As many of you already know, on July 1st of this year, Prince Charles officially opened the new Canadian History Hall, at the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. Taking over five years to plan and execute, the Hall is the largest exhibition on Canadian history ever produced and includes 1,500 artefacts in 4,000 square metres, covering 15,000 years of history. Of course, since I live in BC and airfare is obscenely expensive, I likely won’t have the chance to visit any time soon. But thankfully, I have some absolutely amazing friends! Today’s guest post features the lovely and talented Elizabeth Della Zazzera. Elizabeth and I met back in grad school at UVic, when we were both wee little baby historians. When I found out that she had visited the Hall on a recent trip to Ottawa, I asked her to write a review for Unwritten Histories, and, of course, she was gracious enough to agree (even though she’s in the process of moving)! Enjoy!
Elizabeth Della Zazzera only discovered how Canadian she was when she moved to the United States in 2009. There, she received her PhD in Modern European History from the University of Pennsylvania. She is a scholar of Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary France whose work emphasizes the intellectual history of material texts and urban environments. Her current project “Romanticism in Print: Periodicals and the Politics of Aesthetics in Restoration Paris,” examines the role played by the bataille romantique—the conflict between romanticism and classicism—in French political life in Paris between 1814 and 1830. She is excited to return to Canada this fall as the Margaret and Wallace McCain Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Allison University
I should probably begin this review with a caveat. I loved the old Canada Hall at the museum I have a hard time remembering is no longer called the Canadian Museum of Civilization. It was a staple of my childhood, and one I remember incredibly fondly (despite recognizing, as a historian, that it had many problems). I grew up in Ottawa (on unceded Anishinaabe territory), and so went on many a school field trip to what is now called the Canadian Museum of History, just across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill (also on unceded Anishinaabe territory). And yes, I most certainly was the kid in class who was not at all bored to once again hear about the coureurs des bois or immigration to the prairies. I loved that its set-up – a series of life-sized exteriors and interiors that brought you both across Canada and across time – was immersive and unlike any other museum experience I’ve ever had. Other museums will sometimes have reconstructed rooms or exteriors, but rarely an entire exhibit of them. (Readers will be unsurprised to learn that I am also a big fan of Upper Canada Village, and other similar reconstructed historical towns.) This set-up facilitated the exhibit’s goal – to allow museum-goers to discover and imagine the daily lives of (mostly white settler) Canadians in the past.
The new Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History looks very different from its predecessor. First of all it is much bigger; it takes up the second and third floors of the museum – replacing both the Canada Hall and the Postal Museum. Secondly, gone are the recreated exteriors and interiors (with the exception of the Ukrainian Church, transported from Alberta, which continues to serve as a consecrated Church). Instead, the museum looks much more like a standard museum exhibit with artifacts and panels of text, with the occasional interactive or audio-visual installation. It is organized in three chronological sections – Canada from the time of its earliest human habitation to 1763, Canada under British rule/in the British Empire from 1763 to 1914, and finally the 20th century through the present. And as that organization suggests, the new exhibit often dispenses with the social history approach of the Canada Hall in order to tell a primarily political, military, and economic story of how Canada became the country it is today, although with some displays about lived experience and culture interspersed throughout.
Of course, the major issue with the old Canada Hall is that it could not possibly tell the whole story of Canada. Even if there had been space for 100 reconstructed exteriors and interiors, the story the exhibit told would never have been the entire story of Canada. That said, the story it decided to tell was a particularly limited one. Although it began with Viking settlements in Eastern Canada, it mainly presented a vision of Canada as founded by French fur traders and expanding westward as immigrants arrived to settle its vast territory. This was very much a settler version of Canadian history, with little to no consideration of the Indigenous peoples who have lived on Turtle Island since time immemorial. (Want to see for yourself? Some kind soul has posted a walk-through of the old exhibit on Youtube.) If you wanted to learn about Canada’s original inhabitants, you had to do so two floors down in the Grand Hall, or (after it opened in January 2003) the First People’s Hall. (True story, in 2006 I wrote a very long and pretty boring paper about the First People’s Hall for an undergraduate seminar on representations of Indigenous peoples in Canadian culture at the University of Ottawa. So this is my second foray into Canadian history museum criticism.)
