The Canadian History Hall: where past and present meet

July 27, 2017 Women and the war effort

The Canadian Museum of History’s new signature gallery, the Canadian History Hall, was always going to be like pollen to bees for history buffs. But what would attract and engage everyone else? A key part of the answer is summed up in a single word: relevance.

Why should I care about the past when it’s not relevant to my own life today? Lisa Leblanc heard many versions of that question while helping to plan the new Canadian History Hall, which opened July 1, 2017, at the Canadian Museum of History.

“People moaned and groaned about their high-school history,” said Leblanc, the Hall’s Director of Creative Development and Learning. “They said it was all about dates and events that didn’t matter to them, and they didn’t understand why it should matter to them.”

Leblanc had a simple answer: “Well, these events actually do matter. They shaped the world in which you live, they shaped the country in which you live, and you have the past around you every day. So, it’s important to know about it, to better understand your own life and how we became the country and the people we are today.”

That premise is reflected in the final exhibition. “We try to engage people by making clear how the past has contributed to the present,” said Leblanc.

Examples abound. Canada’s participation in the First World War led to the introduction of income taxes; the Great Depression led to unemployment insurance; the establishment in 1963 of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism led, a decade later, to bilingual cereal boxes, to cite an everyday effect; treaties signed over a century ago still define aspects of the relationship between First Nations and the Government of Canada.

“The Canada we know today came from somewhere, and that somewhere is the past,” said Leblanc.

The connection between the visitor and Canada’s history is made even more profound by the exhibition’s favoured tool for illuminating the past: the personal stories of real people. The goal was to humanize Canada’s history and present it on a scale and in a form that visitors could relate to on a personal and emotional level.

The Hall’s Director, Chantal Amyot, stressed that the Hall is a museum exhibition — a cultural experience as well as a learning opportunity. It’s not a substitute for history books or the Canadian Encyclopedia. But she and her colleagues hope that visitors will come away with a broader understanding of their country, a new interest in its history, and an answer to the question, Why is history relevant to my own life today?