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3. Les musées et les sites historiques : un passé représenté

Historical Memory and the Representation of History: Forging Connections Between National Historic Sites and Gender History

Brittney Ann Bos


La relation entre les Lieux historiques nationaux et de l’histoire des femmes et du genre n’a jusqu’à présent que rarement été explorée. Il est possible de mieux comprendre le lien potentiel entre ces deux domaines en considérant la mémoire historique en tant que méthodologie clé tant pour les Lieux historiques nationaux et pour l’histoire des femmes et du genre. La mémoire historique peut être comprise à la fois comme un cadre théorique et comme une méthodologie qui repositionne les questions sur le passé et la façon dont on s’en souvient, individuellement et collectivement. La mémoire historique est une méthodologie importante utilisée dans l’histoire des femmes et du genre afin d’examiner les questions complexes entourant la formation des souvenirs et l’histoire plus généralement. Elle se fonde sur l’histoire orale, mais présente un ensemble plus complexe de questions qui examinent la construction de la mémoire elle-même. De même, la mémoire historique est une méthodologie clée utilisée dans la conservation du patrimoine car elle sert comme une source importante de documentation et elle est utile dans la « mise en scène » du passé aux Lieux historiques nationaux. La représentation publique de la mémoire n’est pas seulement une méthode utile pour faire participer le public au passé, mais elle a également le pouvoir de transformer la mémoire collective de la nation. Basée sur ce lien, la mémoire historique est une méthode utile pour comprendre les liens complexes et rarement explorés entre l’histoire des femmes et du genre et les Lieux historiques nationaux. Cet article examine le rôle de la mémoire historique en tant que cadre théorique et la méthodologie féministe dans l’établissement des liens entre ces deux domaines des représentations historiques.

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1National Historic Sites offer Canadians a tangible representation of a ‘shared past’ that is constructed by site promoters and historians alike. Whether to attract visitors or reaffirm perceived and accepted Canadian values, National Historic Sites are promoted as important symbols of the past. The sites, and ideas associated with them, are both built upon and used to construct the collective memory of the nation. However, these tangible representations of the past often present monolithic interpretations of history (although individuals’ reading of them may not be) that do not consider complex questions related to multiple histories. In response to this critique, the practice of heritage conservation has transformed to include the history of the ‘other’. Nevertheless, the relationship between gender history and heritage conservation has rarely been examined and is under-represented in academic literature despite a formal recognition by both fields regarding the importance of the connection (Parks Canada, 2000; Dubrow and Goodman, 2003). The National Historic Sites System Plan, last revised in 2000, clearly outlines the commitment by Parks Canada to specifically conserve heritage related to women’s history due to previous under-representation (Parks Canada, 2000). While the formal recognition of this significant connection has been made on a national scale, very little literature has been produced regarding the theoretical connections between the two fields and methodological relations that exist linking these separate areas. The purpose of this paper is to offer theoretical insight regarding the already existing connections between these different fields by proposing the shared language and methodology of historical memory. Historical memory, as a theoretical framework and feminist methodology, offers an effective bridge and line of communication between gender history and heritage conservation, both of which can benefit from the increased expansion and complexity of Canada’s collective memory and representations of the past.

2This article is to serve as an introduction to the complex theoretical questions surrounding these concepts and thereby encourage more concrete case study examples to be explored in the future that can aid in the continued development and evolution of both gender history and heritage conservation. Through the employment of historical memory as a theoretical framework, it is possible to consider crucial questions within heritage conservation as a practice, such as: how does memory function at National Historic Sites? Which memories are commemorated and performed, which memories are left out, and for what purpose? And, how can memories be used in order to ‘reclaim’ alternative histories not traditionally presented at National Historic Sites? These questions, and the need to apply them to concrete case study examples, have resulted from the theoretical discussions of this particular paper and continue to inform my ongoing research in this area.

3This paper will be divided into three sections. The first section will outline the methodology and theoretical framework being considered, specifically historical memory, and its connections with feminist theory. It will trace the development of historical memory from its roots within oral history, recognizing the connections between these important feminist historical methodologies. The second section will introduce the practice of heritage conservation, specifically in relation to historical memory. From a theoretical examination of heritage conservation, it becomes apparent that the methodology of historical memory is often already employed within the practice. Both of these sections articulate the historiographies of the two separate areas and the connections with the emerging research associated with historical memory.

4In order to limit the scope of this essay, heritage conservation in its entirety will not be considered. For the majority of this investigation, only National Historic Sites will be referred to, but it is important to remember that ‘heritage’ is far more expansive than sites officially recognized by the federal government. Throughout this paper however, ‘heritage conservation’ will be used to refer specifically to the practice of preserving heritage more generally. National Historic Sites were chosen as the focus in order to specifically demonstrate the connections between heritage conservation more broadly and gender history. By discussing National Historic Sites broadly, this paper offers a theoretical backing for future case study considerations. The final section of this essay proposes a ‘bridge’ between the fairly separate and distinct areas of gender history and heritage conservation through the use of the common methodology of historical memory. By offering an example of how a few National Historic Sites, including two historic house museums, could employ the methodology of historical memory, this section demonstrates the possibility of a relationship between gender history and heritage conservation.

