Category Archives: Historical Societies

Self-Guided Tours and Heritage

Is this the Answer?

Everyone employed in heritage knows that government grants have been shrinking for years. Private donations just don’t fill the gap. Everywhere museums and their friends are forced to compete with deeply rooted public concerns such as hospitals, children’s charities and animal welfare. Faced with choosing between such heart-breaking needs and heritage even staunch supporters hesitate. History and culture are inevitably the loosers.

The big day-to-day operating costs for small museums are staffing, utilities/security and insurance/book-keeping, usually in that order. Staffing is by far the biggest cost. Even if volunteers do much of the work at the museum, a paid person is usually required to organize and anchor the operation as well as research and design the tours. So the idea of the “self-guided tour”, which promises to considerably reduce the need for staff, seems worthy of consideration. After all, the White House uses them!

–But, can one really compare tourism operations at the White House to tourism operations elsewhere? First of all, the self-guided tours (those which go inside the White House) must be booked months in advance either through one’s member of congress or senator. If one is not an American, bookings are made through your embassy in Washington. One has to be approved for a tour. They let you know. So groups of unrecorded individuals are not showing up at the gate at any time of the day and marching inside the White House. Second, security officers make sure that visitors show identification which confirms that they are on the booking list. They also make sure that visitors take nothing inside except car keys, wallets and umbrellas. You can carry a cellphone, but if you use it inside, it will be confiscated. –And third, some ask are the White House self-guided tours really self-guided? Evidently there are secret service agents every step of the way to answer the hundreds of questions which tourists inevitably have, but also to keep a strict eye on the visitors.

There is plenty of feed-back on the internet, which is interesting. Many visitors said that the tours are not really “self-guided” as the secret service personnel often accompany parties through the House. These guides garnered lots of really positive comments. Although heritage staff must have agonized over the written materials to guide the tourists many visitors said that the exhibit labels were insufficient and that the really “good stuff” came out while questioning the guides. Some respondents said that all one sees are “a bunch of paintings, photographs and old furniture”. They missed the significance, despite all the efforts to enable visitors to take the tour unescorted.

The basic function and significance of the White House are widely known, so visitors should arrive with at least an elementary understanding of the site. Can this be compared to (say) Laurier House in Ottawa? If the china selected by Martha Washington or Jacqueline Kennedy is not instantly significant to the audience without the intermediary of an interpreter, then what does the desk of Mackenzie-King mean? How is the significance of the “lobby” at Motherwell Homestead (Saskatchewan) to be appreciated? Exhibit designers know that there is a limit to what visitors will read and that tourists have short attention spans when using tape recorders and computer screens. Decline in visitor excitement (and hence, visitor satisfaction) in our world is a dangerous thing.

Heritage professionals also worry about security. Most historic homes are chock full of interesting artifacts, many quite small. It is difficult to believe that one administrator and a batch of security cameras will deter even a determined amateur with sticky fingers. One might be more optimistic about the durability of gardens, vistas, ruins and monuments. However, in 2008 visitors damaged Stonehenge using hammers and chisels and in 2012 dossents at Machu Picchu have been unable to cope with the avalanche of garbage slung down the hillsides by tourists.

In Britain, there appears to have been an alarming increase in thefts and attempted thefts from British museums during 2012. Although some people have suggested that the actual number of thefts has not increased but that they are merely getting more press attention, the Art Loss Register (a very credible source) has stated that 2012 was a record-breaking year for art losses. Many in Britain are blaming the trend on austerity measures which have forced nearly all museums to significantly reduce staff. In February, the Norwich Castle Museum lost some important artifacts associated with Admiral Nelson.  

Mourning Ring worn by Member of Admiral Nelson’s family. Stolen from Norwich Castle Museum.

The Museum had formerly employed interpreters in each room. The interpreters had been replaced with self-guided visits. The Norwich Castle Museum believes that although the interpreters were not primarily employed for security, their presence was an important deterrent to theft.

Parks Canada, a major player in the move away from interpreters and guides, claims that Canadians have voted with their feet when it comes to heritage. Gregory Thomas of Parks Canada is quoted as saying that it is difficult to justify spending tax dollars on museums when Canadians aren’t interested. However, Parks Canada’s own statistics show that visits to some of their sites have increased steadily over the past few years. Besides, many would argue that investment in an understanding of Canada — of our culture, history and the origins of our modern society, is of huge importance. It should not be left to a popularity contest. It is a question of leadership.

