May 18th is International Museum Day, so let’s talk about how the Winnipeg Police Museum (WPM) displays the history of policing in Winnipeg and what facts it leaves out.
First, museums of all kinds are not neutral. There are choices made in every part of the museum from what items are displayed, what text accompanies them, the marketing a museum uses, and where the museum is located. These decisions are affected not only by curators, but also by the funders of the museum and it’s board of directors.
Police museums are no different. Critical Museum scholars have shown that police museums in Canada do not objectively represent the history of policing. Instead, they are usually integrated into the front of police headquarters and are often run by police unions or retiree groups. The WPM follows these trends, being integrated into the front of Winnipeg’s police headquarters, and is a key site of police propaganda which misrepresents history in order to justify the existence of policing.
To get a deeper understanding of how the WPM tries to justify the role of police in society, I studied the WPM’s annual reports from 2014-2019 which are all available on the City of Winnipeg’s website. In these reports, the museum’s historical omissions are as important as the content they actually include.
One notable omission from the museum’s annual reports was any mention of the founding of the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS). The closest reference I could find was the promotion of a book titled Pioneer Policemen which celebrates the Manitoba Mounted Constabulary, who were one of the early enforcers of colonization on the prairies. There was no mention of Manitoba’s first police chief, John Ingram, who was notoriously corrupt, racist, and was unceremoniously fired due to misconduct, or any honest discussion about the colonial origins of policing in Canada. By not including these histories, the Museum assumes that policing has always existed and is necessary. This limits the ability for visitors of the Museum to have genuine conversations about the role of policing and what real community-led justice might look like.
Another issue the reports skirt around is the anti-Blackness of policing. In a 2018 profile of Allen Mayes, the first Black officer in the WPS who joined in 1975, the report gives a reoccurring assurance that Mayes had “no negative impressions” of the WPS. This statement gestures toward a recognition that police departments are known for their anti-Blackness, but then immediately tries to reassure the reader that the WPS is not anti-Black. The profile also discusses the historical migration of Black people into the Canadian prairie region from Oklahoma after discriminatory laws had been passed in that state. Read alongside language which describes Mayes as a “trailblazer,” this description reinforces the myth of Canadian benevolence in opposition to American racism.
The myth that Canadian police are not anti-Black has been thoroughly critiqued by scholar and activist Robyn Maynard. In her book Policing Black Lives, Maynard documents how in Canada, “despite alarming rates of police abuse and the documented targeting of Black communities, police violence and even killings continue with relatively few consequences for offending offices.” Mayes’ tokenization serves to enforce the idea that anti-Blackness is an “American” problem and that Canadian police do not participate in anti-Black violence. While Mayes very well might have held a positive view of policing, scholars like Maynard have shown that anti-Blackness has a long history in Canadian policing that is ongoing today.
By only presenting select and biased histories of policing, the WPM not only neglects to honestly account for the past, but is invested in telling a particular story about human nature. I found a particularly illustrative example of this in the 2018 annual report of the WPM that discusses police involvement in the annual Santa Claus Parade saying that:
“‘[T]he good’ and ‘the bad’ will often work together for a great cause, and the Museum also has a cadre of convicts who – while on their best behaviour – will join the walking group to hand out candy and other treats to the children.”
I found this passage striking for its division of people into discrete categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and its use of incarcerated people as part of the Police’s own advertising campaign.
By dividing individuals into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ categories, the WPM has articulated a worldview that refuses any critical understanding of how law and morality are not innate, but are produced through the specific histories of colonization and nation building of the Canadian state. In this worldview, the state and the police serve as a heroic force which stops people from acting on their ‘bad inclinations.’ The example of the Santa Claus parade follows this pattern in a “redemptive narrative” wherein the group of “bad” people can be “redeemed” through the disciplinary force of the police. This black-and-white morality and “redemption narrative” conveniently serves as a justification for the continuation of policing in society and is clearly biased in favour of the police.
While International Museum Day is intended to recognize that “Museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding,” Police Museums like the WPM display rosy depictions of police history where people fit into clean categories of “good guys” and “bad guys,” and do not allow room for critical conversations about the history of policing.
In light of this, funding for the WPM should be immediately cut and the public should be informed that this institution does not depict a neutral view of history. A museum at the front of the police headquarters does not foster “mutual understanding” but functions as a propaganda front. We don’t need a police museum until police are a past memory of society whose enforcement of oppression can be looked back on as a shameful history not to be replicated.
Misha Falk is a MA student in Gender Studies at Queen’s University and a former research assistant with the Museum Queeries project.