Oral History and Historical Memory as Feminist Methodologies

5In order to consider in depth the methodological connections between gender history and heritage conservation, it is necessary to outline the significance of historical memory to gender history as a field of feminist research in particular. Both oral history and historical memory have and continue to serve important functions within fields of feminist research, particularly as forms of methodology and documentation. These two frames of research can be understood as part of a historiographical transformation occurring within feminist scholarship. While oral history and historical memory are not unique to feminist historical research, both methodologies have been associated with, and have become intricately connected to, gender based research (Code, 1995; Oakley, 2000). The continuing emergence of historical memory as an area of study, theoretical framework and methodological approach, is based on the earlier work and observations of oral historians. By harnessing the empowering act of recollection and memory in the process of history, feminist researchers have worked to ensure the agency and legitimization of gendered voices. The intricate connections between these methods of research allow for a more complex understanding of the possible connections to other areas, including heritage conservation.

6In order to consider the theoretical frameworks and methodologies of both oral history and historical memory, it is necessary to outline understandings of the concepts of ‘history’ and ‘memory’ in relation to both of these areas of scholarship. A number of definitions have been offered for both terms and it is outside the purpose of this paper to contribute to this discussion. Nonetheless, it is crucial to briefly address this terminology. The nature and practice of ‘history’ has been discussed and debated academically since the emergence of the discipline. More than a simple chronological outline of events in the past, history is imbedded with the ideas and assumptions of those who record/ed them. ‘Revisions’ to history have been increasingly offered (by social, gender, racial, etc., historians), bringing into question the validity and ‘truth’ of historical events, and thereby transforming the discipline. Increasing attention to ‘memory’ has contributed to the transformation of the study of history, which will be discussed subsequently in this section. At a basic level, ‘memory’ is what is remembered, both collectively and individually, about an event in the past. Significant debates and discussions regarding the natures, influences and contributions of memory have characterized the early development of memory studies (Rossington and Whitehead, 2007; Morris and Gruneberg, 1994). Memory itself adds a significant layer of personal recollection to history and calls into question the often unquestioned ‘truthfulness’ of historical events.

7Oral history emerged as a significant method of documenting women’s voices, largely unacknowledged previously, during the surge of feminist historical scholarship in the 1970s. Simply defined, oral history “is an intensive method of interview with anthropological roots” (Leavy, 2007: 153) that records individual experiences and memories vocally recounted by a narrator and recorded by an interviewer. Oral history became one of the preferred methods of historical research by women’s history scholars who discovered that traditional forms of historical research were not adequate for the recording of marginalized voices (Gluck, 2002: 4). Leavy outlines the important political role of this feminist methodology: “Oral history is generally employed by feminists as a way of bridging the personal biography of women with the social context in which that biography is written” (Leavy, 2007: 155). By inserting personal narratives and biographies of women involved in historical events or with a recollection of them, feminist scholars are ensuring these marginalized voices have agency within the official discipline of history. Oral history reconstructs the nature of the discipline itself by creating an information network that functions from below and informs what occurs above (Leydesdorff et al., 2005: 4). Not only does the methodology of oral history transform the agency of the narrator and those involved in the histories, the methodology ultimately changes what is studied. Questions closely connected with social history coincide with oral history methodologies, while ‘official’ or ‘national’ histories often do not consider such issues. The content of oral history, Gluck argues, is special and unique not only because of the political motivation but also the set of distinctive questions explored by researchers (Gluck, 2002: 4).

8Oral history expanded as a methodology and arguably as a specific sub area of the history discipline throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It achieved academic acceptance and soon began to cross disciplines. As oral history continued to expand and become more complex, feminist scholarship itself began to transform. With a greater understanding of the intersections between gender, class, race, sexuality and ability, feminist scholars noted additional complexities in the lives and experiences of women (Gluck et al., 1991: 2). Oral history as a methodology therefore also underwent a transformation and the theoretical framework that it informed continued to develop. Increased attention was paid to the power relationship between the two subjects (narrator and interviewer), and the authority of the narrator to speak for entire groups was brought into question. In the last 20 years, oral history has continued to gain momentum and legitimacy as a form of historical research, but new areas of focus have emerged. For example, scholars of the twenty-first century have been devoting more studies to memory specifically and how memories are created and reinforced in individuals and groups (Sharpless, 2007: 27). Oral history has remained an important feminist methodology, but the focus has shifted and the practice itself has become more complex since its emergence within feminist scholarship in the 1970s.

