History Behind History

(taken from Chapter 1 of my Masters' thesis Historic Space: Mobilizing history education for social change)


Between 2001 and 2004, I had the opportunity to negotiate two interesting, albeit dichotomous, experiences: the pursuit of a Women’s Studies BA from the University of Toronto and a position at Black CreekPioneer Village as a Historical Interpreter. Although they were two very different experiences, when combined they led me to believe that students are willing and able to engage in the construction of history. For me, this engagement is crucial for understanding how identities are historically constructed and how these identities are naturalized to reinscribe uneven power dynamics in the present.

As a BA, I was being schooled in a branch of feminist analysis which aimed to destabilize capitalist, colonial, and patriarchal power structures by paying attention to the history of modern imperialism and the complex construction of identity categories (Grewal & Kaplan, 2000). As an undergraduate, it was imperative for me to understand the matrix of identities that helped or hindered one’s place in a global world and the global structures of power that relied on an inequitable capitalist system for its success and legitimacy.

Although the traditional structure of Women’s Studies focused on the struggles and successes of “Women,” UofT emphasized theintersection of identities, so that the constructions of gender and sex become inescapably bound to constructions of race, sexuality, class, ability, age, and location. Thus, rather than ask questions like: “what have women done to demonstrate their equality to men?”, the emphasis at UofT revolved around probing intersectional gendered identities, questioning how identities are constructed, who constructs them, and what purpose they are being constructed for. Questions such as these emphasize the convoluted nature of identities and the multiple histories, assumptions, and associations that construct and constrict their meanings. As young feminist scholars, we were taught to work through these constructions in order to transcend them.

As I was learning these basic tenants of transnational feminism, I was dressing up in a minimum of eight layers of reproduction Victorian clothing and discussing with students, families, and tourists what it was like to live in rural Ontario during 1867. Between 2000 to 2005, I worked in the Interpretation and Special Events department at theToronto living-history museum Black Creek Pioneer Village. With Black Creek nearing its fiftieth anniversary, its collection of thirty-five restored heritage buildings is still a popular site for many grade three classes learning about pioneers and international tourists learning aboutOntario “folk.” However, Black Creek’s interpretative potential has been stilted since the 1970s, and throughout the last few decades has failed to tap into the needs and interests of Toronto’s increasingly diverse communities. Although under the direction of Black Creek’s Interpretative Coordinator, I was able do some interesting programs on the construction of gender, race, and class during the Victorian era, the majority of my historical interpretation was traditional in both its content and its delivery.

Because of Black Creek’s traditional structure, as well as an interest in the “quaint folk” shared amongst many visitors (MacKay, 1994), hearing the phrase “So, this is how they lived back then,” uttered by a parent, teacher, or adult-that-professed-to-know-everything, was common. The further along I was in my studies, the more this statement grated at my consciousness. When it was made, I wanted to shout: “Who exactly do you mean when you say ‘they’? Even in this small reproduction village ‘they’ don’t all live the same way!” I wanted give these visitors a lecture on the economic and social forces that structured the fictional lives of the people we represented in the village and explain to them the invisible labour Black Creek has ignored, labour that, by in large, would have been ignored during the mid-nineteenth century, and labour we continue to ignore today. More than anything, I wanted to yell at these adults for instilling a sense of static inevitability about history to their children who, I felt, if just given the chance, could understand the structure and force of the time we are representing in simple yet, transformative ways.

However, I could not shout at these visitors. It was not only unreasonable, but a fantasy to think that if I stood on a pulpit and yelled, every visitor in the history of Black Creek would understand the constructed nuances of Victorian identity within a small, rural (and fictional) community, and that through this understanding could see the constructed nuances of their own twenty-first century identities. It was also unreasonable for a score of more practical reasons: One, I did not want to lose my job. Although Black Creek’s interpretation has changed quite a lot since the initial ‘Pioneer Park’ in 1954 with its ‘Indians’, soldiers, and milk maids (Cutrara, 2006), Black Creek was still not in the business of political activism in the guise of a fun family outing. Two, I came to realize quite early on that many people only wanted to know that ‘this is the way they lived.’ Many visitors used a comment like this as shorthand for celebrating the numerous advances made in a hundred and fifty years, the simplicity of a time long gone, or to demonstrated their own interpretative understanding of the history in order to not spend too much time in any one building.

