Changes at McCord worry scholars

by Eric Smith

A plan to restructure the operations of the McCord Museum of Canadian History is meeting with opposition from some McGill academics who use the museum's archives.

The plan, approved by the museum's board of directors in January, emphasizes the curatorial and exhibition mandate of the museum over its research and archival functions. Grants to the museum have decreased in recent years and board members hope the plan will increase the institution's revenues and help it out of its deficit.

But the focus on marketing the museum's collections to the public at large has scholars concerned about access to its historically valuable archives.

Many of the archives which belong to McGill will be returned to the University. Documents which relate to the museum's collections, as well as its prestigious Notman photographic archive, will remain in the care of the McCord.

In addition, some peripheral material is expected to be sold to other archives and institutions. The museum has also laid off its permanent archivist.

McGill history professor Brian Young says he and his students have relied extensively on their access to the museum's archives for their research. "There are collections there that are absolutely essential to the historian," he says.

"For students trying to understand the past, it is an incredibly important teaching resource." Young adds that archivist Pamela Miller's knowledge of the breadth of the collection was indispensable to his students' research work.

McCord executive director Claude Benoit says the University had no choice but to restructure. She emphasizes that academics will continue to have access to the historical archive collection, but it will be through a newly created collection management and access service.

And although historians will no longer be able to draw on the expertise of a museum archivist, Benoit promises that catalogues of the collection will be searchable through a computer system.

"There will be a net improvement to the historical archives through information technology," she asserts. "But we will not provide a reference service."

Over the next two months, access to the archives will be limited to those who began their research before the board's decision. After that, new applicants will have to use the collection management and access service.

The museum will use the two-month period to review its archives in consultation with curatorial, archival and academic professionals to determine which portions will revert to the University's custody.

History student Steven Watt is studying the Special Council of Lower Canada in 19th century Quebec. At the McCord, he has access to many of the councillors' personal documents and is concerned about their fate after the museum's proposed restructuring.

Watt has written to Principal Bernard Shapiro, has published an opinion piece in the McGill Daily and is helping to circulate a petition asking that the museum board's decision be reconsidered. Since his research work began before the board's decision, Watt continues to have access to the archives. And with the help of the museum's archivist, he has compiled the list of documents he needs to consult.

"My main concern is about students in the future," he says. "Seminars I took at the museum were an excellent introduction to the archives."

Watt says the transfer of archives to McGill may not have a detrimental effect "as long as McGill has the resources to manage them." But he adds, "It is unfortunate that they will no longer be stored in the top-notch facilities the museum has."

The archives at the McCord are currently stored in a climate-controlled environment and according to Young, they will be more at risk for degradation if they are moved to McGill.

Acting Vice-Principal (Advancement & Alumni Relations) David Bourke, the chair of the museum's finance and administration committee, agrees that McGill's archives don't have the physical facilities to match the McCord's, but adds, "McGill has the professionals to take excellent care of the archives."

Care for historical archives belonging to McGill was entrusted to the McCord in 1987 under a custodial agreement that made them available to academics.

Young argues the board's restructuring decision is "turning its back on a partnership with the University. It's an essential attempt to move the museum away from McGill."

But for Bourke, "The bottom line is keeping the McCord Museum open. And we can do that by reaching out to the public with good exhibitions."