9Historical memory and oral history are not separate methodologies, but rather form parts of the same basic method. The questions asked by these methodologies and their central focal points however are different. It is critical at this point to consider the relationship between methodologies and theoretical frameworks in order to understand the differences between oral history and historical memory. A theoretical framework can be understood as a series of questions, a set of objectives, and/or a collection of background information that informs the research itself. It is a combination of related considerations that inspires structures and creates the research being undertaken. While theoretical frameworks influence the methodologies chosen for this research, it is possible to use common methodologies for very different theoretical questions. In the case of oral history and historical memory, it is apparent that the root of both these areas is individual memories and recollections which ultimately create a common and shared methodological approach. If these frameworks are understood as informing the direction of the research (separate from the method), then oral history focuses on the narrator and their story while the practice is focused on inserting the individual’s voice into the official history or historical narrative. The central question revolves around the agency of the narrator and the representation of their story. Historical memory, on the other hand, uses the same basic methodology of oral history (that is, recording individual recollections) but considers a different set of theoretical questions that influence how the data is interpreted and analyzed. Rather than focusing on the story and the narrator, historical memory questions how the recollection itself is formed and constructed. It considers issues surrounding not only individual memories, but collective memory and social memory formed within groups (Halbwachs, 1980 [1925]; Ricoeur, 2006; Cubitt, 2007; Morris and Gruneberg, 1994). It is, therefore, possible to understand historical memory as a theoretical study that follows the methodological process of oral history while framing questions within larger interdisciplinary discussions of memory, all of which influence the conclusions drawn.

10The use of both oral history and historical memory within feminist scholarship is a significant method of empowerment to both the individual and the field of scholarship. As Gluck and Patai recognize, the telling of one’s own story or history is empowering for the narrator who has the chance to not only recount their own version of history, but have their life’s experiences legitimized and recognized by a larger audience (Gluck and Patai, 1991: 2). The recovery of silenced voices is not only an act of personal legitimization, but a pronouncement on behalf of entire groups that individual histories (particularly those of marginalized voices) are significant additions to the historical record. But the empowering qualities of such methodologies reach beyond the simple act of transmission and are not confined to the experiences of the narrator. Leydesdorff et al. argue that the memories of privileged groups, particularly those with substantial power, are more readily accepted by society than marginalized voices. Therefore, those who attempt to ‘rescue’ the memories of less privileged voices are also transforming the memories themselves by altering their social acceptance (Leydesdorff et al., 2005: 8). Not only does the narrator engage in an empowering act of transmission through the methodologies of oral history and historical memory, but the recorder/historian is also empowered in their ability to transform the manner in which specific memories are viewed. It is with this approach that the use of both oral history and historical memory become an important method of recovering previously silenced voices, particularly within a feminist framework.

11Both oral history and historical memory provide a unique understanding of the construction of history, memories and recollections, but both ask different theoretical questions that shape the methodological approach. While both provide valuable insights into the construction of history, for this particular examination, only questions surrounding historical memory and feminist scholarship will be considered. As will be demonstrated in the subsequent sections of this essay, the ‘bridge’ between gender history and heritage conservation lies more accurately within the study of historical memory. Theoretical questions, including how memories are constructed and subsequently transformed into histories, are an essential link between these areas. While oral history is important within the context of both gender history and heritage conservation as a useful methodology and process for gathering historical information, the framework of historical memory more acutely bridges the gap between these separate areas.

Heritage Conservation, National Historic Sites and Historical Memory

12The practice of heritage conservation is considered in this essay as an individual or institutional act that aims to preserve, maintain and promote the past, tangible or intangible. While definitions of ‘heritage’ vary across academic disciplines, nations and time periods, for the purposes of this examination ‘heritage’ refers to items or traditions rooted in the past that hold meaning and importance for a group of people(s) in the present. It is critical to remember that heritage conservation as a practice is not monolithic, and those within the field are not homogeneous. Because there is little space to address each nuance within the practice, for simplicity ‘heritage conservation’ will be considered as a broad entity. Focusing on National Historic Sites further narrows the definition of heritage. National Historic Sites refers to heritage ‘places’ formally recognized and designated by the federal government, specifically Parks Canada. While the sites themselves are tangible heritage representations, the ideas, traditions, stories and rituals associated with these places are largely intangible. It is through the interaction between the tangible and intangible aspects of heritage that the connections between historical memory and heritage conservation can be drawn and analyzed.

