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Carleton students have a hand in developing history museum’s new gallery

It’s a rare opportunity to work on project of such magnitude and importance, says curator.

By CAROL BOEIRA | NOV 19 2014

A group of Carleton University graduate students has been given the rare opportunity to help develop the Canadian History Hall, the signature new gallery at the Canadian Museum of History, formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, in Gatineau, Quebec.

The 18 students are enrolled in the “Museums, National Identity and Public Memory” seminar course taught by Carleton history professor David Dean. The course is part of the master’s program in public history, which often includes opportunities for students to collaborate with local and national museums. However, says Dr. Dean, rarely has there been this type of opportunity “to collaborate on a curatorial project at such a key stage in the evolution of a national museum.”

According to the museum, the new permanent gallery – opening on July 1, 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation – will be “the largest, most comprehensive and engaging exhibition on Canadian history ever developed.”

David Morrison, director of research and content for the new Canadian History Hall, says the collaboration is a “win-win.” The students, he says, are getting “the chance of a generation” to work on a project of such magnitude and importance, while at the same time they are providing the museum with useful research that will be part of the planning process.

As part of the requirements of their course, the students will submit proposals to curators on how to handle much of the pre-colonial history the museum is trying to incorporate into the new hall. Mr. Morrison says almost everything is going to change. “There’s going to be much more about history as it is normally perceived, rather than a sort of ‘Epcot Center’ walkthrough,” he said, referring to the previous Canada Hall that the new gallery is replacing.

Dr. Dean says of the Canada Hall: “as much as I loved it … it shied away from telling difficult stories in Canadian history. I’m confident that the new hall is not going to shy away from that.”

Allison Smith, one of the students involved in the collaboration, is conducting research for an exhibit on the Underground Railroad. The most challenging part of her work, she says, is trying to accommodate such an important piece of history into a small space. With a little over 4,000 square metres to work with, the entire hall faces a similar problem, says Mr. Morrison.

Dr. Dean, who has taught the graduate seminar course for nearly 10 years, says he always tries to incorporate a hands-on, collaborative component to the course. The students, for their part, appreciate both the practical experience and the networking opportunities. “Creating these sorts of relationships between students and people in the professional domain is really important for students to find jobs,” says master’s student Ms. Smith.

The students are split into five groups, each working with a different curator. A sixth group is working with Emily Gann, a curator at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. As part of the latter effort, the students are using their skills to tell stories through pre-selected artifacts at three different sites: the science museum, the Canada Agricultural and Food Museum, and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

“We teach public history, but where is the ‘public’ in public history? Once the students develop these exhibits for these three sites, they’ll be able to test them on audiences that are visiting and do public surveys,” said Dr. Dean. “In the 10 years that I’ve been teaching this course, no students have ever been able to do this. This, for me, is really unique.”

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