New Canadian History Hall: A Study in History Museum Development

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Canadian History HallThe Canadian Museum of History opened its Canadian History Hall in Gatineau, near the capital, Ottawa, on July 1. The date was the 150st anniversary of the establishment of the Dominion of Canada as a self-governing entity within the British Empire; in effect, Canada’s birthday. Creating the new Hall took five years of planning and development, including town hall meetings to solicit input from people across Canada on what should be represented in the history museum and how it should be represented.

The Hall aims to tell all of Canada’s history, from the beginning of human habitation to the present, about 15,000 years. It is intended to strengthen Canadian identity and culture and is a key part of the Canadian Museum of History’s slogan: “YOUR COUNTRY. YOUR HISTORY. YOUR MUSEUM.”

“Doing history is very difficult,” Mark O’Neill, director of the Museum who led development of the new Hall, said in an interview with the The Globe and Mail, a Toronto newspaper, last May. “We hope there is a candour and a transparency in the telling of the story that will engage visitors in ways they haven’t been engaged before and allow them to draw their own conclusions about what they are seeing.” In a press release issued the same month, he noted that “the hall is unapologetic in its exploration of Canada’s history, depicting the moments we celebrate along with the darker chapters.”

New Yorkers and historical programs elsewhere in the U.S. can learn from the experience of creating the Canadian History Hall. You can get a good sense of the Hall from its website and interesting behind-the- scenes insights from reading the site’s blog entries.

Building stories around people

Canadian History HallA December 1, 2016 blog post by museum designer Glenn Ogden entitled “Canadian History Hall Storytelling: The Human Experience” noted that “we looked closely at how we could tell stories about the people of the past in ways that would connect with our visitors. Our goal was to go beyond the well-documented lives of leaders and elites to explore the lives of ordinary men, women and children.” To meet that goal, they created a guiding principle that they called the “Human Experience” that helped with choices about what to present and how to do so in the exhibition. They define the “Human Experience” as follows:

“Canadian history is the lived experiences of the real people of the past, and their stories are the beating heart of the exhibition. Aspects of the human experience, such as universal themes, the expression of emotion and perception through the senses, help transcend time and place, and deeply connect the subjects of the exhibition and its visitors.”

Presenting multiple perspectives

The new History Hall sometimes goes to considerable lengths to present multiple interpretations and insights on complex issues and developments. A May 18 blog entry from design staff goes into this in detail:

“Because history is rooted in the experiences of real people, the Hall is making their stories the core of the exhibition. These myriad narratives, often expressing disparate points of view, shape an exhibition integrating multiple perspectives within an expansive storyline. This approach helps to unlock history’s complexities, while also ensuring that subtleties are brought to light, that opposing voices are heard and that visionary ideas and actions are clearly expressed.

….it means taking into account and representing the roles, experiences and interpretations of a range of people in relation to a given topic or event. In most cases, it also means including the voices of those with direct experience of that topic or event — in other words, the views of those who were actively involved, providing at times leading or even dissenting voices.

….this approach provides visitors with a better grasp of the many, and often disparate, roles and points of view that have shaped our past. In addition, it allows visitors to consider — and perhaps even empathize with — dissenting and minority voices, while better comprehending the intentions of both the majority and a visionary or two. A perspective-based approach also helps contextualize the past, showing how different groups and individuals have helped shape the country we know today…..

The Museum has viewed variables such as gender, class, ethnicity and regional experiences as key factors when it comes to shaping and defining our knowledge and interpretation of Canada’s past.”

Presenting sensitive issues

Lisa LeBlanc, Director of Creative Learning and Development for the Canadian History Hall, shared some insights in a May 17 post entitled “Sharing Some of Canada’s More Difficult Stories.” Visitors arrive at the Museum with different backgrounds and varying degrees of comfort and tolerance for difficult topics. The new Hall’s exhibits include coverage of treatment of native peoples, restrictive immigration policies, and other sensitive topics. Museum exhibits and presentations should aim to be honest, clear and open but not intentionally shocking or disturbing. “There is always a sense of calibration,” she says. “You don’t want to be sensational, but you don’t want to be reticent, either.” She continues that “museums are keepers of evidence.

We put the content out there for people to see it in all its complexity and we provide a safe place for people to have a conversation about that evidence.” It is up to museums to say “here are the different voices, perspectives, and experiences” and leave it up to the visitor to consider what is presented and reach his or her own conclusions from it.

Unique and rare artifacts tell stories

Canadian History HallMuch of the new Hall includes unique or rare artifacts carefully preserved, exhibited, and interpreted to tell pieces of Canada’s story. Some of these are well known; others are more obscure and until now not familiar to the public. A blog entry entitled “Preserving History One Page at a Time” relates conservators’ extensive work on the handwritten copy of the lyrics of a 19th century abolitionist song, “I’m On My Way to Canada,” sung by runaway slaves making their way from the U.S. to Canada, where slavery was outlawed. Among the approximately 1500 artifacts on display are an ivory carving that is the oldest known representation of a human face in Canada, and a T-shirt worn by Canadian athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist Terry Fox during his 1980 Marathon of Hope. There are numerous photographs, videos, and interactive displays as well.

