“Empty Space”: North as abstract and reality in Canada Hall

by Victoria Ellis

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The North in the Canadian psyche is a nebulous thing: an all-consuming marker of identity on the one hand, and on the other an oft-forgotten afterthought to Canadian narratives. In Canada Hall at the Canadian Museum of History, North takes its usual place as a footnote to the narrative of Canada’s journey. This paper sets out to explore how and why the Hall visualizes North the way it does—namely, a small, simple symbol focused on technology to encapsulate a vast and varied region. To illustrate this larger point, the Hall’s use of space is the prime area of study. The delineation of artefacts, narratives and technology are prime indicators of where priorities lie. Through this study, we can come to see the North as both a cultural and political frontier. A study of popular Canadian narratives of North and the space dedicated to these narratives shows the Hall as the latest in a long line of culture-making forces imagining the North as empty, untouched wilderness—this time, though, with a strong focus on the triumph of technology. Building on these narratives, spatial syntax theory and critical museology can shed light on the relationships between museums, visitors, and exhibit meaning—outlining the connections and disconnections between this exhibit and the stories it is telling. Space in the official Canadian narrative is contested territory, and the representation of North is often incomplete. In Canada Hall, this trend continues: space and story show a region simultaneously appropriated and forgotten.


North; Canada Hall; Spatial syntax; Frontier


Victoria is a first-year MA student and recovering journalist studying in the heritage conservation stream of Carleton’s School of Canadian Studies. Just recently she moved to Ottawa from Halifax, NS, where she completed her undergraduate degree at Dalhousie University and University of King’s College. Her BA is a combination of Canadian studies, history, and journalism—so where else could she come afterward but Carleton? Her research interests lean toward the unique geographic and economic challenges of the heritage industry in Canada’s North. She is spending this degree focusing those interests through coursework and exploring this strange beautiful city.