Children experience dress-up and tea time at Macpherson House, Napanee, during a Programme implemented by interpreters. (Photo Robert Hammond.)

It should also be pointed out that, due to the loss of interpretation staff, avail-ability of Parks Canada sites for use by schools is about to undergo a huge change.

Heritage professionals view self-guided templates with caution. We know that virtual tours offer exciting possibilities to entertain and educate but they also permit thieves, vandals and crazy folk to “case the joint”. Introducing self-guided tours may indeed help struggling museums to reduce operating costs. Reducing operating costs may allow the museum to continue for another year. But if self-guided tours also result in bored visitors, declining attendance, less integration with educational programmes — in wear and tear and loss from the collection — is the change worth it? Is the bottom line to be our only criterion for success? While it is true that clever use of a mixture of old and new communication technlogies enhance museum visits and can be used with great success for outreach, they may still be most useful when used with living interpreters and guides.

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December on an Ontario Farm a Century Ago

Lucy Stover Davison (1867-1950) was a farmer’s wife, living north of Odessa in Lennox and Addington county.  Odessa is west of Kingston, east of Napanee.  On November 19th, 1903, Lucy recorded that the land had frozen too hard to continue with the fall ploughing.  On November 20th, she ventured out on the ice of Odessa Lake with a neighbour to fish, so it must have been very cold and a deep freeze indeed.  On the next day, which was Saturday, the family went to Odessa and Lucy bought underwear (“drawers”) and a shawl from Derbyshire’s General Store.  The following week she was stewing pumpkins and making pumpkin pies and baked apples, but her occupations were not limited to what we might consider female tasks.  She also went out to an old fence line to bring back wood for the stove and helped load their sow into a box to be transported to the pig.   On Saturday, December 5th, she and husband Arthur and daughter, Jennie, were in Wilton where Arthur bought her a Christmas present, “a china set of four pieces” at Neilson’s Store.  This may have been a dresser set.  Lucy added: “…cost eighty cents, I am very much pleased with them, you may be sure, for they just suit me.”  After several busy days, killing and plucking chickens for market, blacking the stove and other chores, Arthur left Lucy to await the appearance of a team of harvesters, described as “clover dressers” and she was therefore tied down at home for several days.  On Christmas eve, Lucy lamented that she had been unable to get into town so Christmas would probably be a lean one for daughter, Jennie.  Christmas was remarkable because their oldest horse died in her stall and had to be removed, a sad start to the day.  They went out to a neighbour, Alva Snider’s for Christmas Dinner.  Lucy hoped that there would be a Christmas service at her church, but there was none.  A different Christmas from what we might expect today.  From Lucy Stover Davison, Ernestown Diary, 1903-1904, researched and edited by Michael Rehner.  Published by the Lennox and Addington Historical Society, 2011.  Available at the Lennox and Addington County Museum, Napanee.  $23.95


Filed under Historical Societies, History, Ontario

Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.


Filed under Archives, Historical Societies, History, Ontario, Museums

Heritage is a High Stress Vocation


If we do not support our heritage institutions, will anyone remember the path we came by?

Most Canadians believe that those employed in the heritage field enjoy one of the most pleasant work environments in Canada. This is not the case for most of us — I mean the majority of us — the staffs of medium museums, local historic sites and archives, as well as those who labour in archaeological teams or heritage planning departments.  I think, but don’t know for sure, that the climate may be different for employees of our National Institutions. I hope to hear their experiences.

It is true that we heritage professionals have the privilege of access to a trove of historical treasures.  If it is really one’s thing, then the delight provoked by delicate, translucent Meissen is never stale, and the breath-stopping moment when a fresh find connects a site with Hopewell culture is never diminished.  This is fact.  But in order to have responsibility for custody of our treasures and to interpret and explain a tiny piece of mica a very great deal of education is required and years of patient work once the structured halls of academe are far behind.

