The Distance We Have Traveled: Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century

By Andrew Nurse

Practicing History in the 21st Century. Image designed by Tom Peace.

Practicing History in the 21st Century.      (Image designed by Tom Peace)

To argue that there have been improvements in the practice of history is almost a-historical, at least heuristically. After all, claims of progress are a sign of Whig historiography and something we are supposed to avoid. And, yet, after leaving the Practicing History in the 21st Century Symposium, the idea that progress had actually been made was hard – for me at least – to shake.

There are several reasons I felt this way, but I should begin by saying that Practicing History in the Twenty-First Century was a symposium organized to honour John Reid, the noted Saint Mary’s University historians. I should also say “mea culpa” because I was one of the organizers, along with Tom Peace, Peter Twohig, Elizabeth Mancke, Jeffers Lennox, and Jerry Bannister.  As organizers we wanted to do more than honour John. We wanted to craft an event that took up the ideas with which he had worked and looked forward, building on ideas that have emerged in regional, colonialism, and Canadian history over the last generation.

The symposium featured panels that looked at public history, the shifting (or, not shifting) spatial organization of Atlantic regional history, relationships between historians and other communities, historical collaboration, and the audiences to which historians speak. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Opening doors, gathering communities: Making archives active through events

By Jay Young and Krista McCracken

This post comes out of a workshop on “Active Archives” at the New Directions in Active History conference in October 2015 in London, Ontario. 

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives’ exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Danielle Manning, Outreach Officer at the Archives of Ontario, shows visitors the Archives of Ontario exhibit area at Doors Open Toronto 2016

Archives, as places of knowledge, sometimes have the reputation of being intimidating for the uninitiated. Outreach activities—from social media engagement to student workshops—help overcome this stereotype, and show that archives are exciting, integral repositories of collective memory.

Events are an important aspect of outreach at archives. Although the Archives of Ontario and the Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre have different institutional histories and collections scopes, both archives show that events can be a great way to connect with the general public or specific communities.

* * * * *

The Archives of Ontario, the provincial archive of Ontario, was established in 1903. The second largest archive in Canada, its mission is to collect, preserve, promote and facilitate access to Ontario’s documentary memory. The Archives’ modern public facility is located on the campus of York University in Toronto.

Doors Open Toronto is a key annual event in the Archives’ outreach calendar. Over the past six years, hundreds of visitors—many of whom are experiencing the Archives for the very first time—come through the doors to see why the Archives is a dynamic and important place. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Digitising Childhood Evacuation: A Serendipitous Pursuit of Active History

By Claire L. Halstead

As historians, we are increasingly under pressure to make our research “active” and relate to a public audience. This spurs us to discover new methods of engagement and innovative ways to present our findings. The digital revolution or “turn” has encouraged historians not only to use sources available online, but also to adopt digital tools and methods to analyse traditional sources and, in some cases, create entirely new digital sources for research. Using digital methods allows us to extract more from our sources, while increasing the potential of appealing to and engaging with the wider public. Using the study of the evacuation of British children to Canada in the Second World War as an example, this post is intended to be a source of encouragement; while digital history can appear daunting, the rewards can far outweigh the costs.

The Roots of Evacuation Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Memory, Museums, and the Politics of the Past

By Jodi Giesbrecht

One of the many important conversations held during the ‘New Directions in Active History’ conference considered the evolving ways in which historical knowledge is represented and contested in public spaces and how, as historians, we might participate in such discourses and actively engage with broader audiences. My panel, “Histories, Memories and Museums,” examined the role of museums in particular as sites of mobilization and encounter, as places in which diverse publics encounter history and historiography.

In response to such ideas, my paper suggested that many museums are mapping out ‘new directions in active history’ by examining challenging and sometimes controversial subjects that bridge past and present in a dialogue geared toward social change. Using the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), located in Winnipeg MB, as a case study, I wanted to draw connections between the role of curatorial practice as a form of active history, and the broader social and political role of museums in fostering historiographical knowledge. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Art + History = In-site-full Collaborations

By Andrea Terry 

As a historian of Canadian Art, I hope that my research, teaching, and writing resonates with historians of all types. My most recent book Family Ties: Living History in Canadian House Museums (2015) explores how house museums anchor and transmit mythic histories. It connects the artefact to the performance of history at three “living history” house museums – Dundurn Castle in Hamilton, Ontario; the Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada in Montreal, Quebec; and the William Lyon Mackenzie House in Toronto, Ontario. The material culture in situ or, more precisely, what I call the “artefactual accuracy” endorses the institutionalized interpretation offered at each site. The primary organizing idea for the study draws on the tenets of disciplinary art history, approaching the house museum as a representational object used as a civic instrument in the practice and performance of history.