The new Canadian History Hall seeks to correct this cleavage. The exhibit opens with a striking animated telling of the Anishinaabe creation story – the story of Great Spirit and Otter – illustrated by Indigenous graphic artist Jay Odjick. When the Great Spirit tells the animal spirits he is going to create people called the Anishinaabe, Otter understands that people will need a place to live and brings a piece of land to the surface. Following this short film are displays exploring current anthropological theories about the arrival of Canada’s First Peoples to this territory. Both displays serve as a clear contrast to the old Canada Hall – in the new exhibit we are reminded that history of what is today Canada did not begin with white settlement, it began, instead, with its earliest human inhabitants. This section demonstrates the diversity and vitality of Indigenous peoples’ lives and cultures, while showcasing impressive new scholarship and some remarkable artifacts and displays, including, for example, the faces of the first shishalh chief and his family, reconstructed from their 4000-year-old remains; the tiny and beautiful Dorset carvings of polar bears; and the crushed skull of a bison excavated from Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo Jump. News coverage of the exhibit suggests that other visitors have found this section as impressive as I did, suggesting that the exhibit’s forays into social history are some of its most effective and affecting moments.
In general, the Canadian History Hall makes a clear and concerted effort to integrate the history of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people with the history of settler Canadians. Occasionally, it does this wonderfully. For example, in almost every instance where European/settler-Canadian and Indigenous peoples sign a major treaty, the museum displays both the paper treaty and the wampum belt (usually a reconstruction) that solidified the treaty side by side – and the copy always notes that Europeans/settler-Canadians and the Indigenous nations who signed the treaties disagreed as to their meaning. The section on the war between the Huron-Wendat and their French allies and the Haudenosanee is particularly well-executed, and shows clearly how changing power dynamics between Indigenous and European populations were a factor in Indigenous lives, but by no means the only factor. In the part of the exhibit on the 20th Century, the section on residential schools is as thorough and it is devastating (museum-goers are invited to touch a brick from a demolished residential school and in doing so recognize their own direct connection to this history). But I was particularly impressed with the museum’s decision to tell the stories of Indigenous people who challenged Canadian law on the basis of past treaty rights and had their traditional rights upheld and affirmed by the Supreme Court. This called back to the exhibit’s periodic emphasis on treaties and wampum belts, and created a nice narrative through-line in an often-overwhelming sea of information and objects.
But in other instances the exhibit fails to create a fully inclusive Canadian history that integrates both Indigenous and settler experiences, and instead seems to suggest two parallel stories. For instance, it is quite jarring to walk from a display of the lives of settlers in New France, filled with beautiful furniture, expensive French clocks, audio of habitant folks songs, and the three-dimensional family tree of a single fille du roi and her 11 children, 64 grand children, and 344 great-grandchildren, to a display about the Seven Years War and its French-Canadian and Indigenous combatants. The latter showcases James Wolfe’s cloak and Jan Verlest’s 1710 portraits of the “Four Kings of the New World” (all of whom save one seem to have the same face), but generally prioritizes the War’s political significance over the lived experience of its historical actors. The physical separation and divergent emphases of these two displays creates an impression of a New France where daily life was entirely devoid of Indigenous peoples. Moreover, the relegation of New France-era Indigenous people to a display about war serves to reinforce stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as war-like. Both these consequences are not only at odds with the larger narrative aims of the exhibit, but also with historical reality.
In later parts of the exhibit as well, the stories of settler-Canadians and immigrants feel unchanged from the traditional histories we’ve been told all our lives, except insofar as they are simply down the hallway from displays of Métis beadwork, a description of the Red River Resistance, or the video testimonial of a residential school survivor. For example, a quite clever display that juxtaposes the Ministry of the Interior’s advertisements to encourage immigration to the Canadian West with images of the reality of life on the Prairies for those who emigrated from Eastern Europe is one room down from the display about Métis resistance to the Federal government’s repeated attempts to force them off their land. While a particularly observant museum-goer might recognize that the story of Western immigration and the government’s desires to encourage it are an intrinsic part of the violence Canadians perpetrated against the Métis, the exhibit does not explicitly make that connection. Perhaps this failure to create a fully integrated history of Canada reminds us how easy it is for us to tell the story of settler Canadians apart from the story of Indigenous Canadians. Perhaps this shows us that the most damning truth of our history as settler-Canadians is that most of us are able to live our daily lives as if Indigenous people did not exist, and maybe that was true from almost the very beginning.
