When I was studying history as an undergraduate student, I was particularly fascinated by discussions about historiography. Perhaps it was the influence of my English Lit background, but I tended to do close readings of historical accounts, approaching them almost as literary texts that reflected much about the assumptions and attitudes, biases and values of the writer. It was therefore interesting to be asked in certain history classes to analyse the works of historians not primarily for what they revealed about the past, but for what insights they provided about the particular way of doing history that was “in vogue” at the time.

Over the course of this year, I’ve seen how the idea of the present’s imposition on the past is as applicable to public history as it is to traditional, scholarly history. History in the public realm is certainly as much (or perhaps even more) about the present — that is, the “present” of whoever is, or was, writing the history, composing the plaque text, or curating the exhibit, for instance — as it is about the past.

Museums, for example, as Helen Knibb’s article, “ ‘Present but not Visible’: Searching for Women’s History in Museum Collections,” suggests, do not necessarily present information, in the context of women’s history, about the actual lives and experiences of women from a particular time period. Instead, the artifacts may reveal more about the preoccupations and personal tastes of curators, or about the collecting or donating impulses of those whose items are on display. With regards to the latter, Knibb suggests that women may have simply donated items they thought were important from the standpoint of the museum or of society, rather than in relation to their own experiences. She raises the interesting question of whether “museum collections tell us more about how women collect than how they lived their lives.” [1] Knibb’s article reminds me that museums themselves are constructed sites that are very much influenced by contemporary concerns.

The idea that public history is as much about the time period of the people presenting the history as it is about the history being presented is, I’m sure, hardly startling. But it does remind me of the need which underlies the rationale for these blogs – the need for self-reflexivity. As history students, my peers and I have been trained to read historical accounts critically, with an eye open to its constructed nature, to the ways in which the account reflects the biases of the historian and the preoccupations of his or her time. As public history practitioners, we will have to direct that critical gaze inwards, to assess how our own assumptions and biases are shaping the histories we will help to produce. Moreover, we will also have to negotiate our way through the assumptions and biases of others, who, in the collaborative realm of public history, will also have a stake – sometimes a very substantial one – in the history-making process. Given how contentious history in the public realm can be, not only the need for critical self-reflection but also the ability to practice what Rebecca Conard has called the “art of mediation” [2] are crucial requirements for the practicing public historian.


[1] Helen Knibb, “‘Present But Not Visible’: Searching For Women’s History in Museum Collections,” Gender & History 6 (1994): 355, 361-362. The quote is from page 362.

[2] Rebecca Conard, “Facepaint History in the Season of Introspection,” The Public Historian 25, no. 4 (2003): 16. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/.

Constructing Green Gables

Several weeks ago, my friend Ellen emailed me to say that she was re-reading Anne of Green Gables in light of the 100th anniversary of its publication this year, and to suggest – because, I’ll confess, we are both ardent fAnnes of Montgomery’s creation – that we ought to watch the movie together again when I returned to Vancouver.

A little history is perhaps in order here. I discovered Montgomery’s Anne series at the age of 11 and fell in love with these stories from the outset, not only with the humorous adventures of the spirited redhead but also with the beauty, hope, and longing that Montgomery’s writings evoked. They were the formative books of my childhood and youth. I grew up wanting to taste raspberry cordial and plum pudding, uttering phrases whose meanings I only vaguely discerned, like “castle in the air” and “depths of despair,” and mourning change while keeping one eye yet open to its tragic romance.

These books also immersed me in late 19th/early 20th century Canada; they provided one of my earliest glimpses into Maritime history and, before I understood yet what it meant to be a Canadian, they connected me to other young (and not so young) Canadians across the country. We were, to borrow Benedict Anderson’s formulation, [1] an imagined community of Anne-appreciators; whatever our ethnic backgrounds, we shared a culture centred on a romantic version of rural life in PEI at the turn of the century.

Receiving Ellen’s email that day made me smile wryly. Its timing was rather ironic: I had just started reading Alan MacEachern’s chapter, “The Greening of Green Gables: Establishing Prince Edward Island National Park, ca. 1936” for my Public History course. The chapter itself begins by noting a humorous irony – that of how Green Gables didn’t actually have green-coloured gables – as a starting point to consider deeper and more troubling ironies that characterized the development of PEI’s National Park in the 1930s.

