Thursday, 18 October 2012

I went to the War of 1812 Experience and All I Got was this Postcard: Ideology, Politics, and the Function of History

Modern museum-going has become, in large part, an exercise in genre-identification. We can sense and feel the direction that any given exhibit will take as soon as we walk through the doors. Our mental checklists unconsciously click into gear as we attempt to look suitably grave and impressed whether we are or not – as if, perhaps, the stone-faced security guard might call eject us if we appear less-than-worshipful in the temples to human achievement or creativity into which we have ventured. We can all recall exhibits both fine and dreadful – even if words fail to adequately describe how and why we would categorize them in these ways.

 [Free postcard - Sir Isaac Brock: hero!]

Such was my dilemma after finally capitulating and going to view the Canadian Heritage War of 1812 Experience at Canada Place in Vancouver. I had initially declared that words failed me to describe the entire War of 1812 commemorative project – including the costly television spots which Canadians have been viewing for some time. But, on reflection, I have since found some choice words. The entire campaign is estimated at $28 million, so it is not unreasonable to ask what we get for it.

 [Outside the exhibit - the general idea]

What of the exhibit? It is a small, two-room affair (excluding the exterior replica cannons and the like as pictured) – which is bound to have its limitations. All the same, the limits are attributable more to the creators than to the space. The first room consists of the multi-media presentation, beginning with a silhouette of British soldiers inside a warning (somewhat incoherently) that the Americans are coming. The viewer then turns around to view loud volleys of gunfire and battle re-enactment which demonstrate that the Americans have come, armed to the teeth. A touch of dry ice puffing from the walls (I kid you not, dear reader) completes the verisimilitude. From there the jolted nerves are dispatched to the second room which consists of replica weapons on display, a few explanatory panels, interactive displays and free postcards of six heroes/heroines of the conflict (well, one heroine - Laura Secord). I chose Sir Issac Brock, as I have been to the memorial of the battle at Queenston Heights; and, besides, he looks rather natty in his uniform, don’t you think? Oh yes, and there is a photobooth to take a picture superimposed onto one of the six “hero” portraits. I declined to take one, thus depriving the readers of this blog of much merriment.

 [This way for the War of 1812 "Experience" -- on site for two years]

The message conveyed by the exhibit is in one way laudable for the inclusivity of the various groups that made up British North America in 1812 – French, English, and Canada’s First Peoples. But it does so in a simplistic fashion that reduces the conflict to two or three (not entirely accurate) take-away points: “we” repelled American aggression from our land, the conflict forged Canada as a nation, and various people of differing hues and languages were happy to help in the endeavour. This narrative ignores the many complex reasons for the War and the geopolitical tussle between Great Britain and the United States in which “Canada” (of course not in its current form - "Upper" and "Lower" Canada at that time) just happened, in many ways, to be a staging ground. I will not delve deeply into a critique of it as a de-contextualized glorification of war, but an excellent starting point would be this article in War is, yes, a part of our history, but it reflects only a fraction of who were are as a people. One friend who is an historian of pre-Confederation Canada remarked that there is much fascinating scholarly work being done on the War of 1812 – its causes, the roles of the participants, and innovations in the waging of war itself. Yet, sadly, not even an iota of nuance is conveyed to the public. It is – and I don’t think the word is too strong – “propaganda” - so thin and simplistic as to be reducible to the gravitas of a “hero” postcard. Ultimately, it is laughable. And, for an enterprise costing millions of dollars and residing for TWO YEARS on the pretence of serious public display, laughable is perhaps the worst of epithets.

In the current political and economic context, however, it is much more than simply a poorly put-together exhibit. Ten years ago it might have been passed off simply as a “dud,” but given the Harper Government’s approach to history, the humanities, and scholarly knowledge in general, the revealing ideological basis of the exhibit bears scrutiny. Despite the lavish spending on 1812 commemoration, the government is on a path to undermine history and the humanities in numerous ways that are, at their core, ideologically driven. The practice of history as one of the liberal arts has been under attack – from the drastic cuts to libraries and archives to funding for humanities research - everything from graduate student grants to the opportunities available for postdocs and faculty research. These changes are a reflection of a “we don’t need no book learnin’” anti-intellectual approach to public policy and governance. This has been in ample evidence from the diminishment of Statistics Canada, the decision to cancel the long-form census (and here), and the scandalous muzzling of scientists who speak out about the effects of climate change.

I am prepared for the accusation that I am a mere “elitist” – a favourite charge often promulgated against those who insist on the value of expertise, research, peer-review, the empirical method, and likewise. The rhetoric against “pointy-headed” or “ivory-towered” intellectuals is part and parcel of over thirty years of rhetoric aimed at diminishing the independence of universities, academia and scholarship. It, regrettably, has strong purchase and is prevalent in many of the attitudes of both politicians and the general public towards the academy. I am not an “elitist” in the sense of being an aesthete or an intellectual snob; I have been involved with public history for many years in my community. I can and do appreciate simple exhibits of historic note put together in public places, in community centres or libraries, or even by schoolchildren. I am not a snob for criticizing the War of 1812 exhibit. On the contrary, I criticize because it smacks of the ideological conformity and simplistic incurious narratives of Canadian identity which the Harper Conservatives have pursued throughout both their minority and majority mandates. In discussion with one of the two young people staffing the exhibit (who were, understandably, rather bored as attendance was – to say the least – scant), I learned that he worked for the private company who was sub-contracted to design and run the exhibit. Given our government’s approach to all public services and amenities, this one fact really tells us all we need to know.

If you have read anything of this blog previously you will know that the Idle Historian is by no means a wild-eyed radical intent on jettisoning any cherished narratives. In fact, I actually prize a certain form of nostalgic tradition a great deal – even old-fashioned and quite unpopular concepts such as church and army, and (at least some) warm and fuzzy feelings of our past as part of the British Empire. By consequence I maintain, in a boldly self-confident manner, that I am more than qualified to pen this critique. Yet at the same time I know that history does not exist to shore up my fuzzy feelings and identity, comforting as they may be. History is a practice by which we continuously seek to depict the world from different perspectives than those of previous generations, give voice to those largely unrecorded in the standard narratives, and discomfort our simple notions that history is a “lesson” which merely exists to teach us X or Y. It is not a fungible commodity to be used as a corporate-style national branding exercise (one can only imagine what will become of the new Canadian Museum of History). The War of 1812 exhibit offends against hard-fought, diverse, and complex understandings of scholarship. Because it also represents such an enormous investment of our (scarce) national “heritage” funding, it must be consequently held to account.


Mlle C said...

Thank you for writing this.

I would say that the War of 1812 is part of our "difficult history" (as educators like to call it). Over-simplifying such a complex event makes it uninteresting. Two room exhibits can still be powerful and poignant (see "Observance and Memorial" about Cambodia, currently at the ROM). But they have to be precise. And they can't talk down to the visitors as this exhibit seemed too.

I am also terrified by the "re-branding" exercise which Harper et Co. are trying to impose on our country. I am even more terrified that people are unaware about what is going on. I tried to explain it to a friend of mine, who is smart (a lawyer) but hasn't worked in academia or in the cultural sector. He called me a conspiracy theorist!

IdleHistorian said...

Thank you for your comment, Mlle C! You certainly aren't a conspiracy theorist... alas, the "re-branding" exercise is all too real and can have very real consequences for public policy and institutions.

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