One of My Favourite Museum Exhibits, Ever and the Problems of Historical Experiences

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Regular class discussions about museums and their inner workings has been causing me to reflect on some of my favourite exhibits over the years. I was so lucky to have studied in Ottawa for four years and benefited immensely from having some of Canada’s best heritage institutions just a short bus ride away. A recent class discussion made me reflect on one of my most memorable museum experiences below, and the complexities of recreating and presenting tragic historical events.

 Canada’s Titanic- The Empress of Ireland, Canadian Museum of History (in Partnership with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax) Gatineau, Quebec May 30, 2014 – April 6, 2015

 

This one comes to mind as the most elaborate and immersive exhibit I’ve seen as of yet, and was one of numerous what I like to call “Beverly Hillbilly moments” over the past few years where I was bewildered and astonished by the big city’s spectacles. Coming from a background of small, local museums, it was amazing to see the ways that large-scale exhibits can incorporate technology and create powerful experiences for visitors, and I’ll always credit this one in particular for blasting the roof off the house museum concept for me. Sadly, it is pretty difficult to replicate the finances and resources available to the CMH, but it’s still a great source of inspiration for creative exhibit designs.

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The entrance to the exhibit, which was located in the large Special Exhibitions gallery, was designed to look like a gangplank with “portholes” lining the hallway that featured significant images from the displays within.

 

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Once inside, the first section is setup like a loading dock where the passengers’ baggage is prepared for the voyage. This established that visitors were reliving the path that actual Empress of Ireland passengers took on that last fateful trip, and the imagery and artifacts were both immersive and engaging. (I’m a huge fan of antique steamer trunks so of course this was a favourite part!)

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The core of the exhibit resembled the hold of the ship itself, with more lighted “portholes” to simulate being inside the vessel. The main nucleus of artifacts was composed of a private collection salvaged from the wreckage of the ship, which made it possible for the curators to recreate vignettes of what actual areas of the Empress would have looked like.

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The final section, of which I unfortunately have no good photos due to the emotional experience it created, was the true climax of the exhibit. Projectors in the ceiling made the floor look as though it was covered in moving seawater (simulating a sinking ship) and a soundtrack played abstract sea noises punctuated by shrieks and screaming. Information about the sudden and dramatic sinking was compounded by vignettes showcasing individuals’ experiences in those fateful moments. It was especially moving to have people to connect with what we were seeing and feeling, after having experienced the ship as fellow “passengers” up until that point. There were also large quotes along the walls of some victims’ last words, recorded in the diaries of surviving friends and family.

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This week in our public history course, we discussed the numerous problems associated with public sites dedicated to wars and tragedies. The topic of re-enactments and simulations was raised, and the general consensus among my colleagues was that we have incredibly mixed feelings on the subject (a rare occasion!) On the one hand, being able to emotionally identify with the experiences of historical victims allows for a more complex understanding of distant events. On the other, these experiences bring about a host of moral issues including the appropriation of tragedies and dramatization of events in which real human lives were lost. This is a dangerous line for museum professionals to walk, especially in an age where the power of cultural institutions to shape public consciousness is perhaps more recognized than ever. In the case of the Empress of Ireland exhibit, I feel as though the exhibit took me on an immersive educational journey that allowed me to connect with the event in meaningful ways. The general tone, in spite of that dramatized final stage, was that of memorializing the victims, and had an overarching theme of situating the sinking within Canadian history as a whole. Yes, there was a gift shop at the very end that was tailored to the exhibit’s nautical theme, but that’s to be expected of a corporate institution. For what it was and what it intended to be, I would conclude that Empress was exceedingly well-executed and a model for other exhibits of similar subject matter, even if it is nearly impossible to replicate the funds and resources required to achieve it.

Read more about the exhibit, my original reflections, and its history here: http://tyrconnellheritagesociety.blogspot.ca/search/label/Empress%20of%20Ireland.%20Tragedy

Thanks for reading,

Delany

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Writing Rural Women’s History

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Roseann Kleinjan, Barb Mohan, Corrine Lupsor operate a tobacco tying machine, West Lorne Sun and Rodney Mercury September 11, 1980, Elgin County Archives

I hope you’ll indulge me a little more of an academic history discussion this week as I delve into a topic that regularly perplexes me. Something that I work with on a regular basis is rural historical material; it’s one of my greatest passions to explore and showcase stories of my hometown and its people. I’m always especially interested in the lives of rural and small-town women, but as I’m sure some of my women’s history colleagues can agree, it can be difficult to find good sources. Furthermore, telling women’s stories in general requires a bit more effort on the part of the historian because of the way information was recorded until very recently. In a society that still grapples with how we describe and discuss women, it can be difficult to uncover truly relevant and accurate historical information and ensure their stories are told.