13The practice of heritage conservation and the tangible manifestations of National Historic Sites have a complex relationship with the ideas and methodologies surrounding historical memory. National Historic Sites can firstly be seen as ‘agents of transfer’ (Connerton, 2007: 36) that communicate collective memory to groups of people. As a practice, heritage conservation recalls and employs methodologies of historical memory in order to (re)construct the past for a particular audience. More specifically, National Historic Sites both rely on and create collective memory in order to forge a central national history. This central ‘national history’ often does not regard different experiences or memories tied to historical events, bringing into question the nature of its formation. The implications of forming a ‘national history’ that does not consider a variety of histories are significant, in that entire groups of people and their perspectives can be literally erased from the collective memory. Important debates regarding ‘national history’ and its formation have been explored within a number of academic research fields (Anderson, 2006; Connor, 1992; Dumont, 2000; Sandwell, 2006). While this discussion is central to the consideration and formation of National Historic Sites and crucial to question in future research (because these places are a critical component in the formation of ‘national history’), it is outside the scope of this paper.

14Connerton explains collective memory as an ‘act of transfer’, a process by which groups and individuals from the present draw on their shared past (Connerton, 2007: 36-39). By drawing on a shared past, groups (whether nationally, locally, racially, ethnically, etc., based) are able to form specific identities that can be transferred and reinforced through generations. National Historic Sites in this case function as the agent of transfer, by which shared histories and ideas are transferred to the larger population. In defining historic places, Christina Cameron asserts: “Canada’s historic places capture the spirit of the nation. They provide the connecting fabric that links us together as Canadians. Our relationship to historic places helps to define who we are” (Cameron, 2000: 77). Thus, National Historic Sites specifically employ and operate within a framework of collective memory, effectively used to transfer shared histories across generations. Therefore, if collective memory is sustained by ‘acts of transfer’, National Historic Sites function as the central location for the process.

15Additionally, National Historic Sites and heritage conservation can be understood as a functional component on a continuum between what Halbwachs terms as ‘general history’ and ‘social memory’. Heritage conservation, and more specifically National Historic Sites, are tangible representations that provide physical manifestations of the nation’s history. But additionally, National Historic Sites can be understood as a functional mediator that resides in between history and memory. The information and ideas presented at National Historic Sites are largely based on memory, and specifically collective memory. These stories are then transformed into nationally recognized histories. As Halbwachs articulates: “General history starts only when tradition ends and the social memory is fading or breaking up” (Halbwachs, 1980 [1925]: 78). If social memory and general history is viewed as a transition, as Halbwachs suggests, National Historic Sites can thus be viewed as a part of a continuum from one phase to another. National Historic Sites (and heritage more generally) is therefore a signifier that a tradition or social memory is reaching the second phase of ‘general history’. But the unique function of heritage conservation as a practice should not be overlooked. Drawing another interpretation, heritage conservation can be viewed as a practice that crosses both ‘phases’ as it evokes memory in order to create history. It is significant to understand heritage conservation as a practice within this framework as it reveals the important, and specifically the ongoing, dialogue between social memory and ‘general history’. If viewed through the practice of heritage conservation, it appears that the two phases of social memory suggested by Halbwachs are not separate, but rather they overlap and continuously interact.

16Thirdly, National Historic Sites can be framed as tangible ‘representations’ of memory. Questions of representation are significant within heritage conservation, specifically on the national scale. National Historic Sites have the rather unique ability to physically represent histories, peoples and events. Most history and memory remains within the realm of the abstract, either within an individual or a collective imagination that is constructed according to past experiences that are lived or imagined. Unlike the relatively abstract mediums of oral accounts and even written texts, National Historic Sites literally embody and display histories and memories to larger audiences. These histories and memories function on a physical and literal level within National Historic Sites which physically present otherwise abstract concepts of memory. The physical representation of intangible memories in a tangible historic site allows for history to move from the immaterial to the material within the experience of individuals. Comparable to the museum, this transition significantly impacts the influence of history and its ability to communicate.

17In summary, the practice of heritage conservation not only employs the methodology of historical memory, but dramatically shapes and alters the understanding of its function and the fabric of memory itself. Sites have the ability to not only transform, alter and manifest memory, but also to create them. Eric Gable and Richard Handler examined the ethnography of colonial Williamsburg in Virginia in order to understand the interaction between memory and history at an historic site. Their study found that colonial Williamsburg not only represents historical memory for the public to consume, but the site asserts that it creates collective memory from the experiences of the visitor (Gabler and Handler, 2007 : 47). Additionally the authors point out ; “Colonial Williamsburg tends to transform public history into private memory by collapsing the distance between the reconstructed past (the museums history lesson) and the visitor’s touristic or familial experience on the site” (Gable and Handler, 2007 : 48). In their example, Gable and Handler discover that the memories and experiences of the visitor do not significantly contribute to the ‘collective memory’ of colonial Williamsburg, contrary to site promoters’ assertions. One contributing factor is the misunderstanding and/or simplification of ‘memory’ by site promoters and marketers. Within the context of promotion, ‘memory’ becomes equated with ‘experience’ (Gable and Handler, 2007 : 51), and therefore ‘collective memory’ is simply a collection of experiences.

