A Look at Elk Island National Park’s New Visitor Centre

Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the grand re-opening of Elk Island National Park’s new Visitor Centre. It was so amazing to see the space re-imagined! Previously it was a pair of pokey buildings joined together by a dark archway. Its bathrooms had ancient brown tiles that looked dirty and dusty even when freshly cleaned, and the visitor centre had only small tinted windows that looked dark and closed. The whole thing also looked a lot like a maintenance shed; there wasn’t a real sense of arrival for new visitors. In great contrast, this newly renovated building is light and airy with an exhibit space as well as an information counter, water bottle filling station, and retail space… and a separate brand new set of gender-neutral bathrooms. (You have to address Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! You can’t underestimate the value of clean and modern bathrooms to visitor experience!)

So much thought was put in to think about this space from a staff member’s perspective (to be a positive, safe, and useful place to work) as well as a visitor’s perspective. You’ll notice some excellent displays that answer some of the most common questions asked by visitors, including stuff about visitor safety (particularly how to safely observe bison) and where the bison are. The trail map on the wall behind the info desk has something new: a heat map drawn from GPS collar data from the last several years that show where bison hang out in the park most often. Staff can also draw on the map with dry-erase marker! I think that’ll get a lot of good use. I think this space head some common questions and issues off at the pass, and will be a friendly, welcoming, and informative space that’ll set the tone for one’s visit.

I understand that Elk Island worked closely with local Cree First Nations as well as Metis groups to create some of the displays. The park also worked with a group of incarcerated Indigenous women who are part of a program to gain training and job skills while at the Edmonton Institution. Among other projects at Elk Island, the women created the star blanket (made traditionally on bison hide) that is the first thing visitor see when entering the building.

Cree Elder Melaine Campiou gifted the visitor centre the name Wahkotowin, which refers to the relationship with the land and all that live on it.

I congratulate my friends and colleagues at Elk Island, particularly Kat and Cam, for all the work they’ve done carrying this project through to completion! Kat marshaled a lot of folks with separate skills, knowledge, and expertise, to finish a wonderful project. I was involved tangentially in some of the initial research and visioning of the exhibit, plus sourced some of the images and did a quick review of the French text for accuracy. It’s amazing to see the space fully realized in person, instead of in a draft design PDF! I definitely excitedly pointed out a few historical images to my mum.

The other exciting thing for me was to see copies of my book, Through the Storm: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story* in the flesh! They were literally hot off the press, having arrived at the park the week before. It was absolutely thrilling to see them there – and to see them being purchased! I autographed a few copies, including one for a well-respected bison expert and friend Wes Olson. I also got to ask the question “Who shall I make this out to?” for the very first time.

I had to round out my visit by heading out onto the landscape spoken of in the displays. After all, the new Visitor’s Centre is meant to be only the gateway to the park experience! My mother and I hiked out into the Bison Loop on foot. It was the early afternoon (not “bison o’clock”) so as anticipated they weren’t visible from the roadway. We spotted a lot of bison signs, including the scattered bones of a bull bison. In the end, we watched a group of cow bison hanging out at the treeline over the rise: one of their favourite spots. An excellent way to end our visit!

* You can read a free digital copy of my book on Elk Island’s website. We ended up changing the title of the print edition because at the last instant we uncovered a small print run of books on bison from the 1990s with a title that was too similar. We’ll be changing the title on the website soon. Only the cover, effectively, will change, so in the meantime you can still learn all about the history of bison conservation in Canada, and admire many archival and modern images of bison. Of course you can pick up a print copy of the book in either French or English at Elk Island’s new visitor centre!

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What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?

Moving from working from a national park in Saskatchewan to a historic site in British Columbia, I stopped by to visit friends and family for a few days in Edmonton, Alberta. One old friend with a new face that I couldn’t miss visiting while there was, of course, the new Royal Alberta Museum. Here are my impressions.

