The History of Only a Moment

At a recent talk by Claire Campbell, I was taken by her idea that too many heritage sites depict only a moment in time rather than a full history.  While this wasn’t the main part of her project, it was the one that got me thinking the most.  As I tried to come up with heritage sites that depicted a fuller history I only came up with a list of ones that didn’t- Annandale House, the Petroglyphs…I could go on.  To Claire, this was a fundamental problem with the way we construct heritage sites across Canada.

So what does this mean for us as public historians?  To me, it’s a double edged sword similar to education.  It’s the question of whether it’s better to specialize in an area of interest and become an expert or to study a plethora of subjects and be well-rounded.  Heritage Sites are the same.  For example, Annandale House in Tillsonburg is an 1880s home that once belonged to the Tillson family.  When visitors leave they have a very specific and ornate idea of what it meant to live as a wealthy founding family on a productive and modern farm in a very large home. In this way, they have a very full and detailed picture of exactly what Annandale National Historic Site is attempting to depict to its visitors.  However, it hardly gives an idea of what Tillsonburg was like for a “normal” resident who would most likely be living in a one bedroom log cabin sans electricity, not in a three floor house with gas lighting and steam heating and who even had heat for their cows.  Additionally, it tells nothing of indigenous populations, environment or life beyond the 1880s.  In essence, it does not tell a full history.

But what if it attempted to?  If Annandale National Historic Site became a “Tillsonburg Museum” and tried to tell a more full history of Tillsonburg, it’s function would be completely changed.  While visitors could get a much better overall sense of the town’s history, it is doubtful that they would leave with the same vivid ideas of what living in Tillsonburg was and is like.

So what’s the answer here?  To be honest, I don’t really know.  Maybe the answer is more historic and heritage sites.  A vast array of narratives would make it easier for people to gain a full history without losing the details that come from focusing on a specific time or family.  However, that doesn’t help the fact that many heritage sites tend to be over-romanticized or tell the stories of only the most eccentric histories.  Maybe museums are the answer.  Lots of towns have museums that give a general survey of history, giving a fuller picture but still these often tend to leave out minority groups and environmental impact or constrict their history to a miniscule size.  Either way more research is definitely needed and our options carefully understood.  Only in this way can we tackle Claire Campbell’s question of how to depict a fuller history in a more meaningful way.

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