18While the visitor’s individual experience may not significantly alter the entire collective memory of a particular site, the space still has the ability to alter and shape memory. Gable and Handler note that return visitors to colonial Williamsburg tended to complain and raise issue with any changes that occurred to the site (Gable and Handler, 2007 : 50-1). Managers at the site were attempting to make the space more ‘historically accurate’ and representative of a singular national history. In doing this however, following Halbwach’s transition theory, managers were altering individual memories that shaped the ‘general history’, which in this context can be understood as equitable with ‘national history’. Therefore, in changing individual memories that contribute to the collective memory, managers of colonial Williamsburg were, in the long term, altering national history itself in their attempt to better represent it. Even if the conclusion of Gable and Handler is accepted, that individual memories do not significantly contribute to collective memories of a site, this example demonstrates that heritage sites potentially have the power to alter memories which in time can alter national history. It can therefore be seen that heritage conservation as a practice not only employs methodologies of historical memory, but contributes and even alters understandings of memory based on its power to significantly shape and change not only memory, but history as well.

19Also significant to the discussion of the shared methodologies of historical memory and heritage conservation is the element of ‘performance’. Connerton suggests that collective memories are formed primarily through repetition. These images and traditions of the past are sustained, he suggests, by ritual performances (Connerton, 2007 : 4). The reinforcement of memories, on a larger scale, therefore become active and, like heritage conservation as a practice, transforms memories from the realm of the intangible to the tangible. Similarly, Ricœur suggests that groups of people forge identities together, not in isolation, and these group (or collective) memories are primarily manifested and preserved in public performances, such as public ceremonies (Ricœur, 2006 : 11). It is through these collective acts of memory that individual memories are reinforced and reshaped. Similarly, National Historic Sites strongly rely on performance as an important element in the transmission of ideas associated with that particular place. Sites of national historic significance can be understood as a national ‘stage’ (Gable and Handler, 2007 : 49) whereupon collective memories are acted out for a larger audience. The act of interpretation itself can also be seen as a performance, where staff take on historical roles that are ultimately based on singular histories, but also the individual and collective memories of the person featured in the performance. The performance of memories not only creates a physical representation of them, but alters the very nature of the collective memory itself, offering a new layer of meaning and understanding.

20An example of a National Historic Site in Canada that could benefit from a renewed mandate employing the methods of historical memory is the reconstructed Fortress of Louisbourg. While this National Historic Site is not directly associated with gender history, efforts have been made in the last decade to consider the different perspectives of Louisbourg’s history in accordance with gender (mainly by simply including women’s perceived experiences). As Erna Macleod argues, the Fortress of Louisbourg, as a National Historic Site, continues to marginalize the ‘other’ in its representation of this historic place (Macleod, 2006 : 362). Stories from women, black slaves and other ethnicities, all people who would have been present at Louisbourg, are marginalized (in the case of women) or else missing completely (in the case of black slaves). The narrative is instead confined to a story about the ‘two founding nations’ of Canada and their struggle for power (Macleod, 2006 : 362). While historical memory as a methodology is less useful for historical documentation purposes (because no one today remembers the original Louisbourg), the case of Williamsburg offers an excellent example of how visitors can contribute and alter the history presented at a site simply by what they remember and how they imagine the past to be. What is particularly useful in the case of a revised plan for Louisbourg is the consideration of historical memory becoming more integrated with the site interpretation and performance. By including more stories that reveal the disparity among the inhabitants of Louisbourg, the story of the fortress becomes more complex. Their performance, as suggested, can serve to alter the collective and individual memories of the site, thereby having the potential to alter national history as well. The construction of these interpretations using ‘memories’ would be complex due to the lack of written material on the diversity of experiences at this particular site during the period represented. However, the continued representation of monolithic experiences will ultimately transform both the collective memory of the site and the individual memories of visitors that conform with a falsely represented simplistic history of a complex site.

21A number of positive changes have been made at National Historic Sites that serve to include more citizens within the nation. Susan Ashley explores an installation focused on the Underground Railway that was featured in 2002-2003 in Toronto (Ashley, 2007). Although not a National Historic Site, she argues that this exhibit provides a valuable example for how National Historic Sites can adapt in order to include more stories as part of the national narrative, thus increasing citizen participation and belonging. As she describes, this “dramatic narrative used a first-person storytelling mode and a sympathetic female narrator with emphasis on theatre, music and drama” (Ashley, 2007 : 484). In this case, historical memory occupies a central space within the presentation and performance process. Here, it not only serves to bring history to life, but ensures visitors have a personalized connection with the exhibit. Within this exhibit, where the methodologies and theoretical questions of historical memory occupy a central position, Ashley observes that the effects rippled down to the community level and instigated both local and national changes. Exhibitions like these are a method in which heritage, as a practice, can ensure inclusive citizenship for all Canadians (Ashley, 2007 : 486), and even alter individual and collective memories to include more diverse and accurate views of the past. The follow up and continuance of such exhibitions, with historical memory offering key insight, will ensure these positive changes are far reaching.

