New approaches to authentic historical narratives: Part 2—Canadian History Hall
How are museums changing our interpretation of history and adapting to new societal trends and expectations? In Part 1, we discussed our creative process at the Alaska Gallery in the Anchorage Museum. Today, we examine how the Canadian Museum of History embraced this cultural shift in the revamped Canadian History Hall. Look out for Part 3 in a couple weeks, about our work on a soon-to-open American historical exhibition.
No story left behind
We designed the Canadian History Hall (CHH) from 2013 to 2017, which reopened in Ottawa as part of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. The Canadian Museum of History had a broad mandate to tell a comprehensive history of Canada, from the last ice age to today, including the experiences and perspectives of all of the people who have lived here. One of the biggest challenges was therefore what to include, and what would be kept from the previous popular Canada Hall exhibition when the institution was known as Canadian Museum of Civilization. The development of a main message was one of our first steps to anchor the content development:
“This is the story of Canada, the stories of our country, what it is, and how it got that way. It’s a story of conflict, struggle, and loss; success, accomplishment, and hope. It’s all around us, and about us, and we shape its future.”
Canadian History Hall Content Development, Main Message
Six guiding principles anchored the curatorial and design process
Early in our collaboration with the museum, we developed a set of six guiding principles to both flow from and support the main message. These formed a narrative thread within the visitor experience, connecting all aspects of the exhibition design.
1. National narrative
Unlike the former Canada Hall exhibition which began with the arrival of the Vikings, the new CHH begins 15,000 years ago with the presence of the first humans on the land that we now call Canada. Whereas Indigenous stories were largely left out of the previous hall, today they share pride of place within the many peoples and stories that make up our national narrative. The first story to great visitors, for example, features an Anishinabe creation story, showcasing how First Peoples forged powerful and enduring spiritual bonds with the land and the animals that supported them.
2. Human Experience
Our approach to managing such a vast amount of content and so many points of view centred around leaving space for authentic narratives. First-person accounts of not only well-known figures but regular people are given pride of place throughout the galleries. In one exhibit, for example, pictured above, the remains of an Inuit man who lived eight centuries ago were repatriated to Nunavut. When the remains were discovered sixty years ago, it was not common practice for researchers to consult or collaborate with Indigenous communities. In this case, members of the contemporary community of Arctic Bay were involved in crafting his story, consulted throughout the process of creating a life-like mannequin, and continue to collaborate with the museum on community and school projects.
3. Multiple perspectives
The second aspect of our strategy involved telling the story of Canada from multiple points of view, especially those whose voices had been repressed in the past. There was a focus on including the often disparate experiences of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis from coast to coast. This was carried out not only through the representation of individual experiences but also in the weight that each perspective was given.
The first story in the second gallery, for example, focuses on the period from 1763 to 1815, about how Canadiens, Acadians and Aboriginal people adapted to life under British rule. It’s not a period that usually gets a lot of airtime in history books. But it was pivotal in terms of how these various groups had to adjust to new geopolitical realities and learn to co-exist — a sometimes uneasy accommodation that persists today. We were careful not to create a ghettoization of voices, where one stereotype is pitted against another, but rather to weight each aspect of the story as part of a broader cohesive narrative.
The next guiding principle centred around the notion of legacy: i.e. “Canadian history is how we got where we are now. Canadian history is your history." It helps answer the question, “Why does history matter?” One of the more difficult episodes in Canada’s history with a troubling legacy is that of the residential school system, which saw approximately 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children removed from their communities.
Former Director of Research and Content, Canadian History Hall
The new exhibition incorporates first-person accounts from residential school survivors and doesn’t shy away from using the term “cultural genocide”, as per the conclusions of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The museum consulted with a residential school committee made up of survivors, their families and community members in order to figure out how the best tell their stories. The impact of the residential schools is also conveyed through more contemporary stories such as Idle No More movement, or the more recent Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
Engagement and participation are central to the visitor experience at CHH. Museum visitors today expect to be able to document, share and voice their opinion about an exhibition and their experience more broadly. In this vein, prior to the Hall opening in 2016, the museum reached out to Canadians to identify images representing their country to inspire the content for the Gateway leading to the galleries of the CHH. The response was overwhelming, and included a wide range of suggestions such as powwow dancing, Our Lady of Victory Church in the Northwest Territories, the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto or the Mount Royal Cross in Montréal. About 60% of the final choices for the hall came from the public. Along with selections from the exhibition team, these were sent to an artist who produced the 101 illustrations now lining the hall.
In order to ensure authenticity and appropriate representation of Canada’s diverse population, even before we got involved, a team of over a dozen museum curators had already begun an extensive multiyear consultation and research process with communities across Canada. They met with Indigenous groups, women's groups, New Canadians, interest groups (ethnic and religious) LGBTQ groups, to name just a few. We attended one such consultation organized by the museum and the Legacy of Hope Foundation held at the Wabano Centre in Ottawa, which brought together residential school survivors and their descendants, allowing us to hear their stories firsthand.
The results of these consultations, as well as all the research gathered by the team, formed the basis of a comprehensive research package. This rigorous and transparent approach allowed CHH to tell true stories, featuring tangible evidence, including artifacts, archival material, and oral histories. In this sense, CHH was not speaking for others, but laying the groundwork for co-creation.
Former Director of Creative Development, Canadian History Hall
An exhibition designed for you
Throughout such a large exhibition with such a broad mandate, we always focus on what we do best at GSM, that is, engaging museum visitors through compelling content and stories. You can bombard a visitor with thousands of historical artifacts, quotes, and exciting digital interactives, but at the end of the day, if they aren’t touched, they won’t retain anything. From all accounts since opening last summer, the Canadian History Hall has succeeded in this respect. Amongst thousands of years, hundreds of personal accounts and archival objects, there is a place and story for everyone.
What do you think of the new Canadian History Hall? Let us know, and stay tuned for the Part 3 in our historical approaches series about our work on a new American historical exhibit that we’re excited to share with you.