Reacting to this statement was impractical for a third reason: How would I begin to respond to such an open, and yet closed-ended, statement like ‘this is how they lived”? Usually, visitors do not stay more then five or ten minutes in any one building and spend even less time talking to the interpreter. If I wanted to complicate the story for them, it was ineffective to isolate the visitors by snapping, “Who do you mean ‘they’? There are many ‘theys’ you know!” Whether it was a statement said merely in passing to acknowledge my expert (or quaint) presence in the room or a casual comment made to a relative, “So this is how they lived back then” was charged with too much, and yet too little, to teach people how flawed and ineffective a statement like that was.

Although it may seem ridiculous to get frustrated over one statement, this comment went against the complex constructions of identity I was learning about in school and indicated a foreclosure on the possibility of further thought about the prospect of changing the world by making the construction of identities transparent, something Women’s Studies at UofT presented as hopeful. Thus, while I was learning one set of ideas at school, I was also being constantly surrounded, at the vocation I choose voluntarily, by a set of ideas that failed to recognize, let alone problemitize, the construction of identity in the past, an area less familiar than the present. This tension caused me to question how these feminist ideas could ever be posed and presented for the future.

However, even with the feeling of having my theory stifled in the face of blissfully ignorant visitors, there were two moments in my pioneer career when I recognized the possibility of producing space for students to question the complexities of identity, narrative, and legitimacy in history education. The first moment was with a group of upper-level elementary students involved in the Rebellion of 1837 program and the second was with a group of inner-city grade three students trapped in a building one rainy afternoon.

When students come to Black Creek with their classes, teachers have the option of choosing a self-guided tour or a general or themed guided tour of the village. These tours are run through the Education department and usually require no special attention from the building interpreters. However, the Rebellion program is unlike other education programs in that interpreters are encouraged to take on the political persona of someone who would have inhabited that building during 1837. The grade seven or eight class involved in the program would be split into three groups, each representing one of three political positions from the 1837 Rebellion: Rebel, Moderate, or Family Compact. With an Education guide leading the tour, student groups traveled to different buildings in the village, collecting evidence for the “Town Hall debate” at the end of the tour. A possibly dynamic program if not for the reluctance to participate by the ‘very cool’ twelve and thirteen year-olds and the often misinformed and unprepared interpreters in the buildings.

However, one afternoon while in the ‘Gentleman’s House’, a group of grade seven and eight ‘Rebels’ came into my building to be informed by their tour guide of the conservative ‘Family Compact’ leanings of the person in this house. After the guide finished his speech, I casually commented that I was glad that the students used the kitchen door to enter the house, since I did not want “this class of people” entering my house using the front door. The students were completely taken off guard and a little insulted that anyone would make a comment like that about them. I continued by stating that I was not comfortable with “people like this” around my children, and so frankly I was happy to have my children privately tutored, since public education was a waste of money on people who would never truly need an education.[1]

Again the students were dumbfounded and asked me very pointed and angry questions about my beliefs. I responded by stating that children should be seen and not heard because their only function was to serve as an extension of their parents’ standing in society. Therefore, I continued, why should the sons of farmers and labourers be taught alongside my son who will be a lawyer or an engineer, and why should the daughters of farmers or labours need to be educated at all, when clearly they will not need to assist their husband’s social position by being witty and entertaining at social gatherings?

Students were angry, they were insulted; some of them gave me dirty looks and called me insulting names. I found it hilarious. I was completely aware of the possibility of telling them inaccurate or exaggerated information and not explaining the complexities of the situation, but I also didn’t care. In this situation, I was able to impart the feeling of Rebellion to them and teach them about the social dimensions of the time they were learning about. The students’ feelings of being slighted and discriminated against taught them more about the class dynamics of the Rebellion than any facts they could get off the Internet, and in this I felt I succeed in teaching them about the construction of identities that worked to pigeonhole people in particular positions during the Rebellion.