 

 

Honestly, while I know that some people aren’t fussed by the new museum, my overall impressions were generally positive. The Royal Alberta Museum had to both build on the expectations of previous loyal visitors while still doing something innovative. I think some people are up in arms along the lines of “you spent HOW much and you didn’t even include HOLOGRAMS?? THIS IS 2018?!?!” I disagree with such sentiments. A lot of folks in the museum world are moving away from big multimedia spectaculars, because a) they cost a lot to create and maintain, and b) a lot of the feedback from the average visitors show that there is a desire from visitors for more artifacts, more of “the real thing” … AKA things you can’t get except in person at a museum. The Royal Alberta did that. They had displays of interesting artifacts that drew out parts of Alberta’s history that I didn’t know, or don’t know enough about, or things I do know a lot about but the average non-historian doesn’t. That being said, I do buy some of the critiques that there wasn’t an overall clear theme of answering the question of “what makes Alberta special?” My feeling is that they did a good job of showing individual narratives, but some of the overall narrative was a bit lost for me. Nothing is ever perfect, but I did think they highlighted a lot of messages that personally resonated with me, and I think it’s very clear that they did a good job of both consulting with Indigenous communities in what is now Alberta and incorporating that content throughout the exhibits. Kudos, too, for the use of Indigenous languages throughout the exhibits, where appropriate! They chose some truly excellent artifacts and people to tell Alberta’s history.

Let’s delve into some of the displays, shall we? I for one was really excited to see things like:

Continue reading “What do I think of the new Royal Alberta Museum?”

Elk Island National Park: Founded on a Bet?

It’s no secret that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Elk Island National Park’s history recently for work. One of the things that I could never quite wrap my head around is the motivations for the foundation of the park in 1906. Elk Island is one of the oldest national parks in Canada – it in fact predates the foundation of the more famous Jasper National Park by a year – and is the only remaining example of an “Animal Park,” founded as it was to protect one animal species (elk). Other national parks, like Banff, were considered “Scenic Parks,” founded to protect their beautiful scenery from logging and settlement and to encourage tourism. (The other two “animal parks” in Canada, incidentally, were Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) and Nemiskam National Antelope Park (1915-1947).) Elk Island has over a century of conservation history under its metaphorical belt, starting with the preservation of a small band of elk enclosed by a fence. But what motivated the creation of the only entirely fenced national park in Canada?

Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005162.html
Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The basic outline of the story that I was always told by other park employees and in short trail guides from the 1980s was that Elk Island was founded by “five guys who put up a $5,000 bond.” I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what that meant. When pressed, colleagues explained to me vaguely that five conservation-minded men from Fort Saskatchewan asked the government to create a national park and pooled their resources to show that they were serious in their commitment, and that the government matched that $5,000. Not knowing much about Edwardian bonds or the financial situation of the Canadian government in 1906, and not knowing what the money was even for, I wasn’t sure if this made sense. I was really left with more questions than answers.

Doing a little digging, it turns out that those five men from Fort Saskatchewan were all members of a hunting club. I knew that middle- and upper-class hunters from settler communities were often involved in early conservation efforts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, largely because they wanted large game to be managed for their own benefit and protected from the being killed by local people (largely Aboriginal and/or poor) for subsistence. The early history of national parks in North America as a whole is riddled with stories like this: more privileged “visionaries” reserving tracts of land from those who lived on and used that land already. This interpretation fits with descriptions of the Fort Saskatchewan men being concerned that unnamed people would shoot the last remaining elk in the region.

I still didn’t quite understand what the $5,000 bond was, though. I then ran across this newspaper clipping on the foundation of the park in the May 6th, 1906 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (click to enlarge). The relevant paragraph is the following:

“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“It is known to all who are familiar with such matters in Alberta that practically the last of the elk . . . are contained in a band variously estimated from forty to one hundred which is at present making its stamping grounds in the Beaver Hills, to the east of Edmonton. As Mr. Walker explained, some of the residents of his constituency, being very desirous of preserving the band, approached the Minister of [the] Interior on the occasion of his recent visit to this city and asked that he lay the matter before the Government at Ottawa and induce them to build a fence around at tract of timber in that part of the country . . . known to be the haunt of the elk. The Minister of [the] Interior replied that the Government would not be very likely to undertake anything of the kind unless they had some guarantee that there would be a fair possibility to get the elk inside the fence after it had been built, whereupon the Fort Saskatchewan men offered to put up a cash bond of $5,000 as a guarantee that within ten days after the fence was built they would have at least twenty elk within this enclosure. The guarantee was considered an evidence of faith in the scheme that could not well be overlooked, and the minister promised to do what he could to have the land set aside for the purpose of a deer park fenced.”

