Alan Gordon, Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada

Alan Gordon, Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016) 372 pp. $95.00 Hb. $34.95 Pb. ISBN:9780774831543

Alan Gordon’s Time Travel analyzes the rise, development, and concurrent popularity of living history museums as tourist destinations and sites of commemoration across Canada during the mid-twentieth century. Gordon looks at a broad time period between 1930 and 1980, focusing on the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Time Travel examines commemoration across Canada, looking into living history museums within provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec while focusing on broader provincial trends. Additionally, he analyzes individual museums such as Fort Henry, Upper Canada Village, Heritage Park, and Louisberg, among others. These living museums were experiences created with the intention of transporting tourists into seemingly authentic, three-dimensional, multi-sensory past environments. Gordon divides the monograph into three sections: foundations, structures, and connections. The first section, Foundations, begins by discussing how living history museums have roots in the development of museums across North America and England. Within Structures he discusses on the ground development of museums across Canada. The final section, Connections links living museums to Canadian and provincial cultures in the post-war period.  

Gordon contends that the history of living history museums in Canada is important for understanding how Canadian identity has been understood. With the rise in post-war culture, including car culture, tourism, and convenience, living history museums represented a significant portion of the Canadian landscape. In this period, museums often portrayed social and cultural attitudes and values in Canada. The development of various museums in the 1950s-70s is a brief aberration in a history of disinterest in commemoration, signified by the later drop in funding and support from the provincial and federal governments across Canada in the 1980s. Living history museums across Canada have shaped an entire generation’s perceptions of history and commemoration.

By evaluating living museums Gordon aims to explain their ‘place in the construction of Canadian identity and their position in Canada’s culture in the mid-twentieth century’ (16). He argues that living history museums reflect Canadin culture in the mid-twentieth century and show that Canadians were attempting to forge a national consciousness and culture that celebrated their unique past separate from the United States. Museums also re-orientated the material world by reproducing the Canadian past in physical, three-dimensional forms through animation and interpretation. He states that people came to understand these replicas of the past as authentic historical environments reflecting their faith in themselves as nation-builders (19). The creation of living history museums fulfilled a belief in Canadian identity and a belief in an authentic perception of the past.

Gordon contributes to the vast historiography on tourism in North America. His work fills a gap in the literature on the distinct nature of living history museums and their relationship to identity and nation-building in Canada. To build his argument he looks at a wide variety of primary sources, including federal legislative debates on developing and funding museums, and historic academic articles published during the period, such as Ruth Home’s ‘A Master Plan to Prepare for Canada’s Centenary’ in Ontario History (1961). Additionally, he utilizes historical society reports and museum association writing both nationally and regionally, such as from the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, Canadian Museums Association, and the Wells Historical Society, newspaper articles from the Ottawa Citizen, Fredricton Daily Gleaner, and the Toronto Globe and Mail, and promotional material such as pamphlets and advertising. Publicly distributed ephemera, such as pamphlets, can often be difficult to find. However, their inclusion shows a contrast in perspectives, from government discussions to the tourist gaze and promotion. Therefore, Gordon’s argument is incredibly well supported and represents various perspectives and demographics throughout the book.

A central theme of Gordon’s analysis is the tension between wanting to create an authentic historical experience but also needing to cater to tourist expectations and perspectives. Several motivations were at play. On the one hand, the desire for a museum to succeed and bring in money for local and national economies; on the other hand, historians, local historical societies, and actors such as Ronald Way had a significant role in developing museums and heavily advocated for authenticity and historical atmospheres in living history museums. The contrasting components of historical integrity and the tourist gaze led to strain during the creation and maintenance of living history museums. This tension also led to museums across the country having many similarities and potentially compromising the historicity of the site.

Gordon’s work is an excellent contribution to Canadian social history as it furthers understanding of public and state constructions of national identity. He presents a balance of perspectives on government interventions, discussions, and funding to promote living history museums. Gordon presents these museums as not only fostering a national identity and showcasing it to tourists, but also as boosting the Canadian economy through tourism. Another major booster was small-town historical societies, such as the Wells Historical Society, which furthered the collection of historical artifacts and supported the opening of the gold rush town Barkerville as a historic site. Gordon, therefore, represents how the scale of projects shaped boosterism efforts and agents. Many different motivations and interests were at play within museum development and promotion, representing Canadian and regional identities and contributing to various economies.

My only critique of the monograph is the amount of context that is provided in the first three chapters that make up the development section. These chapters explain the development of museums in England and North America, and contexts of car culture and highway networks, consumerism, tourism, and even suburbia, which all contributed to the influence of living history museums. Historians familiar with the field would find the extent of the context unnecessary and potentially redundant. On the other hand, this makes the monograph accessible to many others, including students and laypeople interested in understanding Canada’s tourism and commemoration projects. Due to the inclusion of context and essential details, Gordon’s monograph can be utilized to the benefit of many people conducting Canadian historical tourism and commemoration research. The monograph could also contribute to new historical research, such as further analysis on comfort and convenience in the post-war period, or support education and field trips. Time Travel would be an excellent introductory text to Canada’s museums and general tourist industry for undergraduate history students and others interested in Canadian culture as a whole during the mid-twentieth century. This is a strong work of scholarship that stands out by providing a distinct analysis of living museums and gives a new perspective on commemoration projects in Canada during the post-war period.

Rebecca Campbell, Huble Homestead/Giscome Portage Heritage Society in Northern British Columbia.