Historical Memory as a Bridge

22As the previous sections acutely illustrate, both gender history and National Historic Sites heavily rely on historical memory and related methodologies in order to communicate ideas about the past to their respective audiences. But how can historical memory be used as a bridge and line of communication between these different areas and directions of historical research ? Because both of these areas depend on historical memory as a key methodology, attempts to answer this question would be a logical place to begin a ‘conversation’. In this final section, I will focus on forging this relationship between gender history and heritage conservation (specifically National Historic Sites) through the means of historical memory. In order to illustrate the potential connections between gender history and heritage conservation as fields, theories and methodologies, it is useful to outline a practical and tangible example. To accomplish this, this section will integrate discussions of individual National Historic Sites and a specific type of site, the historic house museum. It will illustrate how the accurate and comprehensive presentation of history depends on a dialogue between gender history and heritage conservation that can be effectively mediated by historical memory. It is important to note that these tangible examples are largely introductions to case studies that can and should be developed more in the future. They are meant to briefly contextualize the theoretical discussion and begin to illustrate the large potential of historical memory within heritage conservation.

23Historical memory can be envisioned as a ‘bridge’ between the separate contexts of gender history (coupled with feminist theory) and the practice of heritage conservation. Historical memory, as a methodology and theoretical framework, can be used within two components of heritage conservation that would ensure increased communication with gender history. First, historical memory can serve as a type of methodology that aids in the documentation of a particular site. Documentation, in this case, refers to the historical and other methods of research undertaken to record the particularities of a specific site. Similar to the manner in which oral history has become an important part of the documentation of National Historic Sites, historical memory can be employed to construct and understand stories connected to these places. Oral history has been called into question, within various historical research fields, due to its potential unreliability. However, by focusing on the construction of the memory rather than the memory itself, the findings associated with the methods of historical memory should not be confused with the more ‘factual’ information obtained during the research of National Historic Sites. Historical memory also allows for the consideration of other social constructions, including gender. As a methodology, historical memory does not serve in the tangible documentation of a site within the practice of heritage conservation, but it does ensure that the documentation includes important components of social histories and constructions. Using historical memory as a methodology for part of the documentation enables important questions associated with gender history to be raised within the context of National Historic Sites.

24Secondly, along with being a methodology assisting in the documentation of a site, historical memory can be employed as a central component of interpretation, or more broadly labeled ‘performance’. Stories, memories and histories are literally ‘performed’ at a number of National Historic Sites that have live interpretation. Recognizing the performative aspect of the interpretation of heritage sites allows for a connection to be drawn between historical memory and further with gender history. Compared to the methodology of oral history, historical memory ensures the focus remains on the teller of the stories, not the stories themselves. The construction of the teller’s experiences for an audience is a crucial component of the collective memory generated at a site. For example, no visitor is able to personally recall the war of 1812 when they visit Fort York, and therefore the visitor (and Canadian citizen) relies on effective interpretation to develop the collective memory of the nation. If gender is also understood as a performance, the interpreter’s role as simply the teller of a story becomes more complex to include reflections on not only their historical gender identity, but also how they construct that within the contemporary context. Historical memory thus becomes a central component of consideration within the interpretative program of any site, not only those specifically focused on ‘gender’. It is through this crucial connection that historical memory allows for the performances of both memory and gender to play an active and central role within the interpretation of any National Historic Site.

25Some National Historic Sites have recognized the potential contributions of memories and have integrated them into their documentation and performative methods. Pier 21 is a prime example of a National Historic Site that commemorates the histories and experiences of scores of immigrants to Canada. This site (and the museum which has been built to supplement it) does not focus specifically on ‘gender history’, but every National Historic Site can be connected to issues surrounding gender, especially those which present ‘alternative’ histories like Pier 21. As Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc recognize, the site of Pier 21 is a significant space within the history of Canada, and also within the collective and individual memories of the nation and its citizens (Duivenvoorden Mitic and LeBlanc, 1988). The museum that is situated on this site is a positive example of how historical memory can be applied to the museum and heritage conservation setting in order to address the multiplicities of histories which are present at National Historic Sites. The museum encourages individuals associated with Pier 21 to contribute to the space by offering their stories and memories, which are then integrated into exhibits. These memories contribute to both the documentation process and the performance of the site. The memories (both written and oral) become a part of the museum space, both tangibly and intangibly, and contribute to the history connected to the National Historic Site of Pier 21. This serves as a positive example of how historical memory can be literally employed within the mandate of a museum and National Historic Site that could be easily employed at other sites, including those related specifically to gender history.