And thus Elk Park was born.

Three sides of the fenced enclosure were built around Astotin Lake by volunteers, leaving the southern boundary open. Elk were driven into this area, and the fourth fence constructed soon after, enclosing a grand total of about 24 elk in June 1907. After that point the five men were “released” from their bond as they had fulfilled their obligations.

Now, I interpret this incident almost as if it were a formalized “bet”: the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, didn’t believe that it was feasible to enclose this band of elk. The residents of Fort Saskatchewan disagreed. $5,000 was put forward by five men as a guarantee that they was serious about protecting these elk, and Oliver would set aside land for them to try to enclose the animals. If the five men were right, Oliver would make the fenced enclosure officially a national park (or protected game reserve). The residents, in the end, succeeded, and Elk Park was quietly managed as if it were a national park until it was officially designated one under the Dominion Parks Act in 1913. That does of course make me wonder, though: what if they’d failed to enclose the elk? Would “Elk Park” have been quietly re-absorbed into the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve from which it was carved out?

Regardless, the narrative of “far sighted, visionary conservationists” founding the park in 1906 never sat well with me. It always seemed like an idealization of the past or a romanticize of its founders. It’s a truism that people do things for selfish reasons. More research into this specific situation bore this assumption of mine out. It appears that one of the five men, a Mr. Lees, was awarded two contracts totalling $13,800 in 1906 to construct that fence. (Fence posts and wire are expensive.) He more than made up his temporary investment of a portion of that $5,000 bond.

But see, the thing is: just because national parks were founded for quote-unquote “selfish” reasons does not negate the century-long conservation legacy that came afterwards. Origins are not destiny. I think that telling a more nuanced, “warts and all” story is far more fascinating and provides a deeper understanding than a glossy soundbite about historical “visionaries”. Whatever their intentions – be it personal profit, a desire to reserve those elk for their own hunts, or an actual desire to see elk protected from harm at the hands of human beings – those five men did secure the protection of the last remaining significant elk herd in the Edmonton area, and the park that they helped to found went on to play a huge role in preserving plains and wood bison from extinction in the future. And that’s worth celebrating.

Resources

  • “Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1.
  • Colpitts, George. Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.
  • Hart, E.J. J.B Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
  • Scace, Robert. Elk Island National Park: A Cultural History. Unpublished report prepared for Parks Canada Department of Indian & Northern Affairs. Calgary: Scace & Associates Ltd., 1976.

Postcards That Intrigue Me, #4: Moose-Drawn Carriages

Today I was attempting to chase down a few historical images of a moose transfer from Elk Island in the 1940s (as one does), and instead ran across something very intriguing. A few months back, I spotted a similar postcard of a chariot being pulled by bison from approximately the same era. Was this a trend in the first two decades of the twentieth century in Western Canada? Let’s see what’s the oddest animal we can hitch up to our buggies…? Was there a shortage of horses or oxen in Alberta that I’m unaware of…?

Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005072.html
Gano J.H (Photographer) . [Early transport]. [Wainwright]: Photo J.H. Gano, [before 1920]. PC005072. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher) . Canadian scene, an old team - but they can go some. Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., Montreal, cca. 1911. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC009664.html
Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co (Publisher). “Canadian scene, an old team – but they can go some.” Montreal: Novelty Manufacturing & Art Printing Co., circa. 1911.  PC009664. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Judging by all appearances, despite the different publishers of these two postcards, it appears to be the same team of moose: one male, one female – and the same buggy, with potentially the same driver. The entry for the second postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces includes the following transcription of the description of the image on the reverse (unscanned), which charmingly gives the names of the two moose, as well as the driver: “W.R. (Billy) Day driving two moose (Pete and Nellie) at Edmonton Exhibition.”

Edit: Further information can be found in this St. Albert Gazette article. Apparently Mr. Day (also called “Buffalo” Bill Day) raised these moose and used the buggy to deliver mail to the City of St. Albert.

Knit Your Bit: Arm Yourselves With Knitting Needles, Friends of Rutherford House!

