- Family Ties: Living History in Canadian House Museums by Andrea Terry
This book is a welcome contribution to public history and material culture scholarship in Canada. Andrea Terry uses three house museums of central Canada as case studies to explore the presentation of Confederation-era historical narratives as they are performed for contemporary visitors. Standing at the busy intersection of tourism and public history, the book explores the tensions between immersing visitors in authentic representations of the past and the necessity of drawing visitors through the front door. The book is in three parts organized around the sites of Dundurn Castle (Hamilton), Cartier House (Montreal), and Mackenzie House (Toronto). We are given a double "tour" of each place with three sets of paired chapters, first concerning the museumification of each house, and then analyses of annual Victorian-era Christmas programs as they stood in the mid-2000s.
Nods to social anthropology and political theory connect discussions of memory and national identity to the material world. The book emphasizes three orders of magnitude in the narratives of Canadian national identity straddling Confederation. Dundurn Castle portrayed imperial Englishness as it related to nationhood at the local level. Cartier House presented the English and French as founding nations in a federal relationship. And Mackenzie House embodied the influence of a globalizing world on Canadian national identity. These messages depended on authentic material objects, including the houses themselves, and costumed living history interpreters portraying members of the households, conveyed the nuances of such messages.
House museums were once domestic spaces, and the programs at these museums emphasized gendered aspects of home life for these three families. Gender affected the processes of museumification itself. At Dundurn Castle, Clementina Fessenden orchestrated the original refurbishment of the house as a museum (c. 1896), but she was also instrumental in establishing Hamilton's first chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, and was active in historic preservation around the region. Fessenden's public activities as an opponent to women's suffrage (she suggested it would endanger the patriarchal legacy of British imperialism) found expression in the museumification of Dundurn Castle. The museum was devoted to the patriarchy that created the house in the first place, however historicized in displays or enlivened by costumed interpreters.
The imperative to draw in visitors has been a vital activity for the survival of house museums. Yet tourism strategies aimed at boosting attendance, Terry notes, produced problems for the legitimacy of some historical narratives presented by the museums. This is evident with Christmas programming, responsible for most visitors each year. The [End Page 202] original Victorian families of each household hardly organized their annual calendars of the 1860s around the Christmas season, even though this was clearly the case for event planning at all three museums by the mid-2000s. At Mackenzie House, time travel tourism was most obvious when a visitor arrived in a gallery that displayed panels devoted to "Kwansaa, Chanukah, winter solstice, and Chinese New Year" and was then guided through rooms decorated with garlands and wreaths, traditional Christmastime desserts of cakes and shortbreads, as well as a richly set dining table. The dislocation of a visitor from the present into an immersive past through a living history environment is challenging at the best of times, and with Christmas programming it reveals the gap most plainly. Christmas programs required layers of explanation that otherwise diverted such house museums from their regular historical messages.
This is an ambitious book that is perhaps delivered too concisely. Its essential project, interrogating the role of house museums in the cultural politics of public history, is valuable and laudable. Terry is adept at laying out an effective framework of analysis, yet the text is sometimes dense and requires further elaboration, except to a specialist reader. Discussions of artifact presentation seem hurried at the very moment the reader would appreciate a closer look. It is as if one is rushed through an exhibit by an interpreter keen to advance the tour. This book should inspire further work on house...