Across its three sections the exhibit makes a clear effort to include as much of Canada’s history as it can; although, its focus on political, military, and economic history, usually at the expense of social and cultural history, means some voices go unheard. The decision to present a text-heavy traditional museum format, rather than the immersive format of the old hall, seems to have been borne of this effort to include as much of the narrative of Canadian history as it can – the good, the bad, and the truly awful. But the Canadian History Hall’s attempt to tell the stories of all Canadians, from the Dorset to Syrian refugees, makes the things it leaves out that much more glaring and upsetting. While there was a panel on slavery in New France, I could find nothing on the slaves United Empire Loyalists brought with them as they fled the American War of Independence. With the exception of references to the Charlottetown Conference and the Charlottetown Accords, I can recall no mention of PEI. In general, the exhibit neglects the Maritimes and Newfoundland. Acadian removal receives only a small panel, and the fate of removed Acadians appears absent (with the exception of a panel that suggests that many Acadians were able to return after the Seven Year’s War, which, if I am being very very generous, I would describe as misleading at best). The history of early French and English settlement focuses on New France and then Upper and Lower Canada, with essentially no discussion of French settlement in Acadia, or English settlement in eastern or western Canada. There is almost no mention at all of western Canada between European settlement and Confederation, including no discussion of the British colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. Non-white settler-Canadians and LGBT Canadians are included in the exhibit, but not usually prioritized. Most often the displays about historically marginalized Canadians focus on their mistreatment by the Canadian government (the Chinese head tax) or their agitation for rights and recognition (The Gay Sweater), and displays about daily life or culture focus on white settler Canadians or on Indigenous Canadians in the period before European settlement. For example, I can recall only one use of the phrase “Black Loyalists” in any copy, and the entire history of Africville from its settlement to its forced destruction in the 1970s only has a few small panels, with no artifacts, only images, in a little hallway between two larger sections on the 20th century. After (briefly) learning about Africville, one rounds the corner into a display about youth culture, including a huge display about the Guess Who and Randy Bachman, including a video and their guitars. That juxtaposition speaks for itself. Which parts of our history get priority? Which Canadians do we believe deserve the space to have their stories told?
While the act of creating an exhibit, or any historical narrative, always requires that more things be left out than included, the exhibit’s tendency to focus on Ontario and Quebec, especially with respect to Canadian colonial history, seems at odds with the exhibit’s goal to tell the story of Canadian history as the history of the inhabitants of all lands that are now part of Canada. This neglect of both east and west is emblematic of central Canada’s tendency to ignore or downplay the importance of other parts of the country, especially when telling the traditional story of Canada’s “birth.” For someone educated in Ontario, such as myself, the most predictable and traditional story the exhibit tells is the political history of British North America in the lead up to Confederation – the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists, the creation of Upper and Lower Canada, the rebellions of 1837-38, the Durham report and the Act of Union, Lord Elgin and responsible government, and so on. It made me wonder what this political history would look like if it took the exhibit’s own assumptions about what Canadian history means more seriously.
I will admit that I by no means read every word on every display, especially in sections where the history was very familiar to me (to do so would have meant spending even longer than the 2.5 hours I spent in the exhibit), which means that it is possible that some of the lacunae I detected were buried in layers of text. But I can say with certainty that they were not given positions of prominence, and that anyone spending the museum-recommended 90 minutes in the three sections that make up the Canadian History Hall, is going to miss much of the nuance the exhibit strives so hard to present.
In some ways the exhibit’s failings seem to be ones of execution rather than concept – it wants to tell a robust and integrated history of Canada that recognizes diversity, conflict, and the violence of imperialism. It simply only manages to do that sometimes. I want to give the exhibit’s creators credit for having such an ambitious goal, even if they could not always achieve it (like when a student decides to do something especially difficult or creative in their paper and don’t quite succeed, but you give them the A- to encourage that kind of intellectual reaching). But, the stakes here are so much higher than a term paper. This is Canada’s national history museum, and the way it tells our history will invariably shape many people’s understandings of this country. As a result, the exhibit is certainly worth seeing, even if only so you too can spend days complaining to anyone who will listen about Ontariocentrism and white supremacy (although do not make the mistake I did of going at 11am without having eaten, because you will be so hungry by the time you finish. And be prepared to read a lot and be quite tired after). You should also go for the Dorset polar bears. They are seriously amazing.
The Canadian History Hall, like all public history, offers us an opportunity to discuss and debate the way we tell our history and the way we want to tell it. It gives us the chance to ask how our national institutions are implicated in and benefit from a certain version of Canadian history. Despite its various shortcomings, the exhibit does tell a more integrated story of Canadian history than the Canada Hall did. While its exhibit style seems more old-fashioned, the history on display in the Canadian History Hall is in some ways significantly updated – drawing on recent scholarship and on present political concerns to at least try to tell a more inclusive story. And that is a worthy goal. Although, I’m left with the feeling that I didn’t really learn anything from the exhibit I could not have learned from a book, whereas the old Canada Hall offered me a way to experience and know history that would have been impossible without the museum. Plus, I’m still pretty sad that I’ll never get to walk down a street in c.1885 small-town Ontario again.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Della Zazzera for writing such a thoughtful review! I hope you enjoyed this blog post! If you did, please consider sharing it on the social media platform of your choice. And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for another brand new roundup! See you then!
*Quick programming note: due to my heavy teaching schedule at the moment, I’ve decided to postpone my regular Upcoming Publications blog post and combine August and September. I hope you can forgive me!