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The Rutherford House is commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the First World War through programming relating to the Home Front. To that end, just as women and children at home were urged to knit their bit for the war effort, their costumed historical interpreters are beginning to knit projects from wartime patterns. They’re also encouraging the public to do the same! I’m told that your work will actually be displayed at the historic site come November. So pick up your knitting needles and start knitting!

As an avid sock knitter (not a phrase you hear everyday, I know), I decided to use a sock pattern from this British Red Cross book of sewing and knitting patterns needed for hospitals (see also below). I intend to create a “normal” pair of socks and a mismatched pair of amputation sleeves – in essence, socks without heels for stumps.

Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War volunteers, page 17.
Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War Volunteers, page 17.

While sock patterns may look intimidating to some people now – especially if you knit with four or five double-pointed needles – they were in fact considered a beginner’s project over a century ago. Everyone needs socks – not everyone needs scarves – and even if the project ends up being fairly ugly or misshapen, you can generally find someone that they’ll fit, and they’re hidden in one’s shoes and are still a functioning garment. (Not so with scarves, which are on display.) They are also small, manageable projects with a clear beginning, middle, and end – not endurance runs like scarves. Socks are also incredibly useful to the war effort; clean socks helped to prevent trench foot.

Here is a small gallery of images showing the step-by-step process of knitting the first of the pair. Having a visual sense of how socks are supposed to be made may help you decipher the pattern above:

The patterns are very standardized. They occasionally offer larger or smaller options while urging knitters and seamstresses to make more of the items that would fit the most people. These instructions were meant to be simple and quick to follow; there wasn’t any time for complicated patterns if you’re trying to churn out as many pieces as possible for the war effort. (Sorry, no lace edging for these socks, or cables on the sweaters!) In the words of the introduction to the pattern book above: “A committee of the British Red Cross Society beg to inform the Public that all the patterns illustrated and described in this book have been designed to combine accuracy of fit with the least possible amount of work.” (Emphasis added.)

If you’re a beginner knitter, I’m sure that there are plenty of patterns you could try to push your effort. Already a sock knitter? Why not try gloves – or fingerless gloves? Just learned how to do decreases and increases and looking to try them out? There’s a simple pattern for a knitted cummerbund! Like knitting baby caps? There’s a toq pattern in there! (Okay, they call it a “knitted cap” but it’s probably about the same.) Advanced enough to be a sweater knitter already? Why not try their cardigan! Scarf knitter? Why not try this scarf… hat… thing…? Just for the novelty? Go forth and knit your bit!

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Hey, it might have saved a life! Stranger things have happened. From the Needlework and Knitting Instructions for First World War Volunteers. page 23.

Post-script: this isn’t the first time I have blogged about knitting and the Great War: click here for a photograph of a knitting nurse (and more rambling on the subject)!

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Circle

Circle:  Teepees are erected with a base “tripod” of three poles tied together. The other poles are laid in place in a circular fashion before another rope walked around them.  The canvas is attached to the tops of the tops of the last two poles and is dragged up – these form the smoke flap.  The poles are heavier and more unwieldy then they look.

“Ceiling shot!  Ok, I do this thing where I take pictures of ceilings.  Teepees are no exception.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part IV: the 1846 Fort and the Return to 2013”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street

Last Time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Dominion Day Bunting

Dominion Day Bunting:  I love the word “bunting”.  I find it a cheerful piece of vocabulary, although I also associate it the action of booting/kicking for some reason.  These are also the colours of the British/Imperial flag, not a celebration of France or the United States, though some visitors do get confused.  God save the Queen!

A tourist’s confusion.  While I was taking this picture one of the other visitors made the comment about how the bunting (Not a permanent fixture, just a Dominion Day decoration) must be an homage to the French contingent of Canada’s history.  I’m fairly certain that it’s just the colours of the Union Jack and not the French flag though, especially in a province that was named after a member of the British Royalty.  Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria who at the time was the ‘Queen of Canada’.”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part III: 1885 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street

Last time: (Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

Fire Station Red Brick, Red Engine:  This building is one of the reasons that the man who interprets the police officer on 1905 street is often mistaken for a fireman.  The interpreter this past summer kept a running tally of how many time he was mistaken for a fireman over the course of the season, and it was in the hundreds.

