Upcoming Historical Tourism Adventure

In September my partner is attending a work conference just outside of Washington, DC.  I’ve decided I’m going to tag along on the trip and explore some of historic sites, museums, and general history goodness in the area. So far I’ve come up with a few must see places, but I would love to hear suggestions from anyone who is familiar with the area and who has a general love of history.

The must see list so far:

  • American Indian Museum.  Given the lack of national Indigenous museum in Canada I’m intrigued to see how the American Indian Museum portrays the complex First Nation-Settler history.  My visit to the CMC‘s First Peoples Hall a couple of years ago was disappointing at best.  
  • National Museum of American History.  The desire to make this visit is mostly based on the insistence recommendations of colleagues and friends.
  • National Archives and Records Administration.  The desire to visit the National Archives is once again based in the desire to compare national differences.  Library and Archives Canada is far from welcoming to the casual visitor and has very little in terms of exhibits and public vaults. 

If time permits I would also like to make a visit to one of the numerous art galleries or art museums.  If you have visited Washington in the past what were some of your favourite experiences?

Heritage on Mackinac Island

 Last month I spent a day on Mackinac Island in Michigan.  This excursion was filled with heritage gawking and a visits to living history sites. 

Some of the trips’ highlights include:
  • Seeing the vibrant outreach programming at the St. Ignace Museums.  Each Friday night during the summer months the St. Ignace museums put on educational programming.  The evening I was there included a drum circle, and children’s music programming.
  • Heritage buildings on the island.  There is an overwhelming number of private and public buildings on the island which could be considered heritage residences.  A number of these buildings also included descriptive signage or were open to visitors.
  • Great natural landscape.  My favourite part being the arch rock, and the great views of Lake Huron.
  • Visiting Fort Mackinac
    • The Fort has great interactive programming for all ages.  For example, there was an entire restored building at the fort that was geared completely to interactive displays for children.  It included everything from dress up clothes, touch and feel exhibits, and a “solider instruction corner”.
    • There is also a considerable effort to make the Fort feel as though it is still functioning.  Cannon firings, actors in historical costumes, animated displays. and changing of the guards contributed to an overall old-time feel.
It was a great trip.  Though, a word to the wise: July/August is the Island’s peak tourist season, I recommend avoiding the main street of the island after about 10 am, unless you enjoy copious amounts of people and touristy shops.  Despite the crowded main street the rest of the island wasn’t nearly as crowded and there are tons of walking trails that are little used.  

National vs. Community Museums

In many of our public history classes earlier this year we examined some of the pros and cons of working at small and big museums. The point most often brought up was that small museums often lack funding to hire many (or any) full-time employees. Conversely, the bureaucratic structure of many large museums does not appeal to all public historians or museum professionals.

Spending the summer in Ottawa has made me look at this issue from another perspective. Ottawa has numerous national museums and the city of Ottawa is also home to many community based museums. How many tourists to Ottawa visit the smaller local heritage sites and museums over the national museums? Most school or bus trips focus on visiting the large museums. These museums are representing the entire nations history, and are one of the main tourist attractions in Ottawa.

So who do the smaller museums cater to? Many of these smaller museums focus on the unique heritage of various smaller communities within Ottawa. For example the Bytown Museum preserves the history of the original city of Bytown and the early years of the city of Ottawa. Similarly, the Nepean Museum is dedicated to preserving the heritage of Nepean and the former township of Nepean. Most of the community museums in Ottawa strive to interact with visitors and the community at large. Many offer a variety of weekend and summer activities. Until moving to Ottawa the unique combination of national museums and community museums available in the city had not occurred to me. This unique combination is ideal for anyone looking to expore a combination of national history and local history.

Upper Canada Villiage: Historical Tourism or Commericalism?

Should heritage facilities and organizations be restricted to featuring historically correct events? Any reputable museum or similar institution should have a mandate which outlines which historical period the institution focuses on. However, during times of economic hardship can historical institutions be blamed for attempting to attract visitors by reaching outside of their mandate?

This past Saturday Upper Canada Village held a medieval festival, complete with knights and jousting. The justification for this event, that is clearly outside of the historical scope of the Village, is that the park needs to attract more visitors. Many have been critical of this and other moves by the park, suggesting that the park is becoming overly commercialized. On Saturday, members of the Lost Villages Historical Society and other concerned park patrons protested outside the medieval festival. The Lost Villages Society has also raised some concerns over the safety of artifacts inside the Village, as many of them are out of the view of staff and could easily be stolen. One of my concerns is that without the proper context and explanation of why a medieval festival is being held, some visitors may assume that this type of festival actually occurred in Upper Canada in the 1880s.

Who is in the right in this instance? Should the park be allowed to do whatever is necessary to attract visitors? Or does the park have a responsibility to stick to it’s mandate? How much commercialism is too much? And when does a historical organization begin to lose it’s credibility?