Interpreting a Past: Presenting Gender History at Living History Sites in Ontario
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Drawing upon close observation of site practices, interviews, and visitor surveys, this project analyses the programming offered at historic sites, highlighting the aspects of history that are omitted or treated superficially. The case studies conducted at Fort Henry, Upper Canada Village, and Fort William demonstrate that women’s and gender histories continue to be minimized, stereotyped, and segregated. Each site selectively communicates information about the past. The commemoration and preservation of the past and the tourism industry have been intricately connected in Ontario throughout the twentieth century. Historic sites have been directed by the dual goals of educating the public about a national past and of attracting visitors and revenues. As Ian McKay and Robin Bates have articulated, the resulting tourism/history is a narrative less interested in verity than in saleability. Though the management of historic sites have not jettisoned the concept of accuracy, broadening the picture of the past presented to be ‘more accurate’ by addressing such issues as courtship, birth control, or marital separation is often not as high a priority as increasing visitor numbers. The costs, financial and otherwise, of making changes to the traditional fare at historic sites are considered undesirable. Sites are unprepared to invest in changes to collections or programming unless it can be shown that the investment will pay dividends. The perpetuation of traditional political and economic narratives continues also because of the perception that this appeals to and pleases visitors. Sites aim to give visitors what they want and to entertain them in order to secure repeat patronage. Women’s history and gender history are considered, somewhat contradictorily, too controversial and too mundane to garner the interest of visitors. Despite being trusted by a majority of Canadians as trustworthy sources of history, historic sites are letting down their constituents by omitting significant aspects and concerns of daily life in their narratives.