The Lost Kids.  When we were small kids my brother and I crawled into one of the sections of the building that was roped off to prank our mom and hide.  We didn’t always consider the rules…  or the angry mother… or the angry interpreters…”

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part II: 1905 Street”

(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street

A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011.
A photograph of myself taken by my good friend Cassidy Foxcroft, during the York Boat arrival program in August 2011, which is one of the most involved programs in the fur trade (1846) era of the park. I was interpreting the mixed-blood wife of the Chief Trader of Rocky Mountain House: hence the bonnet and lace.

My name is Lauren Markewicz, but in years past, when I worked at Fort Edmonton Park as a costumed historical interpreter, I was also known as Nancy Harriott (when working in the reproduction of the 1846 Fort) or Nancy Sparrow (when working on 1920s Street). Fort Edmonton Park portrays four distinct time periods of Edmonton’s history: 1846 (fur trade era), 1885 (early European settlement), 1905 (industrial era: post-railway but pre-war), and 1920s (roughly post-First World War to the 1930s). It is a park full of original buildings and reconstructions of buildings and sites that once existed in the Edmonton area. The park is animated by costumed historical interpreters who interpret past events, activities, and personages to visitors. As an interpreter, it was my job to try to bring Edmonton’s past to life, so to speak.

The following photographs were taken last summer by Kirsten Seiersen; this post appears in near duplicate on her blog, which you can find here. I look upon these images with nostalgia, as they were taken in the first season after my four years at Fort Edmonton were over. I was doing an internship at Library and Archives Canada in Gatineau, Quebec, bound to my desk in a cubicle instead of being paid to bake Saskatoon berry pies, knit socks, drive historical vehicles, and talk to people about history all day. I suppose I had to get a “big kid” job that didn’t involve dress up at some point, though if the park were open year round I honestly would never consider seeking another profession. Alas, this lovely historical park nestled in Edmonton’s river valley is only open for four months of the year. But what a season!

I was invited by Kirsten to comment upon the photographs she took while at Fort Edmonton on Dominion Day – that’s Canada Day, July 1st, to the rest of you – to get two alternate but at times complementary descriptions. My comments appear alongside hers. In my version of the post, her writing will appear in quotation marks and will be italicized. These posts will also be divided roughly according to era, creating a four part series. Allons-y!

Going to Fort Edmonton Park really is like stepping into the Tardis and popping back out in a different era.  I’ve been to the park plenty of times as a kid but the great thing about it is that each time you visit you notice something that you didn’t before.  The pictures in this post were taken the last time I went to the Park on Canada Day (July 1st); although at the Park it’s still referred to as ‘Dominion Day’ due to the fact that most modern area in the Park dates back to the 1920’s when Canada was still under more direct British rule.  I would also like to note that I think the interpreters at Fort Edmonton Park are superb.  They really are the root of what turns the park into an interactive experience rather than just another open museum.  It’s not that they simply dress up according to what time they supposed to be from and recite a couple historical tidbits here and there; they really act the part, stay in character, and engage visitors by sharing the current events of their time.  I also happen to know an ex-interpreter and history major who ever so kindly agreed to coauthor this post with me.”

(For ease of reference for those who have never visited the park, you can find a PDF map of the site here! We begin at the park entrance, on the Eastern side of the map, and work our way Westward. Isn’t that just the way?)

Drive to Work – All the Way to Work The 1906 Orient, seen on the left hand side of the frame, parked in the Motordrome’s office, is the oldest of the many functioning vehicles at Fort Edmonton Park. Made by a bicycle manufacturer, it is fairly light weight. No seatbelts of course, and like other comparable vehicles (like the one I talk about in this blog post https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2013/08/26/postcards-that-intrigue-me-1-the-first-car-in-canada/ or other vehicles https://historyboots.wordpress.com/2013/07/06/get-your-historical-drivers-licence-part-i-motorcars-at-fort-edmonton/) it does not have a conventional steering wheel but a rudder (the red bar). It is owned and operated by a volunteer who comes by a few times a season to take it out. Very few have had the opportunity to ride in this vehicle.

