New position, same passion

November 4, 2011 Mark O’Neill

Taking the helm of two of our largest national museums is no easy task, but Mark O’Neill knew what to expect when he accepted responsibility for the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation (CMCC). After 10 years in various positions within the CMCC, he has honed his skills as a manager and cultivated his passion for the preservation of our heritage.

Sharing knowledge
When the federal government approved the construction of a new building for the Canadian War Museum in 2001, a major mobilization effort was triggered: construction, move-out, move-in…and a million other details to negotiate. Amidst this whirlwind of activity, The War Museum team took the opportunity to re-think how the Museum would fulfill its mandate: to remember, to preserve, to educate.

Even during a good year, fewer than 140,000 visitors would set foot in the old building on Sussex Drive. The facility was so cramped that most of the collections were stored in an old streetcar garage that had been converted into a warehouse. Under such conditions, it was quite difficult to attract visitors and provide them with a rich learning experience.

The new building, inaugurated in 2005, allowed the Canadian War Museum to write a new page of Canada’s rich military history. The nation now boasted a modern museum that was inspiring, attractive and educational. Since it opened its doors, the number of visitors has more than tripled to nearly 500,000 per year!

If O’Neill’s variety of experience is any indication, this national institution will continue to make important gains in providing visitors with a dynamic and rewarding experience.

Honouring and commemorating
Mark O’Neill has spent so many hours walking the halls of the Canadian War Museum that he knows it like the back of his hand. Yet when we ask him which artifact or exhibit moves him the most personally, his answer may come as a surprise: the Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour.

This tiny space at the heart of the Museum is sometimes overlooked by visitors. “Mistake!” says O’Neill. The hall is a vivid illustration of the dual relationship Canadians have with war and its commemoration. On the one hand, the formal aspect is revealed through such artifacts as the replica of the National War Memorial and the medal worn by Edward VIII at the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial. On the other hand, visitors discover something far more personal: the little Izzy dolls distributed to children living in conflict zones – knit by the mother of master corporal Mark Isfeld, who was killed by an anti-personnel mine in Croatia. Two paths of remembrance, two means of honouring our soldiers.

And to ensure that such memories do not fade, the Canadian War Museum is preparing a major commemorative event. Mark O’Neill has announced that an important exhibition will mark the 100th anniversary of First World War – an exhibition that will pay tribute to the seminal role the conflict has played in our military history.