Ottawa House: Public History and Active History

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By Andrew Nurse, Mount Allison University

Ottawa House by the Sea is a museum on the Parrsboro shore in Nova Scotia.  It is anything but polished. Ottawa House is old, at least by Canadian standards, and it did serve as Sir Charles Tupper’s summer home for nearly two decades. But, it is a far cry from the Georgian-styled “mansion” promised on tourist web sites. One could, in fact, argue that Ottawa House epitomizes everything that is wrong with small-town historic houses.

I don’t want to make this argument. Nor do I simply look to contend that local history sites are potential venues for active history. This point is self evident. Instead, this post tries to make the case that Ottawa House is already the site of a very interesting type of active history, even if that history might not be immediately recognizable as such.

What is wrong with Ottawa House? The answer depends on one’s perspective. From the perspective of the modern tourist-oriented heritage industry – deftly explored by Ian McKay and others – one might say: just about everything. Ottawa House is set in a stereotypically picturesque location, but it is not easily accessible from main travel routes, it has next to no virtual presence, and the building itself shows serious signs of wear. It may have been gracious in its day, but its interior lacks the consistent look and feel that draws out for tourists the elegance it advertises.

From the perspective of professional historians, Ottawa House will appear more as a storage site then a lieu de mémoire. Officially, it tells a three-part story based on stages of settlement: Native, Acadian, then prosperous ship-building town tied to the Maritime economy. In reality, its rooms are so packed with objects that it appears more as a post-modern mélange then a narrative.  And, even the narrative is unclear. What causes social change? How did different peoples living on the Parrsboro shore interact? On these questions, the interpretive design is silent. In short, as both lieu de mémoire and interpretive narrative, Ottawa House fails.

What makes it interesting is precisely these failures. Ottawa House is clearly the work of amateurs, by which I mean a local history society run by volunteers. Its exhibitions are notable for two characteristics. First, they are a product of local activism. The artifacts on display were donated by community members, ransacking (one feels) their own attics. The slippery language of artificial authenticity (“similar,” “from the time,” etc.) is absent. What Ottawa House presents is a bunch of old stuff, saved by community members, and put up on display.

Second, Ottawa House strives hard to be “politically correct.” This is an overused term whose very overuse has made it meaningless so a word of explanation is required. There is no doubt that a critical analysis of Ottawa House could demonstrate that its displays are implicitly coded in ways that contribute to racialization, sexism, and class-based conceptions of the past. But, the people who put the displays together have tried to address these issues. They have tried, in other words, to devote space and energy to Original Peoples, women, and workers. Whether or not they succeeded will be a matter of debate. What is important is that they have tried to build an historic site that encompasses difference without collapsing it into a single plot line. Said differently, Ottawa House puts a local understanding of difference on display and makes what looks like a serious effort to treat this difference in as even-handed a way as possible.

Like many small-town historic sites, Ottawa House runs into problems. Its official discourse (if it can be said to have such a thing) plays with standard “golden age” themes in which history, at a certain point, just ends. The important local shipbuilding industry, for example, disappeared with the changing times but how and why and the effects of this change are not addressed. It leaves one with a semi-pervasive sense of nostalgia that is very similar to many other small-town historic sites in the Maritimes.

For all its shortcomings, the history on display at Ottawa House tells an interesting story. Through its displays and artifacts, it is a story that links the local history of the Parrsboro shore to wider historical dynamics: to trade and transportation networks, the mercantile economy, Confederation, and patterns of population displacement. Ottawa House has its standard and forced series of firsts (“legend has it …,” etc.) that are supposed to appeal to tourists, and its connection to colonial grandés, but these heritage industry standards are downplayed in the face of the House’s accumulation of ordinary things from days gone by. Moreover, these ordinary things are not purely local, at least in origin. They come from all over the place, demonstrating the way in which goods moved across networks and ended up in specific places at specific times. The criteria used to set up displays seem to be a particular objects use value in the past; not its aesthetics or supposed authenticity.

The end result is that visiting Ottawa House is something other than a trip down a nostalgic lane.  By virtue of its very lack of polish, commitment to community artifacts, and desire to treat different social groups fairly, we get a museum that presents more than a frozen past. It is not perfect, but it shows an active past, where goods moved along a range of trade networks to reach destinations far from their starting points.

Ottawa House’s clogged rooms give us a different sense of the past. If the standard historic site is concerned with “authenticity” and period consistency, Ottawa House is concerned with interchange, use, and the accumulation of artifacts that might or might not create a consistent look and feel. In its very diversity, it creates a sense of activity: of people working, and going to school, making meals, and adding to their households according to their own inclination or taste or wealth.

It is also a product of community activity and so, in this sense, meets two different objectives of an active history: to convey a sense of the past as something other than a static vacation land and to promote a broader community involvement in the consideration of the past.  What more could those of us interested in an active history ask for?

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