Continue reading “(Re)visiting Fort Edmonton Park Part I: 1920s Street”

First Person Versus Third Person Interpretation

First, a quick word about what I mean by “interpretation.” Costumed Historical Interpretation is a term that is used at Fort Edmonton Park and some other historical sites to refer to what it is the people in historical costume do at these living history museums. As opposed to popular conceptions of historical “re-enactment”, interpreters do not present or represent themselves as carbon copies of past events. They strive towards historical accuracy, but they acknowledge that everything they do is an interpretation of the past. Hence, “interpreter”, not “re-enactor”. The terms have different philosophies at their terminological roots, though both may draw from common theories and techniques. The goal of historical interpretation is to educate the visitor about a certain time period and its people in ways that can’t be achieved through books or traditional static museum displays.

There are several different types of historical interpretation, and each has its own advantages and drawbacks. The system that I learned uses the grammatical terms “first”, “second”, and “third” person – i.e., think “I”/”we” for first, “you” for second, and “he”/”he”/”they” for third.

North West Mounted Police Officer, 1885 street at Fort Edmonton,  from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012.
Interpreting a North West Mounted Police Officer on 1885 street at Fort Edmonton Park, from the Mountie Strike Program in 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

First person interpretation is probably one of the most well known and expected. In essence, the interpreter projects the persona of a historical figure or character, speaking as if they were that person in that time period: e.g., a blacksmith, a tennant farmer, Sir John A. MacDonald,  Louise Umfreville, Father Lacombe, etc. Some historical parks, such as the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village outside of Edmonton, do not allow their interpreters to break character in front of visitors except under very specific circumstances, which I think are limited things such as first aid emergencies and interpretation within a consecrated church. For most intents and purposes, they try to react as if they are indeed Ukrainian immigrants from the early twentieth century. 

If anachronisms are pointed out to an interpreter operating in strict first person – e.g., a visitor commenting upon an airplane flying overhead to someone acting as if they live in 1860 – the interpreter may insist that it’s a bird, dismissing things that don’t fit into the 1860s worldview. Visitors can get some pretty nifty responses this way. Interpreters don’t have to pretend not to understand anachronistic things that visitors tell them but can use it as an opportunity to practice their wit and verbal gymnastics.

This is where the elusive second person interpretation fits in, in which the visitor becomes more heavily involved. Think of it as a game of tennis: a costumed interpreter acts in-character with first person interpretation, and the visitor responds to that volley by sending the ball back, also pretending to be a historical person, though ignoring the fact that they aren’t dressed in period costume. Many interpreters performing in first person set this up automatically when they speak with visitors. They may say things like:

“Oh, are you new in town? When did you arrive? Was it a long journey?” Based on the visitor’s period-appropriate response, they can then have a conversation as if both individuals existed in the same historical time period, discussing (or commiserating on) the hardships of immigrating to Western Canada or other topics. The goal of interpretation, after all, isn’t just to be entertaining, but to be educational and informative.

Visitors don’t have to be history majors to interact in this way with interpreters. Even a “wrong” answer – guessing that they would arrive by train or automobile before they were invented or reached that region of the country, or indicating the wrong length or route of the journey – gives the interpreter the opportunity to express surprise and explain that they thought that the roads were too rough to allow for motorcars to come to town, or express hope that a proper highway or railroad will soon be built. The visitor doing second person interpretation does not have to provide historically accurate responses for the skilled costumed interpreter to “play ball”.

Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner's, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Acting as a customer in a store, in this case at the milliner’s, is a common example of visitors engaged in second person interpretation. 1885 Street, Fort Edmonton Park, summer 2012. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

Now, of course, first person interpretation can be problematic. For instance, an historical interpreter cannot wholly adopt the views of the past and react to visitors accordingly. I have seen some interpreters berate young female visitors for being immodestly dressed, which can embarrass them rather than teach them something valuable. Furthermore, how does one address issues of racism or other distressing topics such as eugenics while being incapable of breaking character? How do you explain that such negative views existed without coming across as being a supporter of them? Some visitors also like to force interpreters to break character. They may see it as a game, but it can come across as a power trip when they try to trick or force the costumed expert to acknowledge that they are a twenty-first century actor through the visitor’s “superior” knowledge of the past.  Often, if first person interpretation is not done well, every interaction with a visitor can end up being a confrontation of some kind. (More on how to avoid this in an upcoming post: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations.) How would someone who was really from 1880 react to an immodestly dressed set of strangers barging into their farm house and interrogating them about their livestock and insisting upon eating some of their food?

Demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.
Successfully demonstrating how to make fire with flint and steel at Fort Edmonton, summer 2011. Photograph by Lauren Markewicz.

In third person interpretation, the interpreter openly acknowledges that they are a contemporary of the visitor, simply one in historical dress. Some interpreters operate exclusively in third person. This means that they never attempt to be in-character and fully acknowledge their role as a modern museum or park guide; the costume is treated no differently from an employee uniform in that case.

For example, in the above picture, the interpreter is performing a fire starting demonstrating with flint and steel. As she prepared the kindling she narrated what she was doing and explained the history of matches (which existed in the 1840s in different form and were completely unreliable and unhealthy compared to flint and steel), when and why one would light fires within a fur trading fort, and perhaps even when flints fell out of use and other topics related to fire starting. Lighting a fire for no practical purpose and putting it out right afterwards in the middle of the courtyard in front of an audience is not something that a Métis country wife would do in 1846, but this a demonstration of a historical skill that is made all the more interesting and education from situating it verbally in a wider historical context.

The main advantage of third person interpretation is that it can provide much needed perspective. Interpreters can feel free to broach numerous topics without their hands being tied by the need to remain in-character.  This interpretive style allows the interpreter to comment upon the park as a museum, explaining which houses or artifacts may be original and where they came from, or what happened to the people who originally lived or worked in that building, and so on, which visitors are often keen to know.  A friend and classmate portrays a pregnant prisoner in the Goderich Gaol in Huron County, Ontario, and one of her most popular questions is: “What happened to your baby?” Without third person interpretation, the visitor leaves with that question unanswered, unless the interpreter, in first person, speculates what could happen with a wink and a nod.  In third person, I could speak at length with visitors about changing perceptions of fur trade “country marriages” from the 1700s through to the late 1800s based on recent scholarship and a twenty-first century perspective. This breadth and understanding cannot be achieved if I were genuinely trying to remain in-character as a young illiterate Métis country wife who had never left Fort Edmonton. That is one of the main advantages of third person interpretation: perspective. If a visitor is intensely interested in the subject, remaining in first person – in-character – can be very limiting, particularly if the visitor wants to know “the end of the story.” Did this person get out of their current troubles? How did they die?

Many Fort Edmonton Park employees use what is termed Loose First Person Interpretation. They often begin speaking with a visitor in first person, but are not afraid to break we call their “historical bubble” by stepping out of character and acknowledging that they are in fact a person from the twenty-first century, in costume, who has done historical research, and elaborating on their previous points. They do this so that they can discuss concepts that, say, an illiterate Métis country wife or a soldier just returning from the battlefields of Europe in 1919 could not possibly know. Think, for example, of the interpreter dressed as a returning soldier, discussing their experience in Europe during the Great War, reacting to a question from a visitor: “What’s the Great War?” The interpreter can then feel free to stop and explain that the First World War wasn’t termed as such until the Second World War had occurred. (Before the 1940s, it was the Great War: the biggest war anyone had ever seen. When you referred to the “war” in 1920 everyone knew which one you were talking about. It was only after the second had occurred that you could refer to the first one as the first.) Switching to third person can help the visitor get a fuller picture.

Loose first person has its own set of challenges. It is often quite difficult to then switch back to first person once the interpreter has broken character. Furthermore, many visitors expect a person in costume to remain in character at all times and would rather get that than further historical detail, despite their questions. They can be thrown off by the change, or become disappointed, as the interpreter has failed to live up to their expectations. Some visitors, by contrast, get frustrated if the interpreter dances around their questions by remaining in first person and just want their question answered. The interpreter has to be adept at reading the situation and determining what the visitors really want: no easy task.

I am aware that some historical sites only teach one of these forms of interpretation, but I feel that we were quite lucky at Fort Edmonton to have the flexibility to react to visitor needs. Some of my interpreter colleagues were only comfortable in third person; others exclusively used first. I would love to know what other historical sites use. I imagine that there must be other ways of thinking about costumed historical interpretation out there, and I welcome any comments about alternate interpretive styles from other veteran interpreters – or dedicated and observant visitors!

Coming soon: Challenging Visitors and Challenging Visitor Expectations