Cultural (Re)Production

Reviewed by Ryan Porter

Living history museums emerged in Canada in the mid-twentieth century to educate and entertain a public hungry for historical knowledge. As Alan Gordon argues in Time Travel, however, these museums are products of their time, “artifacts of history themselves.” They may offer windows into the distant past, but crucial to Gordon’s argument is that they reveal “the cultures of the past that constructed them.” Living history museums’ sense of realism emerges from their meticulously recreated spaces, but their sense of authenticity materializes because they align with people’s expectations of imagined pasts. Gordon’s research is meticulous and his writing exceptionally coherent. Time Travel is an excellent study of how priorities and preoccupations guide historical interpretation, and an important addition to the study of Canada’s heritage industry.

The book is structured in three parts. Part 1, “Foundations,” traces the philosophical underpinnings of museums in general and, subsequently, living history museums in Canada. Military installations were the first to be restored, and Gordon connects the development of these old forts to burgeoning tourism trends that demanded spectacle. These museums authenticated their versions of the past by “manufactur[ing] the material evidence that supported those understandings.” Part 2, “Structures,” charts the rise of the “pioneer village” in Canada in the 1960s. These facilities, despite their founders’ preoccupation with historical accuracy, are fantasy reconstructions, a hodgepodge of buildings assembled, by necessity, from a variety of locales and eras. Furthermore, these installations portrayed a past that was consonant with the gender roles and commercial preoccupations of postwar Canada: “living history museums presented a conservative historical message that emphasized a gendered society rooted in the nuclear family of the post-war era.” Their influence on the historical consciousness of a generation of Canadians is undeniable. Part 3, “Connections,” looks at living history museums in BC and Alberta, and at the influence of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism on an evolving national consciousness and the resulting shift in living history museums’ historical message. Part 3 also explores the changing role of Indigenous cultures in these museums, from marginal curiosities adjacent to the central grounds, to, in one case, a museum jointly managed by the ‘Ksan Association and the BC government, which emphasized the continuity between cultural past and present. Gordon concludes that shifts in historical representations are a necessity in living history museums. While these installations may have fixed the “values of the mid-twentieth century . . . onto the landscape,” the fluidity of historical interpretation ensures, thankfully, that those values have not been “fixed in Canadian identity.”

In The Roots of Culture, the Power of Art, Monica Gattinger argues for the continued relevance of the Canada Council in an era when “any Canadian can write, compose, paint, sculpt, dance, or sing, and disseminate and promote their work” online. In its early days, the Canada Council was primarily concerned with ensuring supply by fostering artistic infrastructure. More recently, it has focused on the transformative power of art in Canadian society. This book marks the occasion of the Council’s sixtieth birthday in 2017, and it also marks a crossroads for the Council, which recently instituted a new funding model that will define its future.

The critical tensions that the Council balanced in its first six decades serve as the book’s organizing principle—for instance, aesthetic concerns and the social/cultural role of art, the Council’s role as an arm’s-length government funding agency, and its function to foster emerging artistic forms not readily categorized into established disciplines. While the book’s focus remains on the Council as an evolving administration, the art that it has supported is also present in the form of numerous images. Gattinger fuses existing scholarship and primary interviews with some of the key Council directors and chairs of the last sixty years. While the writing is occasionally repetitive or reminiscent of the pleasantly vague rhetoric of large administrations (e.g., “leverage synergies”), Gattinger argues compellingly that the Council, through its funding priorities, has influenced the national discussion of social and cultural issues, particularly Indigenous reconciliation. The book celebrates the Council, not simply on the merit of its artistic priorities, but as an administration vital to Canada’s cultural past and future. Because it funds work that “critique[s], dissent[s], and question[s] the status quo,” the Council is, therefore, “an essential guardian of core democratic values.” In our unsettling global political context, this is hardly hyperbole.

This review “Cultural (Re)Production” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 146-147.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.