The lives of historic women (or wearing a big dress on a hot day)

by Anne Marie Lane Jonah
This essay has been jointly posted with the Acadiensis Blog

Mid-summer 2016 Nova Scotia visitor numbers at Historic Sites are anecdotally reported to be up from last year. Once again tourists and locals wander in rebuilt towns and fortifications, watch, try their hand at demonstrations, and meet people in costume who share information about “their lives,” say being a 19th century soldier’s wife. Generations of seasonal workers and students have taken these roles. Some have made them their own, and over the decades the changing presenters have changed the presentation. The popularity of living history sites has fluctuated over the years and they have in recent years suffered under restrained budgets and difficult economic times. Nonetheless, they retain an undeniable appeal. As the work of public history goes on this summer, it is an opportune moment to reflect on how this work has been changed by the many actors involved in its creation and dissemination, and by its audience.

It is also a good time to reflect as “national” public history is 99 years old in Canada this year. In the summer of 1917 a small temporary museum in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and a tidied up “Fort Anne” opened to the public as the first “National Historic Park,” (later changed to “Site”). In the summer of 2017 Parks Canada National Historic Sites will celebrate their centenary as the country celebrates its sesquicentenary. What Canada’s historic sites represent, the stories they tell or don’t tell, and how they have evolved, have been the subject of many studies. From Ian McKay’s ground-breaking work to the Pasts Collective’s recent study of Canadians’ relationship to history we have become more conscious and critical of how the past is constructed, used, experienced, and valued. The role of the researchers, presenters, administrators, and the audience all come to bear on what we collectively call public history. We recognise the inherit conservatism and bias of the form, but it remains a vital aspect of our communities, both economically and culturally.


Cassie Deveaux Cohoon’s Jeanne Dugas of Acadia

In reflecting on decades of work in public history, mine and my colleagues’, I have recently focussed on the evolution of the presentation of women’s and non-elite history at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. In “Everywoman’s Biography: The Stories of Marie Marguerite Rose and Jeanne Dugas at Louisbourg,” Acadiensis XLV, N. 1, I explored how the lives of two women, one African and enslaved, the other Acadian, came to represent the stories and struggles of subaltern 18th century French-colonial women at Louisbourg. The study of these women, their inclusion as a part of the presentation of Louisbourg, their eventual recommendation for designation as persons of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, and their representation in histories beyond the walls of Louisbourg were the result of many years of work. The change they represent was the product of research, discussion and planning, and sharing information and ideas with communities and with visitors to historic sites. [Read the rest of this essay at Acadiensis]

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