Thursday, 25 January 2018

DEMYSTIFYING THE CANADIAN HISTORY HALL: PART ONE

MUSEUM MYSTERIES

BY: SERENA YPELAAR

It's been four months since fellow Musings blogger Emily Welsh and I first visited the new Canadian History Hall at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, and I still feel overwhelmed by the size, scope, and content of the comprehensive exhibition.

Pathway leading to the Canadian History Hall. The streamlined walkways take you through Canada's history in a chronological fashion. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar
The museum fatigue was real. I sometimes think wryly about how the Hall opened after I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa; if I'd stuck around longer, I would've been able to return and focus on each section in separate visits. Instead, I squeezed it all into one short trip to the capital. As I wandered the Hall, I felt the need to take some time for reflection both during and after the experience.

Since the Canadian History Hall is so large and presents many opportunities for museological discourse, I've decided to make this written exploration into a series. For its first installment, here are a few pleasantly surprising stories about lesser-known, non-white historical figures I discovered in the Hall.




Depiction of Marie Marguerite Rose in the Canadian
History Hall. Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
Marie Marguerite Rose Slavery in New France 

As an African-born woman sold into slavery in Canada, Marie Marguerite Rose was baptized and given her French name after being purchased at age 19 by French naval officer Jean Chrysostome Loppinot. She was manumitted in 1755 and married a free Mi'kmaw man, Jean-Baptiste Laurent, that same year. They went on to operate a tavern in Louisbourg, on what is now Cape Breton Island. In 1757, she died after being free for less than two years, and was buried at the Fortress of Louisbourg. Her legacy as a slave in Canada undercuts the misconception that Canada was historically free of slavery. Though our American neighbours took longer to abolish slavery (1865), Canada itself did not completely eradicate it until 1834. Rose's experience highlights those similarities. Her biographical presence in the Canadian History Hall calls for a conscious accountability and acceptance that our nation's history contains these damaging societal systems.

Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
This panel (left) clearly describes that the objects on display, which were found in the slave owners' well, were likely objects Rose used when performing domestic tasks during her enslavement. Their provenance is confirmed, while their connection to Rose is not – but the narrative centres more on her experience of life in New France. Though the panel refers to both Rose and slave owner Loppinot by name, the same is not true for Rose's Mi'kmaw husband. I'm unsure as to why this is, but I'd be interested in learning about the curatorial or interpretive decisions that influenced this omission. Regardless of its significance to the story, and irrespective of his centrality to the panel narrative, Laurent's name would have more clearly put him on equal footing as the other individuals in the story. Despite the lack of specificity regarding Indigenous Peoples in a panel like this one, the museum does well to illustrate other Indigenous-led episodes of history in other parts of the exhibition.

"The Four [Indigenous] Kings of Canada" – A British-Canadian Alliance

This story emphasizes the value of addressing contested narratives in museum content. In 1710, four Indigenous delegates – three Haudenosaunee ("Iroquois" to the British) and one Mohican – travelled to London, England, to meet Queen Anne. To cement a British alliance, the "Four Kings" hoped to obtain assistance in driving the French from their lands. The sensational appeal of the four Indigenous leaders exploded in London, and the Queen had these four portraits (below) commissioned by court painter John Verelst. Thought to be some of the oldest portraits of Indigenous Peoples taken from life, the circumstances of their creation are certainly unusual. An instance of Canadian history overseas (yet at such an early point in our post-contact history), these portraits were among the most memorable objects I encountered in the exhibition.

Portraits of "The Four Kings of Canada" in the Canadian History Hall. From left: Onigoheriago (Mohican), Sagayenkwaraton (Haudenosaunee), Etowaucun (Haudenosaunee), Tejonihokarawa (Haudenosaunee). Photos courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.


Photo courtesy of Serena Ypelaar.
The Royal Family presented the paintings to Library and Archives Canada in 1977. Mirroring history, contemporary Chiefs of the Mohawk people of the Bay of Quinte and those of the Six Nations Reserve, Ohsweken, greeted Queen Elizabeth II, this time on this side of the Atlantic.

Again, the object label (right) doesn't delve into this modern context, but it does acknowledge the divided viewpoints of many Haudenosaunee as to the legitimacy of the delegations. Likely owing to space limitations, this panel's storyline is object-focused, acting as an extended label within a much larger exhibition. In the Hall, microhistorical stories such as this one tend to be simplified as a result, but they can still act as useful prompts for visitors to pursue information afterward.

It would be ideal to have more information on the object's provenance and even a discussion on ownership if the scope of the Hall allowed it. Since the portraits were commissioned by the English monarch at the time, but depict Indigenous Canadian leaders, to whom do they belong? How accurate are these depictions? Information about the current Queen's gift to Canada is important because it contextualizes that discussion.

The Indigenous Perspective – Throughout History

In contrast to the previous iteration of the History Hall (which was on display until 2014, and known simply as "Canada Hall"), the new Canadian History Hall places much more focus on minorities, and the Indigenous content is explicit in its prevalence. I remember feeling a sense of relief as I saw Indigenous content integrated throughout the chronological galleries, and a similar satisfaction upon noticing written panels that, rather than attempting a studious neutrality, approached instances of cultural genocide with a frankness of tone that has recently gained more traction. On the national scale, it's crucial to acknowledge such injustices in our history, and emphasizing Indigenous perspectives on their own ancestral land is long overdue. 


Still think Canada's history is boring and/or predicable? Go see the exhibition if you can! Though the Canadian History Hall is overwhelming, its curatorial voice demonstrates a greater understanding of the diversity of our nation, taking steps toward understanding the colonial nuances and legacies that continue to shape Canada's development as a country. I believe the Hall excels in its ability to reveal stories of lesser-known individuals who played a part in Canada's history, offering us powerful insights and opening up further mysteries for us to solve. 

Stay tuned for Part Two of the "Demystifying the Canadian History Hall" series, in which I will explore the power of language and communication in shedding light on difficult histories. 

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