The lives of historic women (or wearing a big dress on a hot day)

by Anne Marie Lane Jonah

Mid-summer 2016 Nova Scotia visitor numbers at Historic Sites are anecdotally reported to be up from last year. Once again tourists and locals wander in rebuilt towns and fortifications, watch, try their hand at demonstrations, and meet people in costume who share information about “their lives,” say being a 19th century soldier’s wife. Generations of seasonal workers and students have taken these roles. Some have made them their own, and over the decades the changing presenters have changed the presentation. The popularity of living history sites has fluctuated over the years and they have in recent years suffered under restrained budgets and difficult economic times. Nonetheless, they retain an undeniable appeal. As the work of public history goes on this summer, it is an opportune moment to reflect on how this work has been changed by the many actors involved in its creation and dissemination, and by its audience.

It is also a good time to reflect as “national” public history is 99 years old in Canada this year. In the summer of 1917 a small temporary museum in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and a tidied up “Fort Anne” opened to the public as the first “National Historic Park,” (later changed to “Site”). In the summer of 2017 Parks Canada National Historic Sites will celebrate their centenary as the country celebrates its sesquicentenary. What Canada’s historic sites represent, the stories they tell or don’t tell, and how they have evolved, have been the subject of many studies. From Ian McKay’s ground-breaking work to the Pasts Collective’s recent study of Canadians’ relationship to history we have become more conscious and critical of how the past is constructed, used, experienced, and valued.[1] The role of the researchers, presenters, administrators, and the audience all come to bear on what we collectively call public history. We recognise the inherit conservatism and bias of the form, but it remains a vital aspect of our communities, both economically and culturally.


Cassie Deveaux Cohoon’s Jeanne Dugas of Acadia

In reflecting on decades of work in public history, mine and my colleagues’, I have recently focussed on the evolution of the presentation of women’s and non-elite history at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. In “Everywoman’s Biography: The Stories of Marie Marguerite Rose and Jeanne Dugas at Louisbourg,” Acadiensis XLV, N. 1, I explored how the lives of two women, one African and enslaved, the other Acadian, came to represent the stories and struggles of subaltern 18th century French-colonial women at Louisbourg. The study of these women, their inclusion as a part of the presentation of Louisbourg, their eventual recommendation for designation as persons of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board, and their representation in histories beyond the walls of Louisbourg were the result of many years of work. The change they represent was the product of research, discussion and planning, and sharing information and ideas with communities and with visitors to historic sites.

The creation of a good biography, a “persona” for presenters, despite all of the bureaucracy, leads to a personal connection between researchers and presenters and the subject of our study and presentation. As studies of public history make clear, public presentations of culture intended for a tourist audience are shaped by both the biases of the presenters and the desires and expectations of the imagined audience. So, as we strive to make subaltern history meaningful and accessible through the biographies of these women, we must be concerned as to what this process does to their stories.  All biographers struggle with creating a complete story from a partial one; we never have all of the information. This is much more the case when studying non-elite women who did not write. Telling their stories is vital to better history, but it challenges us to create an engaging history while signalling the limits of our understanding.

Marie Marguerite Rose’s history, researched by my colleague Ken Donovan,[2] and the research done to bring Jeanne Dugas’ story to Louisbourg, have enriched what had been a thin area of presentation at living history sites: the lives of subaltern women. Gender, ethnicity, race, slavery, and oppression are addressed in their difficult but inspiring stories. This is a challenge for programming and presentation, and for visitors. Encouraging both presenters and tourists to take the time to reflect on what their lives were like and how they are still important to us today required change and adaptation in the practice of living history. Static displays, theatre, music, and art have all come into play to bring these complex stories across to modern audiences, but I would argue that the living history component is not only a powerful tool for presenting, but for connecting with these stories. I wonder sometimes, how these women would react, or how those who oppressed them would react, to seeing their lives summarized on a bronze plaque, or presented at Louisbourg. I do get a bit of satisfaction from the fact that of all the officers and merchants, sailors and soldiers who passed through Louisbourg, only these two women have received national recognition from the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

In my essay for Acadiensis, I endeavoured to trace the process from asking the first questions at Louisbourg to research, presentation, designation, and the continuation of their stories beyond the walls of Louisbourg. Rose and Dugas have become important symbols for the endurance of the African Nova Scotian and Acadian communities. They are included in fictional treatments, plays, museum presentations outside of Louisbourg, and in academic studies. Jeanne Dugas, whose designation as a person of national historic significance was announced only this year (Rose was designated in 2008) will be celebrated during Acadian Days at Chéticamp this year. On August 15 of this year there will be a celebration of Jeanne Dugas’ story at the Centre Les Trois Pignons in Chéticamp, and a launch of a video and booklet about her. Their important stories have emerged from a complex array of primary documents and from community oral history to be available to their descendants, their communities, and the visiting public. The reach and impact of these stories and the methods by which we share them will continue to evolve as our relationship to our history does. But on a hot day in July, I have to salute the people in faithfully-reproduced very warm clothing, on sites, doing the front line work of public history.

Anne Marie Jonah is a historian with the Parks Canada Agency, currently working with the Field Historical Research program in Halifax.


[1] Ian McKay, The  Quest of the Folk (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994), Margaret Conrad, Kadriye Ercikan, et al. (The Pasts Collective), Canadians and their Pasts (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), Nicole Neatby and Peter Hodgins, eds., Settling and Unsettling Memories: Essays in Canadian Public History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012.), and most recently Alan Gordon, Time Travel: Tourism and the Rise of the Living History Museum in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada (Vancouver, Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2016) and Ian McKay, “Liberty, Equality, and Tourism: D.C. Harvey, Prince Edward Island and the thePower of Tourism/History,” Histoire Sociale/Social History, Vol 49, No 99 (2016) 263-287.

[2] Kenneth Donovan, “Slaves and Their Owners in Ile Royale, 1713-1760”, Acadiensis, XXV, 1 (Autumn 1995), pp. 3-32; “Female Slaves as Sexual Victims in Île Royale,” Acadiensis, XLIII, 1, (Winter/Spring 2014).

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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6 Responses to The lives of historic women (or wearing a big dress on a hot day)

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