In the course of the chapter, Dr. MacEachern traces the constructed and contested nature of the park, from the public debates over its physical coordinates and touristic appeal, to the subsequent disenfranchisement of long-time residents whose farms were unfortunate enough to fall in the strip of land unilaterally acquired by the federal Park Branch to constitute the National Park. No one who lived in the designated area had the right to remain; their homes were not spared. “The Parks Branch,” writes MacEachern, “tore down the houses and barns of families who had worked and lived there for generations.” The one building that was spared – and not only spared, but restored beyond the ordinary upkeep of PEI farms – was Green Gables. [2]

I was surprised, and a little dismayed, to learn about this other history connected to the house that had inspired Montgomery. It is, as MacEachern has shown, a revealing history of expropriation, of how tourism interests trumped individual rights. It is also a history that emphasizes the social construction of parks, highlighting its unnatural characteristics, its superimposed boundaries that cut across homes and lives with little regard. It’s a history, I imagine, that is not and has not been told by tour guides to the many visitors that travel, and have travelled, to Cavendish each year to see Green Gables. MacEachern’s chapter reveals well the irony of this story, how a house connected to a work of fiction – “never Lucy Maud Montgomery’s home, and never more than a real home to a fictional character” [3] – has endured in what became Prince Edward Island National Park when those of its very real inhabitants did not.

And, I would add, there is another sad irony that emerges in this history: the way in which Green Gables and its surrounding area have been preserved and developed is hardly in keeping with the spirit of Montgomery’s writings. The site’s tendency to become a tourist destination avec “the obnoxious amusements” [4] – from the golf course that the Parks Branch developed back in the 30s, which encircled the house and “overwhelmed all pre-existing landscape, including Green Gables itself,” [5] to the present day “circus” feel of the place, to use the description of one of my disapproving friends in the Maritimes – surely does not give visitors an authentic sense of the heart and soul of Montgomery’s books, even though these works have been the basis, to some extent, of much of this preservation and development.

It’s probably not too much of a conjecture to say that Lucy Maud Montgomery, before her death in 1942, was likely very dismayed to find out about the touristic transformation of Green Gables under the National Parks Branch. I imagine particular horror on her side over the discovery that the holes of the newly established golf course were named after her book, with titles, according to MacEachern, like “Haunted Wood” and “Ann Shirley” (Ann without an e!). [6]

The intrusion of commerce into what ought to have remained beautiful and sacred in Montgomery’s eyes would have, I’m certain, brought the author grief. After all, her most famous character goes through a similar situation. Anne is horror-stricken when one of her stories wins a contest sponsored by a baking powder company. This story, initially rejected by a national magazine, had been secretly entered in the contest by her well-meaning but misguided best friend, who had simply inserted the requisite line to advertise baking powder in the story. Despite winning substantial prize money, Anne feels that all that was beautiful and innocent has been desecrated, tainted by commercial interests:

I feel as if I were disgraced forever. What do you think a mother would feel like if she found her child tattooed over with a baking powder advertisement? I feel just the same. I loved my poor little story, and I wrote it out of the best that was in me. And it is sacrilege to have it degraded to the level of a baking powder advertisement. [7]

It is sad that the interests of tourism have outweighed the importance of authenticity in the presentation of key aspects of Cavendish’s past. The stories of those inhabitants affected by the development of Prince Edward Island National Park – both their lives and experiences before expropriation as well as their struggles against it – are an important part of the historical record. Yet, it is unlikely that visitors to Cavendish will ever hear about this other history. What they will learn about is characterized by a sad irony: in making a pilgrimage to see the actual place and town that inspired a very real author, what they’re mostly seeing is the influence of tourism on the physical landscape, rather than the authentic presentation of the spirit and beliefs of the author who was moved by it.


[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London and New York: Verso, 2006), 6.

[2] Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1990), 73-97. The quote is from page 73.

[3] Ibid., 87.

[4] F.H.H. Williamson, deputy commissioner of parks, quoted in ibid., 82. Williamson’s idea was to develop PEI’s National Park as “a typical seaside resort, sans the obnoxious amusements.”

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915), Google Book Search, October 2004, http://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&id=CPVSKM6X5oYC&dq=anne+of+the+island&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=YZ_qEee__a&sig=xB0pm9_jtX27AVPKv1JabuKjN-M&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA153,M1