PROFILE: Talking plans with Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Mark O’Neill

PROFILE: Talking plans with Canadian Museum of Civilization CEO Mark O’Neill

Mark O’Neill steps out from the shadow of Victor Rabinovitch, taking over from his more theatrical predecessor as CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation
by Paul Gessell

Photography by Luther Caverly

Mark O’Neill sounds like the kind of man every father wishes his daughter would marry. He is a hard-working, family-oriented, church-going Kiwanis Club member who, when asked to name his local heroes, cites broadcaster Max Keeping, businessman Dave Smith, and his father, William O’Neill — men about town who have managed to combine successful careers with high-profile philanthropy. For O’Neill, wild and crazy means a well-timed joke, a slight spikiness to the hair, dancing up a storm at office parties, and spending evenings at home glued to television’s Turner Classic Movies, hoping an Alfred Hitchcock thriller will appear.

This past summer Stephen Harper’s cabinet appointed O’Neill president and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, the Crown agency that runs the Museum of Civilization and its affiliate, the Canadian War Museum. And though his Irish-Catholic family-values background likely appealed to the current cabinet, O’Neill boasts many other attributes that made him a front-runner when former CEO Victor Rabinovitch announced his retirement.

Indeed, the father of two teenagers has spent his entire working life in Ottawa, in the federal public service, since studying political science at Carleton University. For most of his career, he toiled in such programs as multiculturalism, book publishing, and the protection of cultural property. In hindsight, one could say O’Neill was being groomed for his current job, one of the country’s top cultural posts.

It was in 1996 that O’Neill’s career took a sudden turn. That year he became executive assistant to Victor Rabinovitch, then an assistant deputy minister at Heritage. The low-key, nose-to-the-grindstone O’Neill has been living in the shadow of the far more garrulous and theatrical Rabinovitch off and on since. Rabinovitch became CEO of Civilization Corp. in 2000. A year later he hired his former executive assistant to be Civilization’s corporate secretary. From there, O’Neill steadily worked his way up the executive ladder, becoming director of the War Museum and then succeeding the retiring Rabinovitch as corporate CEO. At 48, O’Neill becomes the chief guardian of such national treasures as Rocket Richard’s No. 9 Canadiens hockey sweater and an impressive collection of Victoria Crosses. He also stickhandles a $70-million budget for the two museums and their 350 full-time employees. Attendance last year was 1.2 million at Civilization and 470,000 at the War Museum.

“In my experience, Mark combines three qualities that stand out: he is serious, he is also very funny, and he is an excellent problem solver,” says Rabinovitch. “He really stands out as someone who does not duck tough issues. He doesn’t disappear strategically, leaving other people to handle controversies or conflicts. He is very ready to look at a situation, seek advice from others, and then find practical solutions. He is not afraid of listening.”

That capacity for problem solving was put to the test when O’Neill was appointed War Museum director in 2007. At the time, the institution was suffering wounds from its own war with veterans and politicians unhappy with an exhibition about Second World War airmen from Bomber Command. Veterans felt they were being depicted as war criminals for carrying out orders to bomb German civilian targets. “Clearly,” says O’Neill, “we had to do two things: we had to resolve the issue and protect the mandate of the museum. I think we did that.” In the end, veterans were content with changes to text panels about Bomber Command, while some historians were aghast at a perceived breach of curatorial freedom.

During his initial years at the War Museum, O’Neill developed a friendship with the late Shirley Thomson, who was then retired after serving in many high-profile cultural jobs, including National Gallery of Canada director. “I regularly sought her advice,” says O’Neill. “She was one of the most gifted arts administrators I ever met.” He is also a disciple of James MacGregor Burns, an American management guru who advocates a “transformational” style of office politics, a system in which the boss problem solves by actively soliciting the suggestions of subordinates rather than just ordering employees to follow a certain course. “People become innovative,” says O’Neill. “They take risks — appropriate risks — and people are held accountable. It’s a much more empowering style. My experience is when you do that with people, it takes them a while to adjust, but they then respond really constructively.”

When interviewed for this article, O’Neill was not yet ready to spell out the changes he envisages for the museums. But he indicated changes are coming, especially in what he called “the presentation of history.” That can be an explosive issue, as O’Neill learned with the Bomber Command controversy.

For guidance, he hopes to cherry-pick ideas from both at home and abroad. But though he cites as inspiration such international venues as the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of Australia, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, O’Neill is also quick to point out that his future plans centre around partnering with more Canadian museums to create and exchange exhibitions. “I think we have a lot to learn from the great museums of the world,” O’Neill said in closing as he prepared to pack up the family for a week of New York sightseeing — a trip that would undoubtedly take in a museum or two.