In such analyses, it is imperative to consider the sites’ practical function: their operation as tourist destinations.  The purpose of historic sites arguably depends upon their ability to generate sufficient visitation to validate their continuing operations. With the advent of Web 2.0 and social media, the need to re-invigorate historic sites has intensified, as evidenced by Parks Canada 2012 budget cuts and the subsequent development of guided tour applications. Such needs also take into account citizens’ expectations, particularly those attached to their “smart” devices, mesmerized by cyber games and seemingly dependent on social media for interaction. In the twenty-first century, American curator Lowry Stokes Sims explains, historic museums are expected “to address an appetite for unique experiences, novel experiences, and authentic experiences.”[1] Contemporary art exhibitions installed within historical sites, projects referred to in related scholarship either as “museum interventions” or, more pointedly, “artist-history interventions,” certainly satisfy this expectation. What is more, they foster opportunities for dynamic collaborations between historians, art historians, public historians, curators, artists, visitors, and the like – collaborations that, I believe, have the potential to generate far-reaching benefits. Continue reading

Reports from New Directions in Active History: Community-based Research and Student Learning

By Megan Hertner, Amy Bell and Nina Reid-Maroney

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

An interview the London Fugitive Slave Chapel Project.

Our presentation at the 2015 Active History Conference was a co-written paper reflecting on our experiences as faculty and student in two community-based learning (CBL) projects in undergraduate History courses at Huron University College. As the student who participated in both projects, Megan presented the paper at the conference. To have a student writing and presenting on her own experiences of class projects, unlike other presentations in which student projects were mediated through presentation by the professor, reinforced the democratic and transformative learning process that characterized CBL projects at Huron. Continue reading

On Wreaths and Graffiti: Reading Defacement and Nostalgia at Ottawa Monuments

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

This week’s video marks the last video post from the 2015 Active History Conference. Tonya Davidson, a sociologist of public memory at Ryerson Univeristy, researches the ambivalent feelings Canadians have towards monuments. She explains that although monuments are often dismissed as being “ideological tools of the state”, when something happens at the monument, or to the monument, public attention tends to be “aroused”.  She explains that part of the reason for the public outcry is that we view monuments on the one hand as, “dynamic, live witnesses…to the past”, but we also see monuments as “very active” in the present as well. Davidson goes on to speak about the defacement done to two sculptures on the Parliament buildings by peace protesters in 1985 and explains how the restoration of the vandalism can make us think about the ways in which we can grapple with monuments and multiple histories. Davidson then analyzes two other monuments in Ottawa, the Samuel De Champlain statue at Nepean Point and the Human Rights Monument located at the corner of Lisgar and Elgin. Using these two examples, Davidson explains how monuments can serve as problematic representations of nostalgia and also how they can be political statements with contemporary resonance.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Peterborough

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

This week’s video is a part of the Storytelling through Film, Graphic Art & Performance panel. Matthew Hayes, a PhD candidate at Trent University, explains two art projects that he undertook in the summer of 2014 in Peterborough, Ontario.  Through these projects he sought to explore the persistence of the myth of objectivity. Along with another artist, Hayes displayed a series of 8 posters around Peterborough during an arts festival. The posters, drawn in black sharpie, were based on historical fact, but not entirely true. Hayes explains how his project met with some resistance by critics who felt that it was dishonest or misleading. 

Although many of the posters were either taken down or destroyed by the elements, others remained and citizens posted photos of the installations on social media sites. Hayes explains that while he set out to explore the effects of the project, due to the ephemeral nature of the art, it was difficult to draw conclusions. However, he was able to speak with some members of the public. Through these conversations, he discovered that some knew the information was not entirely true, whereas others took the information as literal truth and even passed on the stories. This left Hayes asking the question of what made the posters believable and how their belief relates to the larger question of the myth of objectivity.

Simulating History: The Use of Historical and Political Simulations in the History Classroom

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to active history.

In this week’s video, we continue the discussion on active and engaged learning in public school classrooms. Brent Pavey, Head of History at Waterloo Collegiate Institute, shares his vision of how to engage students in political and historical debates. He explains numerous simulations which he has implemented in the classroom from mock UN Security Council meetings to Confederation debates. Pavey explains that the goal of these projects is to “engage students so they can imagine fulfilling the shoes of political and historical figures.” He hopes that these types of projects not only allow students to learn the material in an interesting way, but also introduce students to historical debates with which Canada continues to grapple. Pavey also offers advice to educators about outcomes that are either unrealistic or historically inaccurate. He urges educators that debriefing with students is important because during reflection, learning will often occur.

Developing Historical Detectives

Active History is proud to present a video each week from New Directions in Active History. The conference took place at Huron University College on October 2-4, 2015 and brought together scholars, students, professionals and community members to discuss a wide range of topics pertaining to the practice of active history.

In this week’s video, Lindsay Hall, Head of History at Clark Road Secondary in the Thames Valley District School Board, discusses the challenges facing teachers of history in the public school system. Hall explains that since students are required to only take one Canadain history class throughout high school, teachers must strive to instill curiosity in their grade 9 students. Hall provides examples of innovative activities and projects designed to build student confidence and subsequently, encourage students to take an interest in studying the past. Hall goes on to say that before students can “think like historians”, skills like close reading need to be developed. In her own experience, many grade 9 students lack reading skills, requiring her to become a “teacher of reading” before a “teacher of history.” Hall also encourages educators to be cognisant of the way student’s encounter the past in their everyday lives through tv shows, video games, novels, and the internet, among other topics. She ends by arguing  that skills taught inside the history classroom can extend beyond the its walls and can encourage students to become critical thinkers and problem solvers.