     This is something I found particularly relevant when working with some local cemetery boards to modernize and digitize their records two summers ago. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the women’s graves from the 19th and 20th centuries were just marked as “Mrs. John so-and-so.” This troubled me deeply: after spending their lives in a society that prioritized their relationships to men, these women’s final resting places were recorded in the same manner, erasing all evidence of their individual lives along with their first names.

This is of course just one of many frustrating examples found in research where women are concerned. Another similar instance is found in newspapers, which often perpetuated that same system and also frequently compounded it with mention of women’s appearances. Even the caption for the photo used in this post, randomly chosen from a quick archives search, is an example: “Three pretty girls operate tobacco tying machine.” While it did happen to include their first names (the original publication was in 1980), this still reinforces that the actual subject matter of the photo is reduced to the appearance of the women within it. How, then, can historians combat these issues and recover the accurate details when working with situations like this?

I would say that it is the responsibility of all historians to go the extra mile when necessary to cease the perpetuation of this problematic narrative. It is simply not feasible for someone to go through and fill in all the blanks with genealogical research of women’s first names, but we should definitely be doing our best to ensure that this is done in all cases that pertain to our research. It’s a difficult matter to navigate, and I welcome all recommendations and experiences!

To end on a more positive note, I’d like to mention what I believe to be among the greatest resources for both rural and women’s histories: the Tweedsmuir histories. These works constitute some of the most exhaustive local material and are told from an exclusively female perspective. It’s amazing to read what those women saw as important, how they went about compiling their material, and in many cases how the Women’s Institutes operated within their communities. These books not only gave rural women voices in recording the stories of their hometowns, but also created a unique format for writing history. They are the single most valuable sources in my own research, and I am grateful every day to have these available and accessible through digitization.

Thanks for reading another week’s worth of historical ramblings! If you have any tips or thoughts on the struggles of women’s history, I would love to hear them.

Thanks for reading,

Delany

 

Historical Weirdness and Mystical Coincidences, Or My Career Thus Far

In his office in Wallacetown           Welcome to my latest post, where things are getting real weird, real fast. For the last three years, I’ve maintained a weekly historical blog called World War Wednesdays, which confines me to a rather narrow field of thematic content. It’s exciting to have free range here to write about some broader historical topics, and I’d like to take the opportunity this week to get a little personal and a little, well, spooky.

I’ll just get right into it. Do you see that man up there, leaning back in his chair with a bit of a smirk? (am I imagining the smirk??) That’s Dr. James Wellington Crane. I first discovered him when I was working as a digitization tech at Elgin County Archives over the summer of 2015. My job there was to scan tiny little envelopes that were part of a local newspaper’s fonds, which were each labelled with a name and contained clippings from every time that person appeared in the paper throughout their life. Being the curious young history student that I was, I’d often read them to get a sense of the area’s prominent citizens, events, and places and how they’ve evolved over the years. When I came across Dr. Crane’s envelope, I was particularly interested to read that he was significant to the village where I grew up and had a medical practice there around the turn of the twentieth century. I read on that he established a telephone company in the area in 1901, owned Wallacetown’s first car and enjoyed taking people for their very first rides, and established a forest getaway for Western medical students to meet and share knowledge at his home, “Kelligrew”. He seems like an interesting character, I thought, and filed him in my mental catalog of interesting information that probably no one else would get excited about.

Here’s where things get spooky: from that moment on, throughout my numerous and varied pursuits, I keep reconnecting with Dr. Crane in the strangest of ways. Being very interested in local history, I often comb through the archives and our trusty volumes of print resources in order to adapt my blogging, academic research, and professional programming through our local museum to showcase local stories that aren’t often shared. Sometimes I would be meandering through a source, scroll back up to the top, and discover that I was reading an article by James Wellington Crane. Sometimes I’d be looking at photographs for a blog post or panel and find “Dr. Crane” in the caption of a group shot. Once, when looking at a photo of a local building, I realized that the good doctor, in his younger years, just happened to have been captured standing in front of it. These coincidences happen on a regular basis! Recently, I grabbed our trusty Tweedsmuir history book at work and the pages just opened to his face, and I finally had to share this madness. Our curator, my coworkers, and some volunteers were quite interested to hear about his story as well as how he seems to be trying to contact me from beyond the grave. Above all, the more I learn about him, the more I believe that he was truly a wonderful and benevolent person, and that’s what I tried to convey when I was describing him. We ultimately decided that his story needs to be told, and I am very excited to be able to answer his calls and showcase his life and legacy in an upcoming exhibit for 2018.

