Monday, April 28, 2008

Canadian History for Sale!

We all know Canadian history is boring. We live in a new country, where nothing happened until 1914 when the Germans attacked us. Then nothing more until 1939 – Germans again. Naught else worth knowing really.

Nothing man-made worth seeing either. In Vancouver, the only nice old building in town is the Christ Church Cathedral, built way way back in 1895. That’s roughly 2413 years after the Greeks finished the Parthenon. It’s even younger than the Eiffel Tower, the modern addition to the Parisian skyline.

So how are we supposed to compete with the French, who can convince twenty thousand visitors a day to stand in line for three hours to get into the Palace of Versailles? Or what about the Egyptians, who attract throngs of tourists to see the Pyramids despite the travel cautions warning visitors to beware of kidnappers?

How about the same way toy companies convinced us we all needed a Furby, or a Tickle Me Elmo? Make it talk back. Make it make noise and shake when I push its tummy. Make it fun. Sell it to me! This isn’t a case of Canadian history being boring, but a case of Canadian historians not knowing how to sell it.

Historians learn how to analyze, write and present history, but let’s face it, most couldn’t sell a loaf of bread in the midst of a famine – though they might give it away for a donation. Canadian museums and historic sites quite often operate in the red. Too frequently it’s government funding, and your tax dollars keeping these places afloat.

Historians learn how to write grants, not business feasibility studies. They’re taught to write clearly, not passionately. They look for evidence that illustrates their thesis, not that make little boys shout, “Whoa!” and little girls shriek, “Ewwww!”

Happily, this year’s our big chance.

Quebec is 400 this year. And tourist season is just about upon us.

I can only hope that the cheesy reenactments will be out in full force every night – drunken sailors in the pubs, soldiers patrolling the old city and a man with an olde tymey hat and a bell – a loud bell, pointing tourists to the next great historical show.

Not history you say? Too Disnified? Absolutely!

But hey, I don’t remember the last time Walter Disney submitted a grant proposal to the government. And no one has taught me more about pirates than the good people at Disney. It’s a skewed view about pirates, but at least it’s a view. And that's more than most people have of Canadian history.

Quebec 2008 is all about getting our foot in the door with the billion dollar historical tourist market. Because like it or not, tourists don’t want to read journal articles. Most don’t even want to read your text panels. They want to be entertained.

They want to see executions, the changing of the guard and the governor’s wife stumbling around her garden in a drunken stupor. Ok, maybe the executions will have to be dramatized, but you get the idea.

Canada’s a big place. If we can hook them with Quebec, they’ll come back and spend more money; perhaps in a different region of the country. Perhaps even in a local museum. And they’ll tell their friends, who will come too. But, they’ll only come if it’s cool. If it shakes and laughs like Tickle me Elmo, or talks back like Furby.

This isn’t a case of who killed Canadian history? but of who is going to bring it alive?

If we can’t do it this year, it can’t be done. But hey, the government will always be there to bail us out financially, won’t they?

1 comment:

pstewart said...

They’re taught to write clearly, not passionately.

I've never really been one to accept the idea that there's a zero-sum choice between those. Writing clearly and passionately is, of course, considerably harder than writing clearly or passionately, but that just makes pursuing it more appealing to me.

I also read "Disneyfied" as "dignified" when reading this, which is probably a sign that I should have gone to bed some hours ago since good chunks of what you're describing would be anything but dignified. Though that would be a good thing in and of itself - as historians we're also somewhat afflicted by a tendency to take ourselves too seriously, which probably places some sillier, more effective options for selling history to the public out of reach.