26Another example can be illustrated using the historic house museum as a tangible discussion. Before introducing the historic house museum within the context of historical memory, it is necessary to outline what an historic house museum is. While the focus of this paper is not on museum studies in particular, the discussion of historic house museums is directly related to both gender history and heritage conservation. An historic house museum is simply a small scale museum that presents artifacts and displays within the domestic interior space of a house. Similar to living history museums, they allow for a facilitated understanding of heritage and historical events as they are presented within a defined context. The difference between ‘historic house museums’ versus simply ‘heritage homes’ is primarily public access. Because historic house museums are open to the public and interpreted for visitors as historic places, the focus of this short example is on historic house museums as opposed to heritage homes. The creation and interpretation of these sites falls within both heritage conservation and museology, but for the purposes of this paper, only the connections to heritage will be considered.

27The particulars of historic house museums are significant to consider within the context of both heritage conservation and gender history. Domestic spaces are important sites for the performance and maintenance of gender roles and therefore historic house museums seem like a suiting space for discussions surrounding gender history and its public presentation. However, as Patricia West notes, house museums have in fact not been an inclusive space for the presentation of women’s history specifically. Historically, house museums have focused very little on gender roles per se within domestic spaces and instead have centered around the prominent family or famous man who lived in the house (West, 2003 : 83-4). The discussion of gender roles, even within the context of these famous men and their families, is rarely introduced within the interpretative programs of these museums. Despite these historical shortcomings, rethinking has began, as is evidenced in the Bishop William White House in Philadelphia where the showcase of domestic work (with a classed and raced component) is one of the central focuses of the museum (Diethorn, 2003 : 96-99). By repositioning the focus of the historic house museum, the curators are not only showcasing the important gender roles of a particular period, but also adding additional layers of complexity in the collective memory of the site.

28Within historic house museums, the methodology and theoretical framework of historical memory can aid in both formal documentation/research and the interpretative program of the site. Historical memory offers additional questions in regards to documentation that change the direction and goals of historical research completed on properties. Rather than a fixation with facts, the theoretical frame of historical memory allows for divergent ideas associated with a place. The inclusion of memories and an examination of their construction can reveal additional information about an historic house that may not be available through other historical research methods. The inclusion of these other memories in documentation and research is not only significant for recording the history of an historic house, but also makes the experience more interesting for the visitor. By offering a personal ‘performance’ of the site and its historical function, visitors can become personally engaged with a place, adding to their own individual memories. This performative aspect of the historic house museum allows for more interesting entertainment for the visitor, but also changes the direction of the memories associated with that particular place.

29A significant National Historic Site which is also a historic house museum, the Emily Carr House, can provide a valuable example to illustrate this point. This particular site has been noted for its connections to Canadian women’s history, being the principal site associated with one of Canada’s most famous women. The historic house museum is located within the childhood house of Emily Carr and features a number of her belongings within a domestic space set up to depict her and her family’s life in Victoria. Emily Carr, primarily known as an early 20th century visual artist, wrote a number of books and kept detailed journals throughout her life. This source material could provide invaluable information for new interpretative programs that take into account ‘memories’ as much as they do ‘truth’. Highlighting the different experiences of not only Emily Carr herself, but others who lived in the house could offer a more diverse approach for understanding the building itself and the time period more generally. Historical memory, as a theoretical framework, can serve to reposition ‘memories’ associated with the house and life of this key historical figure. Rather than focusing on the factual and chronological events of Emily Carr’s life, a repositioned approach which emphasizes her own memories and those of others, has the potential to allow visitors a more intimate and personalized experience.

30An historical house museum is often designated as such because it is associated with a locally or nationally prominent person or family. Oral history has been used as a method of recording the stories associated with a particular place and its development, especially within contexts where very little written documentation exists. While oral history can be an important supplement, it often does not provide the substance and formality of information required. Turning to historical memory as an alternative methodology, researchers uncover an additional layer of complexity. It is important to recognize that, like oral history, historical memory cannot provide all of the formal basic information required, such as the date of construction or materials used to build a particular historic house. Historical memory can however add a layer of complexity to these simple questions, especially if individuals’ ideas about a place conflict with the ‘facts’, as the following fictional example articulates. “Ms. Smith” may remember her grandmother telling her that she was born in that house in 1873, but registry and assessment roll information reveals it was not built until 1880. The methodology and theoretical framework of historical memory allows for the questioning of these conflicts between sources in order to understand the construction of memories associated with places, while other methodologies may simply be concerned with uncovering the ‘truth’ (whether the house was actually built in 1873 or 1880). Within the practice of heritage conservation, the ‘truth’ is significant, but questioning how “Ms. Smith’s” memories are constructed, for example, can reveal as much about a place as the formal date of construction.

