Artful Blogger

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: Norman Bethune exhibition coming to the Canada Science and Technology Museum

By Paul Gessell

"Bethune" by Gary Haggquist. Acrylic and collage on canvas, 36"x 36", 2008.

Some of Stephen Harper’s Conservative backbenchers flew into a rage this summer upon learning the federal government was spending $2.5 million on a new visitors’ centre at the Norman Bethune Memorial House in Gravenhurst, Ont., the birthplace of the famed battlefield doctor 170 kilometres north of Toronto.

The outraged Tories complained Bethune (1890-1939) was a Communist, so federal tax dollars should not be spent to honour his memory, even though the Gravenhurst centre is a magnet for tourists, especially from China, who hold a more positive view of the doctor lionized by Mao Zedong.

“I don’t doubt there’s a lot of people who get warm and fuzzy when they think of Norman Bethune,” Conservative MP Rob Anders was quoted in the Sun newspapers as saying. “They’re probably left-leaning. But he doesn’t warm the cockles of my heart.”

So, expect to hear similar comments in coming years as the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa prepares a joint Bethune exhibition with China’s Soong Ching Ling Foundation Research Centre.

A memorandum of understanding was signed in June by the museum’s chief executive officer, Denise Amyot, during a visit to China. That agreement was one of 12 between Canadian museums and Chinese organizations planning to collaborate on future projects.

These agreements were the culmination of the third Canada-China Cultural Dialogue organized by the Canadian Fund for International Understanding through Culture (Can4Culture) and its counterpart in China, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, an agency of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The meetings built upon talks by Prime Minister Harper and the Chinese President, Hu Jintao, in February this year calling for greater “cultural exchanges.”

Yves St. Onge, vice-president of public affairs and marketing at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, says a date has not yet been set for the Bethune exhibition. But it is coming and it will involve artifacts from the Canadian museum and from China.

Bethune became famous for developing lifesaving battlefield medicine techniques initially in the Spanish Civil War and later in China during the Communists’ long march to power. Bethune’s work in China made him a hero of the Communist revolution.

Other museums that signed agreements in China in June include Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, Markham Museum and the Varley Art Gallery, both in Markham, McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, and the Museum of Vancouver. So, expect to see many Chinese-themed exhibitions in coming years across the country.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization signed a similar agreement in China in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Civilization created an exhibition of First Nations artifacts for China and, in return, Canada received an exhibition of ancient Chinese cultural treasures.

These agreements are win-win situations. Civilization has signed such agreements with Japan, Mexico, and other countries. The Science and Tech museum is new to the game, but is keen on the Bethune exhibition and has, on its wish list, an exhibition some day that would focus on ancient scientific achievements by Arab countries. There will surely be a backbencher to complain about that, too.