25 September 2017

OUT OF THE QUESTION: ACTIVE LEARNING AT LAURIER HOUSE

MUSEUM MYSTERIES 

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

Welcome back to Musings, everyone! I hope you all had a relaxing and enjoyable summer. The Musings team is excited to get back to sharing museum-related thoughts with you, our wonderful readers.

As I’ve been out of the province all summer, I headed down to Ottawa this past weekend with fellow Musings contributor Emily Welsh to catch up on what I missed in Ontario, most notably the opening of the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History. We also visited a hidden gem (and one of my favourite sites in the city): Laurier House National Historic Site.

This Second Empire mansion is situated in close proximity to my alma mater, uOttawa. It's been about three years since I last visited the house, though, so I was looking forward to returning to the home of two prominent Prime Ministers of Canada.
 
Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
Laurier House is special to me because it's a site where a number of my interests intersect – I love history, Canadian politics, and biography. Sir Wilfrid Laurier lived in the house until his death in 1919. Laurier's wife ZoĆ© later willed Laurier House to William Lyon Mackenzie King, and he moved there in 1923. Upon his death, he left the house and all his belongings to the Canadian Crown, in the absence of any relatives to bequeath it to.
 
Laurier House sits on the corner of Laurier Ave. East and Chapel Street in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
While we were there, I realized that wandering through a historic house has a few parallels with detective work. Many rooms in the house are blocked off with barriers – everything in the house is an authentic artifact that belonged to either the Lauriers or King. Since the rooms are staged as they would have been when Laurier or King lived there, there is little space to include detailed interpretive panels other than outside the rooms themselves, or in a pamphlet available at the front door.
 
Part of the drawing room in Laurier House, which contains many objets d'art. Note the reminder not to touch anything - this experience was largely visual. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
As a result, most of the knowledge we were gaining was empirical. We used our observational skills to examine Laurier's sitting room chairs or King's extensive library, all without touching anything, of course!

I noticed that most of our thought processes came in the form of questions: I wonder if that was King's or Laurier's? What's that piece of furniture for? Where did King get that tiny scowling bust of Winston Churchill? 

That last question wasn't a joke. There is actually a mean-looking Winston Churchill head in King's upstairs dining room. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.

The conventions of the historic house challenge our attempts to infer meaning from these artifacts, since the rooms are presented as recreated settings in time. Our "investigations" consist of us looking around a room for clues on how the house's occupants would have used the objects within.

Thankfully, there are interpretive tools in place to ensure that our visits to historic houses aren't just a shot in the dark. In the case of Laurier House, Parks Canada staff were stationed on each floor of the three-story house, ready and willing to answer any of our questions when they arose. 

If I hadn't asked about this bust on the landing, I would never have learned that it's Oliver Cromwell. King was fascinated by him, which shows insight into his political leanings and his values. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
I became a bit self-conscious about being an overbearing visitor, merely because I was asking so many questions! My "interrogation" of the staff resembled a self-guided quest for knowledge that was defined specifically by my own curiosity. The content I received was dictated by the types of questions I chose to ask.

Though it's arguably less accessible to have to pursue this information rather than having it all available on the walls, it's also part of the way the house is curated. The interpreters know so much about every piece of furniture, article of clothing, and room; yet it would be overwhelming to have so much content written out (for more on this, stay tuned for my next post about demystifying Canada's history at the Canadian History Hall). For instance, when I was admiring a smart suit in a closet on the second floor, an interpreter caught my interest and told me that Laurier wore it when he was knighted by Queen Victoria.

The suit Laurier wore when he was knighted by the Queen in 1897. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar. 
Without the interpreter, my pseudo-investigation would have drawn a blank. After all, it's not like doing research, where the resources are in front of you in written form; rather, you have access to the artifacts with less written content. The object's placement in the room can serve as a form of context, but speaking with the interpreter allowed me to influence the topical direction of the information that was imparted.

But what happens if we feel too shy to actively pursue the information? Visiting Laurier House put us in the role of detective, but it also forced us to evaluate our own questions and whether they were "worth asking". It can be difficult to get over the social nervousness of asking a lot of questions, but the presence of helpful interpreters is the first step.

Surprisingly, I found that the history of Laurier and King's lives in the house was best delivered in this anecdotal format. The contextual panels in or outside each room of the house provided a good overview of its function and significance, and from there we were able to enrich our understanding through conversations with interpretive staff. Asking them our own questions contributed to the sense that we were standing in the former home of real people. Though they've been discussed countless times in history books, speeches, commemorations, and in public memory, they also had private lives, of which Laurier House offers a glimpse.

Sitting on the doorstep of my favourite house in Ottawa! Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
Each time I visit Laurier House and step back into the inner lives of these two Prime Ministers, I see not only the legacy of the Liberal Party in the first half of the 20th century, but also the distinct personalities of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King.

Even though it was at times a little bit frustrating to have all these questions and no immediate answer, having to ask my questions to a live interpreter made me feel in command of my own learning, and it offered me access to stories that I might not otherwise have been able to appreciate. Probing into aspects of Laurier's and King's lives so many years after their deaths has enabled me (and hopefully many other visitors) to connect with them on a personal level, and to unravel the biographical mysteries of two very different leaders of our country.

Have you ever gone investigating at a historic site to find information that's not in plain view? What did you learn? 

2 comments:

  1. Great start to a new year, Serena! Look forward to reading Musings and next time I am in Ottawa, will stop by Laurier House and take a peak in the closet! I am fascinated by luggage and trunks in historic house museums.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, Professor! I think you'd enjoy Laurier House - they recently opened their kitchen to visitors as an interactive wartime culinary exhibit! :)

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