Later on that afternoon, a selection of these grade sevens and eights came back to my building, the ringleader with a plastic sheriff’s hat on, to “arrest me for parental neglect.” In essence, these students wanted to talk about the opinions I had expressed about Victorian children and Victorian class dynamics, which confused, bewildered, and upset them. Because I was no longer participating in first-person interpretation, I was able to say, “I said some pretty bad things, huh. Now of course I was exaggerating, but here are some reasons a woman in a position I am representing may have believed those things.” Out of first-person, I could answer questions and pose questions of my own, complicating students’ understanding of history while also simplifying it: “This is what the rebels were upset about.’

Students who may not have had an interest in history took it upon themselves to work out the dynamics of the moment we were representing. This was possible because I harnessed the simplicity of the educational narrative – rich people believed this, poor people were upset by that – and added layers of complication to it – “why would she say such mean things?” I invited students to question the mentalité of the period, rather than have them reiterate “facts” of the events. This was one of my most treasured memories from Black Creek because it constantly reminds me of students’ potential to investigate complex issues given the right circumstances.

The second incident that caused me to think about the possibilities of history education was during a rainy afternoon one fall. I was in the ‘Manse,’ a building far from the rest of the village, when a group of unguided grade three students came in with their teacher. When the teacher asked the students to give me their attention, they automatically sat down on the floor and looked at me to begin. This was somewhat surprising, since groups usually stand to briefly listen, and then leave. With a captive audience, I felt the need to give them what they were expecting, although I was not quite sure what that was. I started by telling them that they were in the kitchen of the Manse, the home of the ‘minister and his wife’ and asked if they had any questions.

I expected the students to ask the usual questions about the giant stove behind me or about the kitchen instruments lining the walls but instead a young boy asked me how the prime minister was elected. It took me a moment to recognize that this group of primarily Black and Middle-Eastern students did not automatically associate ‘minister’ with the Christian faith and that when I said ‘minister’ they thought I meant Prime Minister. This was not the first time this had happened, but it may have been the first time I realized that the history we represent in the village was not the common reality of many visitors.

Instead of just correcting the boy’s mistake and then proceeding with a detailed description of the way I bake cookies, I took his question as an opportunity to discuss how voting worked in the mid-nineteenth century. I explained to them that generally, it was only wealthy, propertied men who could vote and that often political afflictions were publicly declared. By using leading questions, I encouraged the students to think abut the unfairness of this situation and what it meant for people living back then. I also emphasized the changes to our current voting system and asked the students how many of their parents voted in the last election.[2] This brought students back to the present and connected the themes of history to their own lives.

In hindsight, I felt like I could have done more with this answer. For instance, I did not mention to this group of ‘minority’ students that the wealthy propertied men who voted were White. Mainly, I did not want them to feel that they could not have been part of history because they were Black or Brown but admittedly, as the only White person in the room, I also did not want to implicate my own privilege in the discussion. Whether these decisions were the right ones or not I do not know, but I do know that the situation, like the Rebellion situation, gave me the chance to see the opportunity for critical transformative dialogues within history education and that students, with minds full of possibility, are ripe and eager for these kinds of conversations.

These experiences lead me to develop a conceptual tool entitled Historic Space (Cutrara, 2005). Black Creek Pioneer Village taught me the centrality of “traditional” history in the minds of many people – we were at a “pioneer village” after all – but Women’s Studies taught me the importance of challenging tradition. Historic Space is a model of history education that aims to reconcile both: traditional, linear, national history and feminist tools of analysis and deconstruction.

Works Cited

Cutrara, S. (2005). Historic Space: A feminist conceptualization of Canadian History. Unpublished Unpublished MPR, University of Toronto, Toronto.

Cutrara, S. (2006). Black Creek Post-War Village: An exploration of post-war commemorative practice within a pioneer museum. Theory and Policy Studies - Ontario Institute of the Studies in Education.

Grewal, I., & Kaplan, C. (2000). Postcolonial Studies and Transnational Feminist Practices. A Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 5(1), HTML, <http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v5i1/grewal.htm>.

MacKay, I. (1994). The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-century Nova Scotia. Montreal/Kingston: McGill-Queen's Press.

[1] The main Rebellion issues this program focused on were public education, the release of clergy reserves, and road improvement

[2] Ontario had just had a provincial election.