Personal narratives and first-person interpretation at the Canadian museum of history

by Stephanie Elliott

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The Canadian Museum of History (CMH) offers the visitor a potentially active experience in Canada Hall, which features an elaborate series of spaces designed to follow “1000 Years of Canadian History” (CMH “Floor Plan”) from East to West. In this exhibit, the visitor enters a simulated reality with life-sized houses, ships, churches and streetscapes which frame the museum’s collection. The result is an immersive atmosphere, creating a sense of travelling through time and making visitors feel as though they are, in fact, standing outside in a New France square, for example. There is, however, something missing from this “virtual reality”: people. There is no one buying goods in the New France Square, Ontario Street is a ghost town, and the Vancouver International Airport is eerily still. This void breaks the “compensatory illusion” (Delaney 141) of the exhibit by omitting an essential aspect of the Canadian landscape, and in doing so causes visitors to relinquish their suspension of disbelief, and return, even briefly, to the present. Lacking too are human stories. Visitors are left with the sense that the places in the Canadian landscape and history are far more important than the people occupying them, and as a result they don’t see any version of themselves represented in it. First-person interpretation as a museum technique is able to bridge the gaps in the CMH’s Canada Hall, due to its ability to entertain while educating, effectively transmit human emotions and experiences, and to its ability to engagingly offer more substantial information than placards or mobile applications ever could.


First-person interpretation; Canadian Museum of History; Education; personal


Stephanie is a first year MA student in the Heritage Conservation stream of Canadian Studies. She completed a BA in French Literature at Carleton in 2012. After a snowy year off in the extreme north of Alberta to figure out her next step, she realized how much she loved the interpretation work she had done with Parks Canada on the Rideau Canal, and found the Canadian Studies program. She is really looking forward to getting more involved in the heritage community here in Ottawa and learning more about Ottawa’s heritage outside of the Canal. Her research interests include cultural tourism and interpretation, as well as social history, built heritage, cultural landscapes, and intangible heritage. After her Masters, she would love to manage and develop dynamic programming for historic sites in Canada.