Publication Date

July 16, 2020

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

Professional Life


  • World


Indigenous, Military, Political, Public History, Social

Dean F. Oliver is a senior director of research and chief curator at the Canadian Museum of History. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario, and has been a member since 2016.


Dean F. Oliver

Alma maters: BA (Hons), Memorial University of Newfoundland; MA, Grad Dipl. in Strategic Studies; PhD, York University, Toronto

Fields of interest: military, political, social, public, aboriginal

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today?

Inspired serendipity. I felt I had to know a little about a lot, in order to know something about anything, so my undergrad was on the 19th century, my MA on the First World War, my PhD on the Second, and my postdoc on the Cold War. Tacking towards an academic history career, I ran aground on a pleasant shoal in international affairs, and then was recruited into national museums, of which I knew little, but came to love much. Public culture proved a broad canvas: research, writing, curatorial work, exhibitions, interpretation, public programs, Indigenous treaty negotiation, library and archives. That initial grounding as a generalist has served rather well. I am still comfortable on a steep learning curve, and public service—daily—provides it.

What do you like the most about where you live and work?

Ottawa has four proper seasons. Rinks freeze, tulips bloom, lakes warm, leaves colour. It is hip deep in fine restaurants, museums, galleries, libraries, and music festivals. There is pro hockey. There is the best museum team in the country, possibly the hemisphere. An epic collection. Dedicated partners. Passionate visitors. You will read this as home side hyperbole. It is not. I loved teaching. But I love this more. I go home each day a whisker more informed. And come in each morning knowing that is not the end of it. 22 years and counting.

What projects are you currently working on?

Me? A short article on a museum predecessor who was a wartime intelligence officer; an exhibition about the rise of Rome; a short piece on public consultations; a small exhibit on Christmas; a book on war. My team? A multi-year archaeology initiative on coastal erosion; exhibitions on children’s television, Indigenous history, and civil liberties; oral histories of Syrian immigrants; research on colonial frontiers and continental migrations. An embarrassment of riches.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how?

Outward: from operational military history to strategy to international affairs to global security. Downward: from great events to public policy to public service to local impacts to personal narratives. And spasmodically: from war and peace to national history to ethno-cultural experience to storytelling to legacy collecting. Like layers of sediment or rings on a tree, each informs the other, each surpassing, but being imprinted by, the one before. Public history moves and shifts in light of public contact, scholarly input, organizational design. Tolstoy-like, all unhappiness is unique, but public history is uniquely happy too: multifaceted, inclusive, flexible. Museums have the capacity to change your life. They often do. There is no boring day.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research?

A small, complete file, buried in a record group where it should not have existed, on a disciplinary incident in a Calgary army barracks in 1944, which was used nationally in Canada in a fierce debate about conscription. It demonstrated either that pro-conscription forces were violent, racist bullies, or that anti-conscription forces were violent, disloyal layabouts. In truth, the fracas was caused by a single drunken teenager who made a crude pass at a young woman, causing a small riot. Admitting his role to the board of inquiry, he said nothing at all might have happened if he “had not been full of beer.” Sometimes, history resists the causes to which it’s shamefully put.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian, for a fine lesson in what matters, what does not, and how to think and act in mindfulness of the difference.

What do you value most about the history discipline?

Its grounding in evidence, in experience, in the records we leave of the lives we’ve lived and, in this, its capacity to expose us with its secrets: diminishing ego; contextualizing fear; inspiring achievement, or at least effort. It is the journey to a destination never quite within reach, yet always to be striven for; the ticket to, and reward for, a serial curiosity.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you?

It is not. But history is. One serves well the other.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

Chicago: up the street from the meeting, a literary museum with a small Dylan exhibit, and the famous guitar that set the world on fire. Gorgeous.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association