Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Fur Trade at Lachine National Historic Site of Canada

The Fur Trade museum is an important school trip destination. Whether or not it will have anything to offer me and my mum, who continues to let me drag her to random museums, is another question. Walking up to the entrance we stop to read the didactics along the canal. There are a few dedicated to Frances Anne Hopkins, a 19th century artist who painted day to day life during her travels along the fur trade routes. Hopkins certainly isn't a household name and my mum had never heard of her. Hopkins' paintings aren't the standard macho images of conquest, or gentle natives about to lose their traditional way of life to the power of European industry, which are usually associated with that time period. We seem to be off to a good start.

And then we get inside. Like the George Etienne Cartier house, the Fur Trade museum is a national historic site operated by Parks Canada. The weird muppet-like dolls and questionable didactics used at GEC are also in evidence at the Fur Trade museum. Stuffed animals wearing ceintures fléchées? Like sized Inuit man who looks like he was crafted from stuffed hosiery? Seriously? Museum fail. Maybe kids find it cute, maybe I shouldn't dislike it so much. Maybe I shouldn't have high expectations.

In fairness, the display do a good job of conveying the facts. Diagrams show trade equivalences (One beaver plus one baby beaver for one blanket. Wait, a baby beaver? or is it one large beaver plus one smaller beaver? Hmmm, maybe not so clear) and export values at various times. One smart inclusion was the breakdown of the requirements to be a voyageur. A scale and a height chart allow visitors to see whether they fit the bill. I imagine that seeing the 5'7" 140 pounds restrictions creates interesting conversations for students.

There isn't much of substance here. One text panel outlines some of the pros and cons and concludes by saying "You decide about the benefit of the meeting of two civilizations." Good, I don't want the museum to tell me what to think, however, they could have filled in the blanks to a greater extent. They don't because this is about adventure, not consequences. The museum advertises that visitors will: "Discover one of the most important periods in the history of Canada: the fur trade. Live the adventure of the Amerindian trappers, the French Canadian voyageurs and the European merchants of the fur trade era." I think they could have done a much better job of immersing people in the fur trade adventure. For example, we could read profiles or biographies of some of the real players rather than learning about general character types. Creating exhibits isn't an easy job, but I think that a greater attention to detail, and more exacting standards, could make a huge difference here.

The most substantial part of the exhibition space are the didactic panels crammed in at the back of the room. The poster sized panels are a temporary exhibit using information from the National Archives. My mum spends considerably more time here than in the rest of the room. Most of Montreal's historical museums provide information at primarily grade school level. Its a reiteration, with visual enhancements, of what kids learn in school. Mum remembers what she learned in school and thus basic displays are of little interest to her, but she's a good sport.

24 down. 8 to go.

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