Museuming in the Maritimes

The author on the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, NS

The author on the Cabot Trail, Cape Breton, NS

“Look at that sea, girls–all silver and shadow and vision of things not seen. We couldn’t enjoy its loveliness any more if we had millions of dollars and ropes of diamonds.”
L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

Mine is a traveling family.  As often as I say I grew up in museums, so too did I grow up in national parks, historic houses, cathedrals, theaters, and the luggage-piled backseat-turned-X-wing of whatever the family car was at the time.

These days, travel for me is often a busman’s holiday–I still go to museums for fun, but end up thinking about more than merely the exhibits’ contents.  (Ask me about an exhibit while I’m still in it and I’m as likely to talk about label copy, lighting design and interpretive choices as ‘gee, what a cool patent model’ or ‘I never knew that about tapestry cartoons.’)

This summer’s trip was two weeks in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick.  Compared to a trip to Florence or Washington DC, this trip was a lot more about natural beauty (scads of it!) and appreciating quieter, more localized traditions of artisans, architecture, and histories than Smithsonians and Uffizis.  That said, there were still a number of great (and small!) museum moments to share.

 Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, NS

I am one of the happiest versions of myself when on boats, so an afternoon in the Halifax Maritime Museum put plenty of wind in my proverbial sails.  The museum is ambitious, covering many aspects of humanity’s connections and fascinations with the water, spanning many periods and significant points in history, including remarkably heartbreaking and well-done coverage of the Halifax explosion and the Titanic rescue and recovery attempts.  They made a lot of consistent and interesting interpretive choices in those two exhibits in particular, placing the focus less on finding out  who was to blame, and more on the human reaction to the tragedy: rescue, recovery, rebuilding.

Other galleries have clearly not been updated in a while.  For instance, the Age of Sail gallery (a favorite era of mine) still featured a lot of mismatched typewritten labels, which admittedly had a charm of their own when paired with some of the hilarious products of an early tourist society (see below).

Sailors' valentines, guano bottle art, and a coconut shell decorative dish at the Maritime Museum, Halifax. Photo by the author.

Sailors’ valentines, guano bottle art, and a coconut shell decorative dish at the Maritime Museum, Halifax. Photo by the author.

Much as I enjoyed picking out my dream sailboat in the small sailcraft hall, or running my fingers over steel bolts like the ones used to connect Titanic’s hull-plates, and especially checking out the extensive and alarming exhibit of the many hundred shipwrecks that have taken place around Nova Scotia in recorded history, there were a few other museum moments on this trip that also deserve some attention.

Joggins Fossil Center and Cliffs, NS

In front of the Fossil Center, in the fog

In front of the Fossil Center, in the fog

This small (but very green-engineering) center packs a lot into its one exhibit hall.  It’s fairly text-heavy in some places, but the timeline, dioramas of the area at different times in its geologic past, and magnifier to examine the ‘fossil of the day’ are all well worth it, if you can even be bothered to spare some wonder after climbing down the cliff to check out the fossils themselves lying on the beach and embedded in the cliffside.  We were there just after the super-moon, when a new section of prehistoric tree trunk had just been uncovered by the unusually high tide, making us ‘practically the first people to see it in 300 million years!’ (Okay, so the tour guide was actually really instrumental in making this an awesome experience, and I’m a very jaded former tour guide myself!)

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300 million year old fossils on the beach at Joggins. Photo by the author.

Citadel, Parks Canada, Halifax NS

We saw a *lot* of Parks Canada sites on this trip, and though there was an awful lot of the Halifax Citadel that seemed familiar (Castle Island in Boston, anyone?) the living history approach here was great.  Even after seeing a stadium full of bagpipers earlier in the week at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo, watching these reenactors drill and hearing them play really made a difference in experiencing the fort.  At AAM this year there was a discussion at the “Real or Fake? Who Cares?” session about reenactors–but I am firmly in the camp of the pro-theatrics.  Seeing those bayonet drills made my quads hurt in sympathy in a way just hearing about it never would have.

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Bayonet drills at the Halifax citadel. Photo by the author.

