Conference City Reviews: editorial introduction

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Historic Ottawa: Inside and Out

For the first time, the Public Historian’s annual museum and exhibit reviews from the NCPH conference city are appearing here at the Public History Commons rather than in the print journal.  This follows on the heels of our inaugural online publication of several conference city exhibit reviews in advance of the conference.  Dubbed (P)reviews, four Ottawa site reviews were posted here beginning on April 8th.

These efforts have been a collaboration.  As usual, Public Historian staff oversaw the selection of review sites, based in part on the tours developed by the Ottawa conference organizers, and lined up reviewers.  The editing of the submitted reviews editors also fell to the print journal’s staff.  Our colleagues at Public History Commons helped imagine how to create a space for the Public Historian on the dynamic pages of their website and navigated the technical issues involved in the reproduction of text and images.

This year’s migration to an online presentation is just part of the ongoing creative and improvisational re-imagining of scholarship by members of the journal and the Public History Common collective.  Like you and other members of the NCPH, the Public Historian is in the midst of adapting to the evolving new technologies that allow us to collapse time and space to create conversations and community.  We would all like to hear your thoughts about these changes.


Conference organizers for the NCPH annual meetings use the occasion to spotlight important elements of historic interpretation being presented in the host community.  Whether as part of an organized tour or on their own, conference-goers visiting Ottawa in April 2013 immersed themselves in local historic sites, tours, and museums of the host city.  By tradition, the editors of The Public Historian invite selected attendees to review aspects of each host city’s public history landscape, and the following Museum and Exhibit Reviews offer reflections on the Ottawa experience.

What better for a crowd of public historians than an insider’s view of shifting models of historical interpretation?  Alix Green and her fellow conference attendees enjoyed just that as they were provided a sort of “meta-tour” of the Canadian Parliament Precinct that combined elements of the historic interpretation presented to tourists with “an explanation of how visitor services are conceived and delivered” by the sponsoring National Capital Commission (NCC).  So, for example, Green learns that a recent innovation in tour practices has led to an enviable five-fold increase in engagements between visitors and guides.  She also provides a very thoughtful synopsis of the NCC’s evolving engagement with tours apps, noting that while historians are apt to focus on an app’s “content,” equally interesting questions revolve around “how to assemble content appropriately for consumption.”

Denise D. Meringolo continues the section with a discussion of the “Labor History Walking Tour,” a tour produced in partnership by the city’s digital Worker’s History Museum and graduate students from nearby Carleton University.  As Meringolo notes, such collaborations are increasingly an important part of the public history landscape, as emerging or all-volunteer institutions such as the Worker’s History Museum often rely on creative partnerships to advance their programming.  The ambitious tour is designed to highlight the once-vibrant working class foundations of Ottawa’s economy, the history of worker activism in the city, and the ultimate destruction (via redevelopment) of much of the remnants of that history.  To great effect, Meringolo notes, the portion of the tour along the Ottawa River both revealed the role of workers in the early lumber industry and also highlighted the “absence of working class history” in the modern urban landscape.

Attracted to the prospect of seeing how Canada interprets its colonial past, Annie Muirhead visited the Horaceville house at Pinhey’s Point Historic Site.  Begun in 1820 by Hamnett Pinhey on a hill overlooking the Ottawa River, Horaceville reflected a military gentleman’s “lordly aspirations.”  But the family fortunes did not keep pace, and the house stands in testimony to that gradual decline.  “Minimal intervention” here is designed to allow the “house to speak for itself.”  Alongside a fully restored eighteenth-century chest of drawers visitors encounter repurposed furnishings and artifacts well worn by family use up into the 1970s.    Although Muirhead is uncertain a central narrative would emerge for the unguided visitor to the house, she notes that strategic conservation does allow for interpretive possibilities that allow visitors “to encounter Horaceville in several times at once.”

The Rideau Canal, a Canadian National Historic Site and World Heritage Site, drew Martin Wilson and others for a Parks Canada tour of the important nineteenth-century engineering feat.  The tour dwelt on the historic context for the construction of 126 mile-long canal linking Ottawa and Kingston (think not just commerce but military concerns about the neighboring Americans) but also on the human costs involved in construction.  Bitterly cold winters and malarial summers, alongside conflicts born of alcohol and ethnic antagonisms, shaped the lives and fortunes of the Irish, French-Canadian, Scottish, and English who worked on the project.  Wilson notes that visitors gain not only an appreciation for the technology involved in canal construction but also the challenges that Parks Canada faces as it preserves and interprets a historic site that is still in operation.

Adina Langer notes challenges of a different sort in her contribution:  how to conceptualize and carry out historic interpretation at a site with multiple educational purposes.  Her tour of the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) and the Canada Agricultural Museum (CAM) offered not only insight into Canada’s agricultural past but also an opportunity to meditate on the cross-currents present at a historic site embedded in ongoing scientific and research missions.  The CAM’s mission is to “interpret agriculture” to a largely urban visiting public while also teaching about “Canada’s agricultural heritage.” But Langer rightly notes that heritage “implies a deep connection to the past but a trajectory toward the future.”  While some of the museum’s traditional exhibits attend well to historical developments, Langer elsewhere experiences a blurring between contemporary and historical missions that might not always favor historical context.

Jill Dolan’s review of the Haunted Walk tour of Ottawa wrestles with the question of whether or not such commercial urban tours of the paranormal indeed convey history in a meaningful fashion.  Well researched and scripted, the tour succeeded in entertaining the group.  And it had also the virtue of making participants “look at the buildings around them” as they absorbed narratives that touched incidentally on aspects of the city’s history.  Perhaps, she concludes, a visitor who learns in passing that many of Ottawa’s downtown businesses sit atop “forgotten graves of canal workers” may find their interest piqued in learning more about those workers’ actual lives—rather than their purported afterlives.

The Diefenbunker, a museum dedicated to exploring Canada’s Cold War history, is itself an artifact of the era:  a 100,000 square foot underground emergency shelter constructed to house government officials in case the nuclear nightmare of mutually-assured destruction came about.  Jennifer Dickey visited the site, where a mixture of period furnishing and equipment stand alongside exhibits to provide visitors with “a sense of what the space was like during the Cold War.”  As is often the case in museum tours, she notes that the tour’s pace can leave the visitor feeling rushed and in need of greater context.  And the museum staff resort to some rather cheeky gimmicks to get visitors in the door (Bunker Birthday parties and Easter egg hunts seem out of concert with the gravitas of the site), but all in all Dickey finds the site’s preservation and interpretation creditable.

~Patrick Ettinger, California State University, Sacramento

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