31Historic house museums that are open to the public have interpretative programs that contribute to the overall experience of the visitor through the use of text, visual and audio means. While text and visual components do have an element of ‘performance’, tours or other forms of spoken interpretation offer literal performances for visitors. Many historic house museum tours (similar to tours given at various heritage sites more generally) feature a costumed interpreter from an historical time period and context. Personal anecdotes about the characters’ lives and memories are often added to more factual information about the historic house. Whether factual or simply fiction, these stories told by the interpreter gradually become a part of the collective memory. The act of interpretation, and thus the performance of memories, becomes a crucial method of ensuring the collective memory of a place is both accurate and inclusive of multiple stories. One method for ensuring complex ideas about gender, race and class are included within the collective memory of a place is to include interpretation from the standpoint of domestic servants. Patricia West notes that visitors to historic house museums often receive interpretation only from the memories of the upper class families who lived there (West, 2003 : 84-6). A tour guide posing as a female domestic servant will offer a different tour and set of memories than a guide posing as the gentleman owner of the historic house, for example.

32Historic house museums focused on famous individuals and families can be greatly enhanced through the inclusion of ‘other’ voices. One potential site for this inclusion is Bellevue House, the Kingston residence rented to Sir John A. Macdonald for a brief period, and also a National Historic Site administered by Parks Canada. Visitors walk through the space on self guided tours, passing by a few costumed staff who answer questions. Guided tours are offered periodically throughout the year and for groups. While there are interactive (taped) guides, they only offer one standard ‘tour’. Increased attention paid to the ‘performance’ of individual characters that represent larger groups of people has the potential to transform Bellevue House into an insightful presentation of mid 19th century life in Kingston. Like with the Bishop William White House in Philadelphia, the famous individual (in this case John A. Macdonald) can still have a central presence at the site, but by increasing the visibility of ‘other’ characters, visitors can be offered a much more complex and comprehensive vision of what life was like during this period. Through the inclusion and performance of ‘other’ voices and memories, historic house museums can transform the individual memory of visitors and eventually alter the collective memory of the nation. It is significant to note that ‘performances’ are based on socially constructed ideas. In the same way that gender has been understood as a performance, memory can also be understood as a performance embedded with social expectations. It can therefore be through this shared language of ‘performance’ that ideas and historical realities regarding gender can be included within the collective memory performed at historic house museums.

33Continuing to bridge the gap between gender history and heritage conservation is a significant enterprise that has important repercussions for both fields of research. The research within this area has only just begun within the Canadian context, and greater investigation is required to determine how historical memory as a methodology functions (or can function) at specific National Historic Sites. Additional case studies which examine individual sites would greatly contribute to this stream of research and test the theoretical hypothesis presented in this paper. Working with heritage conservation could allow for gender history to gain increased visibility within national narratives and official histories of the nation. Heritage conservation, as was outlined earlier, is consistently portrayed as a physical manifestation of national identity. The practice of heritage conservation already relies on collective memory for the construction and presentation (or performance) of National Historic Sites. These tangible representations transform otherwise intangible ideas. Because of the visibility of the memories, they gain a new form of agency and legitimization that is not found in the realm of the abstract, which significantly impacts the histories of marginalized voices. Physical manifestations are literally more visible, but also figuratively more important within the collective imagination. If feminist historical methodology is to develop in terms of its political impact, it is imperative that the memories of marginalized voices become visible to a larger number of citizens, which can be possible through a developed relationship with the practice of heritage conservation.

34Heritage conservation as a practice would also benefit from a relationship with gender history through a shared connection with historical memory. National Historic Sites have the mandate to present history of national importance to Canadians. Through additional case study research and experimentation, it would be possible to determine if, for example, more Canadians would be interested in visiting or learning about sites if multiple stories were presented. Not only could this signal an expansion of the heritage conservation practice in terms of representation, but it could also mean an increase in interest and visibility. In order to test the theoretical conclusions of this paper, it would be useful to gauge visitors’ reactions to sites that focus on the recollections and memories of history, rather than the ‘truthful’ stories. Interpretive ‘performances’ that include individual memories with the addition of gendered reflections may allow visitors to see connections between the past and present, and specifically their own lives. As Connerton recognizes, not only is our view of the present shaped by the image of the past, but our current social order is maintained by the memory and traditions of past social orders (Connerton, 2007 : 2-3). It is possible that with a renewed vision and mandate, the visitors of National Historic Sites could be able to understand and deconstruct the connections between gender history and current social orders of gender. In this way, National Historic Sites (and the practice of heritage conservation) have the ability to become agents of effective and progressive social change through the use of historical memory in the presentation of gender history.

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Brittney Ann Bos, « Historical Memory and the Representation of History: Forging Connections Between National Historic Sites and Gender History », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #9 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2011, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :

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Brittney Ann Bos

détient une maîtrise en études canadiennes de la Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). Ses intérêts de recherche portent sur le patrimoine et l’histoire des femmes. 

Brittney Ann Bos
holds a masters in Canadian studies from Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada). Heritage conservation and women history are her main research interests.

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