Louisbourg Fort, Louisbourg, NS

Speaking of living history, there’s nothing like chowing down on French toast in a jam-packed tavern in 98 degree heat with only a gigantic pewter spoon as an implement, wearing half a table cloth for a napkin tied around your neck.

Rubbing elbows with the lower class tavern patrons for lunch in Louisbourg.

Rubbing elbows with the lower class tavern patrons for lunch in Louisbourg.

Heat exhaustion made me wish for a little less of the historical accuracy, but this summer was the 300th anniversary of the founding of the fort at Louisbourg, and there was a lot of awesome stuff going on while we were there, including an archaeology fair.  Parks Canada staff were on hand to talk about the marine archaeology in the harbor and were also actually doing a dig out on one of the further reaches of the point.  I also got to participate in a historic dance demonstration, which was also fun and would have been even better in air conditioning.

Alexander Graham Bell Museum, Parks Canada, Baddeck, NS

Even as someone who has worked in two different science museums, I hadn’t expected to have as much fun at the Alexander Graham Bell museum as I did.  I clued in a little when I discovered they had kites available in the lobby to go fly on the front lawn overlooking the lake (so beautiful!), and they had a (sadly deserted at the time) fairly well designed kids’ games and experimentation area right up front as well.

Kites in the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, NS.  Photo by author.

Kites in the Alexander Graham Bell museum in Baddeck, NS. Photo by author.

I expected to hear the same info about the invention of the telephone that one gets in elementary school, but it turns out there was a lot more to the man, and also to his rather impressive wife and their circle of brainy, crazy, flight-mad friends.  Of particularly impressive impact in the lower exhibit hall were pieces of the original HD-4 record-setting hydrofoil boat, and also the full-size reconstruction.  This was also a site that, much like the Maritime Museum in Halifax, used film very well.

Reconstruction of the HD-4 hydrofoil craft.

Reconstruction of the HD-4 hydrofoil craft.

Green Gables, Parks Canada, Cavendish, PEI (and neighboring MacNeill Homestead and Silver Bush Museum)

Green Gables Heritage Place, the family farm that inspired Montgomery.

Green Gables Heritage Place, the family farm that inspired Montgomery.

Younger me felt a certain connection with Miss Anne Shirley of Green Gables, and current me enjoyed a day in ‘Anne Country’ thoroughly–though this time it was Lucy Maud Montgomery who felt like the kindred spirit.  Parks Canada has an interesting line to walk between presenting the truth of the history of the area and of LMM’s life with the expectations of legions of fans who are hoping to see as much Anne as Maud in the places described.  They do this quite cleverly by presenting within the house historically accurate furnishings, etc, and then layering in details recognizable to readers: in one room, for instance, there hangs a brown puffed-sleeve dress and a thoroughly cracked slate is casually tucked in a corner.  Out on the grounds, Anne’s names for places reign supreme (“The Haunted Wood” and “Lover’s Lane,”) but along the paths there are plaques of Montgomery’s personal reactions to these places, a trend which spills over to the nearby MacNeill homestead (where LMM grew up with her grandparents), and at Silver Bush, another family home and inspiration to Montgomery further down the road.

"Anne's Room" at Green Gables, complete with physical details from the first book's plot. Photo by the author.

“Anne’s Room” at Green Gables, complete with physical details from the first book’s plot. Photo by the author.

Quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery at the MacNeill Homestead in Cavendish. Photo by the author.

Quote from Lucy Maud Montgomery at the MacNeill Homestead in Cavendish. Photo by the author.

I could keep going, but I’d be likely to drop into rhapsodizing about being within feet of a pod of 20 pilot whales off the coast of Cape Breton, or being head-to-toe silty after a rapids ride thanks to the tidal bore on the Shubenacadie River, or even being driven to tears on back-to-back nights at the productions of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical and Evangeline: The Musical in Charlottetown.   Suffice to say that indoors, outdoors, in museums, and in the wild places, I found a lot of inspiration in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, and I’ll definitely be going back.

Did you come across any interesting interpretive choices in a museum trip this summer?  I’m always looking for new additions to the travel list, so let me know!

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