- Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada by Alan Gordon
Supporters of living history museums claim them as unique venues for experiential learning. More realistic–or, perhaps, pessimistic–critics view them as watered-down versions of history catering to the commercial and entertainment expectations of tourists. In Canada, just how authentic are the reconstructions of trading posts and pioneer towns? Alan Gordon’s Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada provides a strong overview of the modern museum developments that offered Canadians “authentic” interactions with history from the 1930s to the 1970s. He acknowledges that his attempt to write national history means that the local realities and regional distinctions of his case studies are sometimes lost. But his delineation of the Canadian experience, set [End Page 290] alongside museological advancements worldwide, is one of Time Travel’s strong points. His introductory chapters outline the broad foundations of collection and display practices to situate the twentieth-century Canadian living history museum as a distinct application of global museology.
In their attempt to transport visitors back in time, living history museums present the past using actors playing historical characters in preserved or reconstructed buildings. Time Travel is particularly informative when examining historical interpreters who also played historical people. These first-person animators were found in places like Black Creek Pioneer Village, for example, where Peggy Riordan played the role of an 1816 housewife. As Gordon illustrates, by citing Toronto Star humourist Gary Lautens’s column, Riordan’s historical character was blurred with her contemporary 1963 suburban domestic lifestyle. Acting could very well obscure a given interpreter’s ability to offer authentic historical narratives at living history museums. How could visitors distinguish the contemporary interpreter from the historical character? As Gordon reveals, visitors witnessing dramatic performances often confused the twentieth-century contemporary realities that both the interpreter and museum-goer lived in for history.
Gordon also adroitly discusses living history museums as environments that could confuse historical context with tourist leisure, which risked leaving visitors with a more entertaining than educational experience. To elaborate this balancing act, Time Travel does a brilliant job of charting the involvement of academic and hobbyist historians who developed living history museums across the country. During his work at Upper Canada Village in the 1950s, for example, the prominent historical restoration expert Ronald Way claimed that much accuracy came from crafting the “look and feel” imagined by guests prior to their visit. Satisfying tourist expectations, however, risked contradicting history. At other sites, including Fort Louisbourg, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, Fort Edmonton, and ‘Ksan Historical Village, Gordon demonstrates how commercial and professional imperatives influenced the living history museum by expertly outlining the distinct challenges that arose when contemporary academic research acquiesced to more personal or amateur studies of recreation, collections, and visitor experience.
Defined as a distinct alternative to the living history museum, the “ecomuseum” focuses on the local, ecological, and cultural uniqueness of a given region. Coined in 1971 by Georges Henri Rivière, it refers to the local participation of communities in exhibits displaying their own narratives. Gordon’s binary reading of these two museum types separates the living history museum and the ecomuseum as distinct [End Page 291] museological approaches. When following the conventional model, ecomuseums can resist interpreting history through more national or global perspectives. When a narrative beyond the local is important for an ecomuseum to exhibit on, or participate in, however, there is ample evidence that they indeed did so. Gordon often rules out the possibility that museum workers were able to see transnational elements of the local at both ecomuseums and living history museums. As is conceded by current museological literature, however, neither the participatory facets of the ecomuseum model nor the performative elements of the living history museum necessarily resist transnational applications.
Gordon’s overarching discussions of authenticity is Time Travel’s greatest strength. His argument that...