- Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada by Claire Elizabeth Campbell
Nature, Place, and Story: Rethinking Historic Sites in Canada combines the concerns of environmental and public history in a compelling study of five Canadian historic sites: L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Grand Pré [End Page 120] in Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, Fort William in Thunder Bay, The Forks in Winnipeg, and Bar U Ranch in Alberta. In accessible, evocative prose, Claire Elizabeth Campbell recounts the conception and development of each site, critically analyses their visitor experiences, and proposes how their interpretation might be enriched by a deeper attention to environmental history.
Public history, Campbell emphasizes, is a powerful source of national narrative, with historic sites, in particular, providing tangible in situ embodiments of stories that inform people's sense of both past and future place. While their physical locations are a crucial element of these sites, visitors tend to learn very little about the environmental dimensions of the human histories they recreate. Nature, idealized and frozen in time as either pristine wilderness or pastoral idyll, appears as an impressive stage upon which history has taken place, rather than a dynamic force that at once affects and is affected by human activity.
This book prompts public and environmental historians, policy-makers, and park developers to broaden visitor engagement with environmental history. Campbell is aware of the challenge of this task: "[P]ublic history generally requires both a positive story and a clear-cut message," she writes, while "environmental history tends to muddy those waters." True to her discipline, Campbell embraces both a more fluid view of history and more ambivalent relationships between people and their environments than most historical sites convey. Indeed, as she repeatedly demonstrates, such sites more often than not shield visitors from current environmental problems. Her vision of history would connect them.
The book's five case studies suggest a range of ways in which nature might be more clearly foregrounded at once as a powerful agent in human history and, at a time when environmental concerns are already altering Canadians' sense of place, as our most important consideration for the future. After unpacking the entrenched narratives and locales of each site, Campbell points to alternative stories that would forge new connections between past, present, and future environments: L'Anse aux Meadows, for instance, might speak to visitors about arctic resources, expansionism, and climate change; Grand Pré could more sharply illuminate the history and environmental problems of industrial agriculture that has transformed the Annapolis Valley; Bar U Ranch could trace links between cattle ranching, the eradication of the bison, and the western resource economies that led to the development of the tar sands.
Campbell's analysis of each site is critical but even-handed, attending carefully to the challenges that public historians face. As the chapter on Fort William underscores, at a national historic site, public history is created amid considerable pressures of tourism and recreation agendas. Her account of disputes between historians and archaeologists concerned about the integrity of their research, on the one hand, and the interests of the province and the private company hired to develop the site into a viable tourist attraction for Thunder Bay, on the other, shows just how conflicted these competing interests can be. Yet it is also possible for a single site to meet many needs. [End Page 121] The Forks in downtown Winnipeg becomes the exemplar of integration, the balance of different uses, the author admits, made easier by the site's long history as a meeting place. However, here too, opportunities are missed; The Forks fails to engage the public with "the politics and problems of urban rivers" that define its unique locale. Of all the sites included here, this one had the most explicitly environmental mandate in its early planning stages, but such mandates have "largely vanished from the Canadian political arena."
Nature, Place, and Story calls for both a revival of environmental consciousness that has been lost in the planning of historical sites, and...