However, this is not proving to be where my Crane encounters end. Just this week, I traveled to Weldon Library at Western, where I am now a graduate student, for an orientation to the archives there in anticipation of upcoming projects. I walked past a hallway display showcasing Western’s medical history through some medical artifacts and photographs, and was reminded of the significant role that Dr. Crane played in the development of the medical school here. Today, in doing research for the exhibit, I came across a clipping describing how he spearheaded the Medical Artifacts Collection at Western, and how interested he was in preserving and highlighting history throughout his life. It seems that the good doctor is following me along my journey, and I look forward to being able to share his story with the public as well as discovering more fascinating facets of his life. I hope the encounters continue, even if they do freak me out!

Thanks for tolerating this ramble! I type with 100% honesty that my brand-new lamp was flickering while I was putting this post together, so I do hope that signifies approval!

Delany

Greener Pastures: Chapter 1 of my Journey in Public History

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As I settle into London life and become more comfortable with the Public History program, apprehension and uncertainty gives way to the sort of puppy-going-for-a-walk excitement that comes from being presented with a set of challenges that will be fulfilling and enjoyable to meet. Time management skills will be of utmost importance as I embark on the precarious balancing act of part-time employment (30 hours a week at Backus-Page House Museum in Tyrconnell, Ontario), an RA placement (10 hours a week at Eldon House Museum), three graduate courses, an online course on Indigenous Canada through the University of Alberta, and my numerous blogging ventures. Since these are all things that inspire, excite, and energize me, I feel lucky to be able to take this on!

One of the courses this year is centered on Digital History, something that I was fortunate enough to have become familiar with during my time at the University of Ottawa. Over the course of two different classes with Professor Jo-Anne McCutcheon (digital history and a seminar in women’s history), I was introduced to a variety of digital historical tools as well as the scholarship surrounding them. One of my favourites, which I luckily learned early on in my undergrad, is Zotero. It allows me to compile bibliographies using a browser extension which automatically saves every last detail of a work and even generates a proper bibliography to complete my research. I’ve used Zotero for numerous papers and digital projects and love how it helps me stay organized!

Another tool to which I was introduced was GIS. In Digital History, we had two guest speakers (one who uses GIS in his own research firm and another who worked in the GIS lab at uOttawa) to help us become comfortable with the technology, demonstrate its capabilities and role within historical study (HGIS), and show us some examples of projects. I was quite interested in the way that HGIS deals with physical spaces, which I thought would fit well with my research, and wanted to try it out for my final project in the course. Fast forward to the frigid day I decided to begin my GIS adventure: I was living in Gatineau, Quebec and had exhausted my internet limit for the month, so I packed up my laptop and headed to the local Tim Horton’s. I downloaded the version of GIS that was recommended to my class, unzipped what seemed like a hundred folders, and began playing around with it. It wasn’t long before I became overwhelmed with the complexity of the program and realized that the learning curve was too steep for the parameters of my assignment. Instead, I put together a StoryMap that showcased my research in a simpler visual manner. GIS and I still aren’t friends, but I’m hoping to change that this year!

Another realm of digital history that I’ve recently become quite comfortable with is Omeka, which is used to develop digital museum exhibitions in a range of formats, from pre-designed templates to specially coded and interactive sites. I created two different exhibits for different courses and really enjoyed being able to build collections of digital media in order to supplement my text-based research. While I only used Omeka in its most basic form, I see a great deal of potential in further experimentation and hope to incorporate that into my time in Digital History at Western.

Overall, when I reflect on my relationship with digital history thus far, I am quite proud of how far I have come since first getting high-speed internet in rural Elgin County in 2013, and am excited to continue that trajectory. Some of the best rewards come from stepping outside one’s comfort zone and embracing the unfamiliar, and I can’t wait to find out what new things will be old hat by this time next year!

Thanks for reading,

Delany