WHAT ABOUT HISTORY MUSEUMS?
History museums increasingly recognize that although physical artifacts are their ‘medium of specialization’, they are really multimedia institutions that use documents, photographs, artwork, sound and video recordings. These media support the interpretation of artifacts, reflecting the fact that history is manifested through processes, personalities and ideas, as well as through physical objects.
While various interpretive media are important, I suggest that at the heart of a meaningful experience in a history museum are two particular qualities: authenticity and imaginative engagement. Authenticity means that a museum must try to show the “real thing”, whether from its own collections or others. It must also ensure that the information it communicates is truthful and comprehensive, balanced and in context. Imaginative engagement means that the visitor, through the exercise of personal imagination, constructs meaning from objects, contexts and narrative interpretation. This approach to learning and entertainment is very different from watching TV or films where a product is delivered at such speed and with so many images that the viewer has little time to think and thereby interpose his or her own creative analysis.
The primary reaction that a TV production seeks from its audience is emotional; audiences expect to be assaulted by a rapid succession of high-powered dramatic scenes. For example, the average length of a scene in Star Wars is calculated to be 11 seconds. 4 Museums present a very different learning atmosphere. Visitors are invited to move at their own pace to look, admire, read, think, and reconstruct historical scenes in their own minds. Museums provide an intellectual breathing space in the learning process. The pedagogical challenge for museums is to persuade visitors to shift from watching films or fantasy PlayStations in order to actively construct, challenge, learn and enjoy.
In our national museum we have approached this learning challenge by presenting history and social commentary through two exhibition strategies. Our first strategy is to present meta-narratives, meaning large-scale narratives that set out an integrated telling of history through several perspectives. For example, an Aboriginal perspective on continuity, survival and cultural wealth is presented through the First Peoples Hall, which we recently opened. It is a huge installation, with multiple sets of images, artifacts, recordings and texts. Another meta-narrative is found in our Canada Hall which presents a metaphoric journey across Canada, from east to west, over 1000 years of European contact with North America. This exhibition hall receives over a half-million visitors each year – it is the most popular historical learning activity in Canada.
Our second strategy is to offer a diversity of choices, large and small. During 2003, we presented Canada’s first-ever exhibition on Inuit woven tapestry; an international exhibition looking at peoples in ancient north-western Europe; an exhibition produced by Montreal’s McCord history museum on men’s clothing fashions over the centuries; an ethno-cultural exhibition on the Italian-Canadian community; two children’s-themed exhibitions; a postal exhibition on retail catalogue sales; and several types of art exhibitions.
All these exhibitions, both permanent and special, speak to elements of our national identity. The focus is not exclusively on the hero, nor the common person. We look at many types of people, and especially at the social and economic conditions forming the contexts of our lives.