It’s too soon to tell how the new Hall will be received by museum professionals or the general public. Preliminary reviews, mostly by journalists, are positive. Several pointed to the power of a history hall like this one to not only shape views of the past but also to provide some guidance for the future. “What will visitors make of this approach to Canada as the years go by?,” wrote a reporter for The Globe and Mail who visited the Hall a few days after it opened. “Will reconciliation have been achieved and new social projects call for new changes to the national narrative? Canadians may own the future, but it’s hard to predict our shifting views of many pasts.”

Photos of Canadian History Hall exhibit spaces courtesy Canadian History Hall.

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books published in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH). He can bereached at

2 thoughts on “New Canadian History Hall: A Study in History Museum Development

  1. Gayle Ann

    I wish there were more posts such as this one. When the NYSHA conference was in Niagara, I begged Canadian history people to attend, and provided contact information of people to whom to extend invitations, but no invitations were extended to attend or present. Canadian history and American history are intertwined, yet, the people outraged about Trump’s Mexican wall behave as though one exists with Canada. We attended the re-interment of Sir John Johnson, and were the only Americans there. We also encountered few Americans, other than reenactors, at the 1812 events. I was shocked to find no contact between the groups interested in Joseph Brant. Clearly, walls do not have to be built from bricks, wood, or wire to exist.

    All one has to do is search the same terms on and to find different resources and perspectives. Perhaps we should tear down our monuments to some of our Revolutionary and 1812 soldiers and demand that Canadians rename Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital and rename Brantford, as well as tear down the statue of Sir Isaac Brock, Let’s demand the Laura Secord home be closed and Brant’s home demolished. How dare these enemies to the American people be celebrated as heroes.

    We have already re-written history by the use of the term “patriot.” The so-called patriots were rebels who sought to overthrown the legal and established government, which the Loyalists supported, as most people would do today. And, if they won, they are automatically just, as well as morally right. I remember, after learning her ancestors’ names, suggesting a DAR resident visit a specific Canadian site to find information about her ancestors to solve a mystery, and she was very insulted. I was stunned that she regarded the Loyalists as evil. I wondered if she knew there DAR groups in Canada. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, many families were divided, containing rebels and Loyalists. Refusing to acknowledge them does not mean they didn’t exist.

    Canadians are treated with the same contempt as descendants of Confederate soldiers. They were on the loosing side, which automatically makes the US morally superior, dismissive of the atrocities the winning side orchestrated, and, of course, right. Being on the winning side took advantage of an opponent’s mistake, had more experienced leaders, more or better weapons/ammunition, more soldiers, a better position… Winning is not synonymous with moral superiority and being “right.” To be fair, the Canadians also don’t extend many invitations either, but who wants to be on the receiving end of condescension?

    The daughter of my Loyalist ancestors married a rebel, and she and her husband when other members of her family fled to Canada. I don’t know why they stayed, but I would not be here had they went to Canada. Their decisions contributed to my US citizenship, just as the decisions of my Confederate and Union ancestors affected in my existence. My ancestors lived in different time periods, with different legal activities, and different moral values. I cannot judge them by today’s standards, and I recognize that their decisions were what they thought best As I am not a Time Lord, I cannot change their decisions. Time Lords are not bound by the Temporal Prime Directive, however, and changing their decisions would probably eliminate my existence,

    I read everything I can find about the Loyalists and the Battle of 1812, and when my health permits, I visit Canada to spend time in Archives, historical societies, universities, etc. I’ve learned so much more about the Revolution and New York and New Jersey history than I was ever taught. There are letters, diaries, maps, and legal records to examine which are not available in the US. English records are similarly rich. Using only American documents paints a picture that is an abstract. It becomes a rich painting rivaling the Old Masters in detail when other sources are added. It becomes the truth, portrayed in rich and vibrant colors, in which there is not a clear black and white right and wrong.

    We in the States need to make more trips north, and extend invitations to attend conferences and to present at conferences. I want to hear the other side, not stifle it. I want to learn about resources I didn’t know exist. I want to know about different perspectives and views. I want to know the truth, not just the interpretation of the truth by the winning side.

    Canadian and New York history, as well as the history of many other states, is a shared experience. The Canadian border is not an insurmountable wall. We need to be a community inclusive of everyone who was a participant in our history. The goal of history is to learn, but to learn the truth. We can’t learn the truth by studying only one side, and with the attitude that the US is right. We’ve spent so much time in school studying history books written from the perspective of the victor that we’ve forgotten there are other viewpoints, which may be as valid as our own, as well as “right,”

    1. John WarrenJohn Warren

      When people make the argument that goes along the lines of “they lived in different time periods and shouldn’t be judged by today’s standard,” I encourage them find out more about the Abolition Movement and the history of the period before the Civil War.

      There were lots of people, of all types, who worked unsuccessfully for decades before the Civil War to bring an end to slavery. This argument, therefore, effectively erases the history of those who had the moral courage to oppose slavery in America.

      Everyone did not support slavery – those that did, as was frequently pointed-out to them at the time, were wrong. Slave holders and their supporters were rightfully derided as immoral in their time, as those who lionize the confederacy – which sought above all to preserve and extend slavery – are now.


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