Recently a colleague of mine asked if I would be willing to take a look at the 100 Years of Loss exhibit currently on display at the Canadian Museum of History and let her know my impressions. Of course I agreed, I had a bit of time in between volunteering for festivals and attending other museums in Ottawa and it gave me a chance to use my brand new membership card.
For those of you that do not know, the 100 Years of Loss- The Residential School System in Canada Exhibit is an exhibition developed in conjunction with the Legacy of Hope Foundation, the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and Library and Archives Canada. The exhibition “uses reproductions of photographs, artwork and primary documents to tell the story of thousands of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children who were removed from their families and institutionalized in residential schools. It emphasizes the present-day effects of the system, focusing on healing and reconciliation.”
If you are unaware of the Residential School System that existed in Canada between 1831 and 1996, you can familiarize yourself here.
At first glance the exhibit seemed out of place stuck in a corner of the museum, however, as I sat and watched other people interact with the exhibit, it was clear that it was in the right place. Every person that walked by either made a comment about the exhibit or they would mention something they already knew about Residential schools and some even stopped to read some or all of the panels. The exhibit is situated at a crossroads of sorts where people have to pass by. The history therefore cannot be ignored.
The design and colour scheme are fitting for the topic at hand. The exhibit consists of 4 pillars approximately 2.5ft in diameter which serve as text panels and a wavy wall that presents a timeline of the Residential School System. The use of various grey tones and a vibrant orange allow the important information to stand out without seeming offensive. The exhibit includes lots of grey and white space with intentional pops of orange to focus the reader’s attention on the text. The text on the pillar panels was slightly difficult to read, but it may have had to do with the placement of the exhibit under an overhang on the first floor or the font size. I am rather tall and sometimes I would have to crouch down to read the text on the lower half of the pillars, but some short people may not be able to read the text higher up, so that is really a flaw of the human race’s height diversity.
The exhibit is offered in both French and English. Four pillars in English and four in French with the wavy wall having French on one side and English on the other. Even though I cannot read any Aboriginal languages, it would have been nice to see that as an option. I am aware there are hundreds of different groups of Aboriginal people with variations in their languages and it would have been incredibly difficult to choose one or two languages to use. However, if possible it would have been nice to cater to those that may have had a firsthand experience in the Residential School System.
I sat and watched others visit the exhibit for some time to see how they reacted. I heard various responses such as “Oh, that’s the residential school exhibit!” and “is this it?”. I felt compelled to mention that it is a travelling exhibit, so it would be quite difficult to create an extravagant exhibit that would also be sturdy enough for transport. Other visitors were silent as they passed through the exhibit, some came alone. I noticed that because there wasn’t much signage, people began reading in various places, not moving in a chronological timeline. Being a good Western historian I appreciate chronologies, so I wonder if that caused any difficulties for those that didn’t start from the beginning.
I was intrigued to see that the exhibit has an app that you can download for free and use in conjunction with the physical exhibit. I quickly downloaded it and opened it up. From what I can tell it includes all of the text and photographs that the exhibit does but you can just read it from your phone. I think it would have been nice to see some supplemental information and photographs that were not featured in the exhibit itself. There is another feature that I couldn’t get to work. The app tells you to scan a barcode, but does not tell you where they are located or what will happen when you end up scanning them. I tried multiple times to scan various barcodes but to no avail unfortunately.
The content of the exhibit was thorough and intelligently organized into sections. The timeline portion included photographs as well as text to help lead you through the long history of the Residential School System in Canada. The text recognizes Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples’ points of view. The text also describes those people that had positive experiences and benefitted from their time in Residential Schools.
Even though as a Public Historian interested in Aboriginal history I am versed in the history of the Residential School System to some degree, I think that this exhibit gives a fabulous overarching explanation that goes deeper than a general introduction to the subject. I believe that the exhibit achieves the goal of educating the public about what happened here in our own country not so long ago. Thinking abstractly for a moment, as I was walking through the exhibit I was wondering why they chose to use the format they did (round pillars and a wavy wall). I came to a conclusion that possibly they were trying to represent the cyclical nature of abuse, and poor living conditions that occurred in the Residential Schools and consequently continues to this day in some Aboriginal communities. The circles of the pillars representing the cycle and maybe the wavy wall representing the ups and downs of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal relationships throughout history. But I digress.
Overall, I enjoyed the exhibit immensely. The final pillar was rather inspiring and empowered me to want to learn more about Aboriginal Peoples’ experience in Canada. I encourage anyone that has the opportunity to see this exhibit to do so!