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Manitoba History: Book Review: Alan Gordon, Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada

by C. J. Taylor

Number 86, Winter 2018

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Alan Gordon, Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016, 372 pages. ISBN 978-0-7748-3154-3, $35.95 (paperback)

Historic places do not spring naturally out of the ground: they must be recognized at a subsequent date and offered a measure of protection and interpretation. While the recognition of historic sites flourished across the country during the first half of the 20th century, development at these places was usually minimal until the 1950s. By the 1960s, however, a number of large historic site projects had been completed or were under way across the country. Virtually every province boasted at least one large project, and by the 1970s, there was a network of living history museums, as they came to be called, from coast to coast.

Alan Gordon, a professor of history at the University of Guelph, examines this phenomenon as a reflection of mid-20th century historical currents. He cites a number of factors contributing to their popularity. The rise of national consciousness encouraged the celebration of unifying myths and representative ethnic communities. Growing automobile tourism led to the growth of government agencies charged with facilitating infrastructure such as highways and accommodations, but which became increasingly concerned with developing cultural attractions. This led to the empowerment of provincial and federal organizations to develop historic sites as tourist destinations complete with restored architecture, interiors furnished with historic objects, and costumed guides to explain or re-enact, along with modern tourist facilities such as washroom and snack bars. Living history museums had arrived. Ronald Way (a central character in Gordon’s study who was involved in the development of Fort Henry in the 1930s, the prototype for this sort of attraction, and subsequently Upper Canada Village in the 1950s and Louisbourg in the 1960s) is quoted as arguing for a comprehensive network of historic attractions—both as a way of cashing in on history by promoting local and national identities as tourist attractions, and by promoting national unity (p. 95).

A theme of the book is the sometimes conflicting aims of representing the past while remaining cognizant of present day concerns. As Gordon writes in his introduction, “[T]he great irony of the mid-century rise of living history museums was that their attempt to preserve the lost past for future generations relied utterly on the technology of systems of modernity to recreate it and on the modern tourist industry to sustain it” (p. 15). In other words, expediency of creating workable attractions sometimes got in the way of accurate historical depictions. There are many examples of these conflicts throughout the book. Many of the buildings that comprise Upper Canada Village were moved to the site to save them from being flooded by the new St. Lawrence Seaway. The result was what some disparagingly called an ‘historic zoo.’ Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary is a similar concept, comprised of building that have been salvaged from other places to make an artificial historic construct. The Fortress of Louisbourg, which had been completely destroyed following its capture by the British in 1758, was reconstructed to a time before the fall. And Fort Steele, whose history was focussed on the Northwest Mounted Police in British Columbia, came to emphasize demonstrations such as blacksmithing and bread making, because this is what the public expected and wanted to see.

A way of resolving these conflicts was to immerse the visitor in what Gordon describes as “an authentic sensory experience.” He adds, “[E]ntering the recreated material environment of the past populated by people dressed in period costume and performing obsolete chores and tasks, was almost a form of time travel” (p. 16). Key to the living history museum, along with the restored or replicated buildings and period furnishings, are the costumed interpreters. These can function as either a contemporary guide, explaining the past or demonstrating past activities from the perspective of the present, or as a role-playing actor depicting an historical figure. This second configuration is called first person animation. I recall experiencing this technique when I first visited Louisbourg many years ago. On walking through the historic entrance, I encountered a man in the uniform of an 18th century French soldier who proceeded to complain about the hardships he had to endure such as poor pay and accommodation. It took a moment to realize that he was not talking about his life as a Parks Canada employee. First person animation in its pure form is not seen much these days; it’s too constraining and requires a lot of staff to work. But in its day, it was seen as an ideal way to facilitate time travel and the author claims that “most modern students of living history are highly enthusiastic about its potential” (p. 149).

First person animation has its limitations. To what extent can interpreters from the present (predominantly white, middle-class university students) portray other races and classes? Staff are encouraged to remain within a comfort zone of Eurocanadian domesticity. As Gordon observes: “At Lower Fort Garry in the 1960s, interpretation of Cree and Ojibway history were accorded lesser significance than reenactment of the factor’s garden parties and typical living history demonstrations such as blacksmithing” (pp. 290–1).

The weakness of first person animation is tied to the larger premise of the living history museum: they are tableaux frozen in time and so cannot easily represent historical processes or development over time. Louisbourg, for example, portrays a French community in New France before the Conquest. Wolfe’s siege lines, whose depressions could still be discerned, are largely ignored in the presentation at the site. There are ways out of this dilemma. Gordon offers the example of ‘Ksan, a site devoted to the celebration of regional First Nations cultures located near Hazelton, British Columbia. Gordon writes positively of this new approach: “‘Ksan was not a relic hall, even a living one in which artifacts and practices of the past were displayed, performed, and contextualized by animators in period costume who attempted to recreate their social and cultural contexts. Instead, it was a place of cultural revival. At ‘Ksan traditional ceremonies and art forms maintain their social and cultural content because they remain potent in the culture of the Gitxsan” (p. 294).

Many other examples of heritage sites using local informants to relate their cultural ties to place and history exist across the country, but they are not referred to in this book.

An underlying premise of the book is that living history museums are a thing of the past. They are a feature of a particular place and time (mid-20th century Canada), and that time and place has passed. “Twenty-first century expectations no longer match the tourist tastes that most living history museums were built to gratify,” writes Gordon (p. 301). The book argues that sites whose messages are so closely tied to physical recreations are therefore constrained in their ability to adopt new historical perspectives or narratives.

Time Travel gives us a useful and at times interesting overview of the rise of the living history museum in mid-20th century Canada. By its own admission, it is not intended to be a history of these places, but rather a portrait of an aspect of Canadian cultural history. [1] In this sense it is more an academic history of an idea than a history of heritage institutions. The academic historical perspective inhibits Gordon’s appreciation of the physical places. There is virtually no discussion of architecture, archaeology, or material culture. Indeed, the author displays some skepticism about the value of artifacts by suggesting one more reason for the demise of the living history museum: “However, this conviction in the value of the artifact broke apart in the poststructuralist understandings that penetrated the academic world after the 1970s and subsequently wound their way into museum work. New ideas about knowledge and truth embraced multiplicity and plurality, nibbling away at the straightforward association between artifact and understanding that the Victorian museum had built up” (p. 304).

Archaeologists, and some historians, may have difficulty with this statement. As a student of the last century, I always thought that post-modernism tried to get back to the thing itself, away from abstract interpretation. But here Gordon is arguing something quite different: “Although most museums have moved away from the idea that the truth is found in the physical artifact, their interpretations remain pinned down by materiality” (p. 306).

Living history museums as recreated historic sites or pioneer villages have not disappeared from the landscape, nor do they sit as empty relics from the past. They have evolved, some more successfully than others, it is true, but they continue to exist today in various forms across Canada. It is ironic, then, that the author’s criticism of living history museums as being unable “to reveal history as a process” (p. 312) also applies to his own conclusions about his subject. While the challenges they face in the new century are alluded to (i.e., lack of institutional support and dwindling visitation) these are not documented. And the adaptations that these places have implemented, such as the move away from first person animation, and efforts to accommodate multiple perspectives, are not described. And while some reference is made to new directions such as ecomuseums and heritage districts, these are not well explained, and the rich literature discussing these issues of change and contemporary engagement that Gordon finds so troubling is not referenced. [2]


1. Gordon asserts, “This approach offers a different perspective on such museums, one that not only helps us put them in historical context, but aids our understanding of their limitations in presenting history.” Time Travel, p. 11.

2. See, for example, the reports of the UNESCO World Heritage Papers.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 31 March 2021

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