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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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,