- Charlotte Gray (Author) and Sara Angel (Author)
The Museum Called Canada. Random House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Carole Gerson
In Quill & Quire’s memorial tribute to Pierre Berton (January 2005), Charlotte Gray commended him as a mentor who “kept alive the tradition of narrative history in an era when academic historians had turned their backs on it.” Herself the winner of the Berton award for 2003, conferred since 1994 by Canada’s National History Society, Gray is in some ways his successor—indeed, the same issue of Quill & Quire acclaimed A Museum Called Canada as “a project of pure celebration” and placed it at the top of their list of the best books of 2004. This volume is certainly ambitious—to quote Quill & Quire one last time: “Canadians can now have their own national museum on their coffee table.” I regret that this volume is a coffee-table book, as many of its carefully chosen images would benefit from being shown on a larger scale. It is also regrettable that the role of curator Sara Angel, whose team selected and organized the objects, is minimized by the publisher, whereas Gray, whose job was to choose among these artefacts for the subjects of her essays, receives top credit.
Arranged as 25 “rooms of wonder,” the volume begins in the “Fossil Foyer” and ends in the “Earth & Sky Atrium.” Each section presents a collage of images and texts, in a feast of material culture. As a whole, the project is an organizational triumph, integrating the larger sweeps of history with anecdotes and artefacts that bring the past to life. Interspersed with official documents and portraits are implements, clothing, and arcane tidbits of information —such as the invention of Pablum during the 1930s by doctors at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Thus Martin Frobisher’s disastrous quest for northern gold is captured in a sixteenth-century stone wall in Dartford, England, containing chunks of his useless ore. Wolfe’s conquest of Quebec is personalized through his annotated copy of Grey’s Elegy, now reposing in the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. In addition to formal photographs of the Fathers of Confederation, we see the Confederation Quilt stitched by seamstress Fanny Parlee from remnants from the gowns of the dignitaries’ wives who attended the ball at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864. The charisma of the Franklins is captured in two Staffordshire figurines, and that of Louis Riel in the coat, moccasins and pieces of rope laying claim to the status of relics. The human cost of World War I appears in a heart-stopping pre-printed field service postcard and a gripping essay on gas warfare—a brilliant juxtaposition to the tear gas cannister deployed in a later section to encapsulate the demonstrations in Quebec City against the 2001 Summit of the Americas. The artifacts include samples of Canada’s print and literary heritage: we see the first newspaper published in Canada, the Halifax Gazette of 23 March 1752, and also the press on which Joseph Howe produced his reformist Novascotian eight decades later. Coverage of books ranges from Joseph Brant’s Mohawk translation of The Book of Common Prayer (1787) to a page celebrating the global success of The English Patient.
Interestingly, there is no “Ladies’ Parlour.” Rather than being segregated into separate quarters, women are sprinkled throughout the volume—although vastly outnumbered by important men, a feature that could have been adjusted with greater stress on families and communities. In addition to meeting expected historical figures such as Susanna Moodie, Nellie McClung, and Thérèse Casgrain, we encounter the Black presence in Ontario through a full page on Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and Native culture in an essay on Pauline Johnson. However, the refreshing inclusion of under-acknowledged women artists such as Jane Ellice and Molly Bobak does not compensate for the surprising absence of Emily Carr and Joyce Wieland, especially as their male counterparts are showcased with Tom Thomson’s shaving mug on display alongside Canoe Lake, and samples of Michael Snow’s Walking Women.
While the book’s array of artifacts includes many intriguing surprises, several aspects of its selectivity and presentation troubled me. This celebratory volume tends to downplay some features of Canada’s past. For example, while the existence of slavery in Canada is acknowledged in the reproduction of François Malépart de Beaucourt’s 1786 painting, La Négresse, the accompanying text elides the presence of slaves in the Maritime colonies and the region’s subsequent black communities. First Nations artifacts receive considerable admiration, many displayed in a dedicated “First Peoples’ Room,” but the narrative is sanitized: we don’t learn why the buffalo vanished or that Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools. My second concern is that the treatment of French Canada is particularly light, restricted mostly to the “Salon de la Nouvelle France.” We see little of post-Conquest life, nor do we meet Maurice Duplessis, or get much sense of the enormous impact of the Quiet Revolution. I wonder what this museum would have contained if one of its curators were francophone, and I remain curious about the reception of this book in Quebec.
The pedants among us will enjoy the appendices which (in the tiniest of fonts) cite locations of the images and references used in composing the texts. The index and the fold-out timeline assist in navigating through the displays, though signposting is often sparse; a few modern maps would be helpful, as would the more consistent presence of page numbers. On a number of occasions, the book presumes that the reader already knows the context of a display, such as the origins of the Winnipeg General Strike. Despite such oversights, most teachers and students of Canada’s past will relish discovering the unusual artifacts collected by Angel and the accompanying stories written by Gray. My own classes will certainly benefit.
- Water Logs by Lorna Hutchison
Books reviewed: At Home Afloat: Women on the Waters of the Pacific Northwest by Nancy Pagh
- Theorizing the World Through Story by Blanca Chester
Books reviewed: The Social Science of Stories by Julie Cruikshank
- Women of the North by Susanna Egan
Books reviewed: Saqiyuq: Stories from the Lives of Three Inuit Women by Apphia Agalakti Awa, Sandra Pikujak Katsak, Rhoda Kaukjak Katsak, and Nancy Wachowich
- A Search for April Raintree by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: In Search of April Raintree. Critical Edition. by Beatrice Culleton Mosionier and Cheryl Suzack
- Taking Stock by Erika Behrisch
Books reviewed: The Canadian Housewife: An Affectionate History by Rosemary Neering
MLA: Gerson, Carole. Whose Canada?. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 181 - 182)
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