmer and trader while his mother, Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, found religion, went on a pilgrimage to Rome, returned to Iceland and lived a nun-like existence thereafter.

Newfoundlanders were doing Christian pilgrimages to Rome 1,100 years ago? How could the museum pass up a chance to tell the story of Snorri, Gudrid and all those other Vikings that once lived in Canada? And why is the Viking settlement of L’Anse-aux-Meadows all but left out of the exhibition? And, perhaps most importantly, why is there no mention of the ground-breaking research by Patricia Sutherland, a former museum archaeologist, into extended Viking trading contacts with the indigenous inhabitants of Baffin Island 1,000 years ago?

The Vikings exhibition contains 500 artifacts from the The Swedish History Museum in Stockholm. It is termed a “turn-key” exhibition, which means Sweden did all the work for this globe-trotting show. The Canadian Museum of History merely had to open the doors and install the Viking swords, amulets, and jewellery.

There was another Vikings exhibition at what was then called the Canadian Museum of Civilization in 2002. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga was organized by the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

That time the Gatineau museum added Canadian content, specifically artifacts Sutherland had researched to reveal 1,000-year-old trading links between Vikings and the Dorset people, the indigenous inhabitants of Baffin Island who pre-date the arrival of the Inuit. In the current exhibition, a map showing the various areas of the globe in which Vikings traded does not include Baffin Island, even though proof of that commerce rests within the Gatineau museum’s vaults.

The museum of history was asked about the lack of Canadian content in the current Viking exhibition. “The Viking/Norse presence in North America will be covered in the new Canadian History Hall, which will open on July 1, 2017,” replied museum spokeswoman Stéphanie Verner.

Back in 2002, Sutherland was being given rock star treatment by the museum because of her research that was essentially rewriting Canadian history. Then in 2012 Sutherland was fired. The museum later claimed Sutherland had “harassed” colleagues but released no details.

Let’s assume for a moment that Sutherland committed some workplace sins. The quality of her work, however, does not seem in question. She continues to enjoy the respect of her peers around the world. She lectures in universities. She publishes research in scientific journals. She is a celebrated scientist everywhere — but in Gatineau. So, why not feature her work in the current exhibition?

Sutherland is denied access to the research materials she assembled while employed by the museum. In a recent email interview, she discussed her case and lamented the lack of Canadian content in the current exhibition.

“Naturally, I think it would have been important to at least mention the discoveries that have been made in Newfoundland and from the Canadian Arctic, including information about finds from the High Arctic that were made in the 1970s and those made more recently as part of my Helluland Project,” Sutherland wrote. “Canadians have shown considerable interest in these findings and the work that my collaborators and I have undertaken is being viewed as opening a new chapter in the early history of Canada …. I am still in the process of trying to gain access to my work, and with funds that I had at one of the universities with which I have been affiliated I managed to get back to the Nanook site on Baffin island this past summer for another field season. I continue to involve the local community in the work, which is important to them, give invited lectures at universities and conferences, and speak to the broader public about the research.  I still hope that I will be successful in gaining access to all of my research so that more of the story can be told. There is a 4000-signature petition supporting this goal.”

The man who fired Sutherland, albeit based on evidence assembled during the reign of his predecessor, is museum president Mark O’Neill. He is rather preoccupied these days following orders from the previous Conservative government to remake the Canadian Museum of Civilization into the Canadian Museum of History.

O’Neill is also fighting for his job. He was originally appointed to a five-year term by the Stephen Harper government in 2011. This past June, a full year before his term was due to expire, he was reappointed for five more years, effective June 2016, meaning he was to retain the job until 2021. However, the Liberal government has asked O’Neill and 32 other order-in-council appointments in a similar situation to resign and re-apply for their jobs. So far, there was been no public comment from O’Neill. It is unclear what the Liberal government will do if he refuses to resign.