In reality, those sweet moments of discovery are a minority. Working with the collection is mostly a never-ending struggle to make sure that everything is inventoried, retrievable and protected.  The work experience generally feels nothing like Antiques Roadshow, but rather like spending one’s days cleaning and reorganizing the basement.   We strain to make ridiculously insufficient space adequate.   We are starved for appropriate containers, shelving, climate controls and conservation help.   We are pressured to abandon half-completed microfilming projects and jump into digitization while our documents crumble on the shelves.   We endure long hours and weekend work, mostly for time in lieu which we know we will never be able to take.

Many heritage workers spend their days struggling to keep the doors open. In Canada, there is always money for celebrations; that is, for short-term projects which are primarily entertainment.   There is sometimes money for infrastructure, which usually means new-build, or handicap upgrades.   In my experience this funding seldom includes specialty furnishings such as high-density shelving.    In Canada, there is never any new operating money.  The Ontario Museum Operating Grants were a rare and wonderful exception which have been neglected and allowed to shrink to almost comic size in proportion to the paperwork involved.   Don’t misunderstand, I am not against asking museums to fund-raise.    I am against curators being forced to spend far too much time doing it.   They are needed to do other things.  Sometimes, the quest for lucre is inspired: more often it drags the staff into a crazy world of teddy bear tea parties, fashion shows and seances. Occasionally we are forced by powers that be to do things against our professional standards — things that actually threaten the things we are sworn to protect.

If we are not chasing money, we are chasing statistics.   While local government assumes that the voters want another hockey arena they cannot believe that the voters want a museum unless one proves it over and over.     But, hey!   Avoid like hot coals any public outcry.   It is not likely to bring help and more likely to make fickle sponsors abandon commitment.  This balancing act is another source of stress for staff.

For, in Canada, culture and heritage are considered “nice” but not a priority.  Canadians remain unconvinced that heritage is worth any investment.  The dark secret is that most politicians privately believe that heritage employees are not worth paying.  For forty long years I have endured elected officials who think that a museum may be saved by having high school students do the work, or that archaeological permits are some kind of plot hatched by the intelligentsia.   Otherwise reasonable people (who would not think of taking grandmother’s pearls to the retired-librarian-next-door for an estate appraisal) somehow think that a team of senior citizens can decide whether a Krieghoff is genuine or assign a value to a daguerreotype for a tax receipt.  Some even believe that when there is no researcher, an archivist has nothing to do!

If an heritage worker is one of the lucky few to escape the world of endless contracts and no benefits, and actually win a full-time job, the relief is short-lived.  In my experience, he or she will spend the rest of their working days in accute terror of being terminated.   Because of the recession, many unfortunate Canadians have been recently put in this situtation.   Welcome to our world.   Small museums have been living on the edge for the last forty years.

All of this is remarkably short-sighted.   Heritage employees are some of the cheapest employees in the country, many working for only a little above minimum wage despite all that post-secondary education.   Heritage generates economic pay-back in a hefty way, including education, tourism, publishing, film / television and sustainable communities.   Our history is the source for expression of our Canadian shared values.   It is how we learn who we are.   It is how we plan where we are going.   Information from our collections exceeds nostalgia. Information supports sound policy development and independent research.

In the twenty-first century world we are told that workers must expect career changes.  If we are unhappy as heritage employees, “Well then re-train and move on.”   I don’t think that this template should or can be applied to the heritage community, where a significant investment in education and experience are required even for entry.   Would we tell our nurses to leave their field, re-train and move on?   Which brings me back to the beginning.  We in heritage are neither respected nor valued, for credentials, experience or loyalty.   Until we change this, Canada will remain a unenlightened society, a one-diminsional country driven by resource extraction economics unable to articulate itself and make a presence on the world stage.

For the Olympics, we are told that Canada needs to attract and sustain the best.   It should be no different for those whom we trust with our heritage.

In the meantime, “Mothers, don’t let your sons grow up to be curators or cowboys.”


Filed under Archaeology, Archives, Historical Societies, Material culture, Museums

Ontario Ministry of Culture offers pre-packaged presentation aimed at municipal councils.

In Ontario, our Ministry of Culture is offering a tool called, “Supporting Heritage in Your Community”.  The objective is to assist local heritage organizations with making a case for heritage at the municipal level.  Specifically, the presentation is designed to be useful in trying to convince municipal councils and employees of the value of establishing an “heritage committee” under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The “Supporting Heritage” package includes speaking notes (a presentation) which someone must study and then deliver.  Also included are slides and some answers to challenging questions that may come up, such as, “How much will all this cost?”

The Ontario Heritage Act places the initiation of heritage protection right at the grassroots, through committees.  In offering this presentation package, in my opinion, the Ontario Government is finally acknowledging that the grassroots are often complete babes-in-the-wood when it comes to kick-starting the process.  In many municipalities where there are important resources and concerned citizens, nothing is being done.

However, will a packaged presentation overcome the handicap of an inexperienced presenter?  If one is not a competent and confident public speaker, will the impatience and disinterest of councillors be overcome?  I have worn these shoes, and political rallies have nothing on a meeting of annoyed and defensive councillors facing a mountainous Wednesday agenda.

Also, without depth of understanding of competing heritage assets, will the presenter avoid being perceived as yet another hysterical, minority interest?  Councils are tired of all the whining.

Going to them is a bit like the heritage equivalent of the Dragons’ Den.

The Ontario Heritage Act is deficient in tools to provide leadership.  It is intended to empower not to endorse.   The “Supporting Heritage” package aims to help while avoiding Provincial interference. 

I, for one, will be very interested to know how often the package is used and whether the number of heritage committees increases during 2009.

You can see the the “Supporting Heritage in Your Community” package for yourself at

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Filed under Buildings - Ontario, Historical Societies, History, Ontario

Not all “old” books are in the public domain

Just because a book was printed in 1970, don’t assume that the author is deceased.

Living authors have a right to give or deny permission for the use of their work.  Their estates have similar rights for a period after death (fifty years in many countries). 

Authors of short runs, less than five hundred copies, often have books left to sell.  If someone puts the work up on a free site on the internet, sales drop to zero. 

Historical Societies and Genealogical Societies are particularly vulnerable.  Until recently, niche publications have been a major source of revenue for many such groups.  In most countries, the work is copyrighted for at least fifty years from date of publication, but these books get posted on the internet and the law is ignored.

If someone took your car from your driveway and used it to ferry friends around, no one would argue that it was theft.  When revenue is taken from historical societies without their consent, it is described as “sharing”.  This must stop.

Writing is not a lucrative profession.   Authors need to sell their remaining publications.   Historical Societies and Genealogical Societies also need the revenue from their works.

Ask permission before re-publishing a book on the ‘net.

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Filed under Historical Societies, History, Ontario


Possibly the greatest asset that any historical society possesses is direct connection to the public. From documenting built heritage, to capturing our personal stories (and offering a haven for amazing collections), historical societies are incredibly effective engines for engaging our communities with the past.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the “public” is absolutely everybody.

The phenomenon which is the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness.

1. Authenticity. Ever since “Roots”, the general public has been engaged as never before in heritage through the very personal interface of family history. This is a good, perhaps a great, thing. However, it has resulted in a perception that all input is equally valuable, which it isn’t. From vast data banks of poorly transcribed materials, full of mistakes to bulletin boards which offer information which is totally wrong, the work of simple folk who are really good at history is mixed and muddled with the work of simple folk who haven’t got a clue. Historical societies are more and more under pressure to represent and publish everybody, which means that the quality of offerings is diluted, authority is increasingly suspect and respect diminished.

To me, this has always seemed akin to cutting ice time and funding for the Ontario Hockey League and diverting all resources to free skating.

2. Political activism. Communities always include passionate individuals who want to storm the bastille. Usually, this is in defence of built heritage. Of course, all historical societies occasionally compose letters or send representation to hearings on compelling issues. -But activists see this level of participation as weak, a “cop out”. Societies are more and more often asked to “take a stand” – by which is usually meant involvement with the media, rallies and placard-waving and some very strong words.

Since preservation decisions are made at the municipal level in most jurisdictions, this frankly means making life hell for elected municipal officials. Now, these are the same officials who decide local funding for our museums, archives and heritage sites. The existence of these institutions is hard-won, usually the result of years of work by our predecessors. This fight is not over. In the early twenty-first century, the survival of many of our small heritage facilities is very fragile. Can we, should we, risk losing old political allies and established good will for new battles? Perhaps societies should, but it is by no means clear to me.

No doubt about it. In the early twenty-first century, the role of historical societies is being questioned. A delicate balancing act may be insufficient to meet the challenge. What’s an historical society to do?

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Filed under Architecture, Historical Societies, History, Ontario, Material culture