This past weekend myself and my wonderful historian boyfriend Chris, decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and cross the river to the Canadian Museum of History, to take in the new temporary exhibits that we haven’t had a chance to see yet. The museum hosts three temporary exhibits at any given time, and we explored all three. The first one that we explored showcased the Paul Bienvenu collection of horse-drawn carriages, which was donated to the museum in its entirety in 2010. This collection, according to the exhibit, is particularly special because the vehicles can be traced back to owners, many of which were people who greatly influenced the history of Quebec and Canada.
This exhibit was indeed spectacular. The carriages were kept in such good condition that it was easy to imagine, and certainly hard to suppress the urge to climb in for a ride. It was also clear in exploring the carriages that these were not vehicles for your average Quebec resident, but were something that was used and enjoyed by those who could afford to do so. Throughout the exhibit, classical music played that inspired these sentiments of both grandeur, as well as a sense of movement and adventure.
One of my favorite aspects of the exhibit, however, was that the carriages, as impressive as they were, were not made to stand alone as the focus. Instead of simply displaying the carriages and focusing on their craftsmanship and quality, the carriages were used as a way to access and understand the period in which they were created. As a result of this, a theme that came across particularly strong was the idea that necessity, as the expression goes, is the mother of invention.
A great example of this was the information provided for the Park Drag Coach. Here, the exhibit described how the carriage was designed for country and race track outings. This style of carriage was designed to include a picnic box, so the owners could sit on the roof of the carriage and comfortably watch a race, while eating and enjoying a picnic lunch. The carriage even had a trunk in the back filled with ice boxes to keep drinks and food cold. Talk about luxury!
Another example was the Caleche, which was designed with braces, jacks, and a winch so that it could travel along uneven and sometimes wet dirt (mud) roads much more smoothly and easily. I enjoyed this one in particular because the text drew attention to the fact that it is this style of carriages that is now used in Quebec to give tourists horse-drawn carriage tours around the city, offering a modern, familiar and extremely recognizable connection for visitors, many of whom, I would imagine, have actually had this very experience or at the very least witnessed these horse-drawn tours, allowing them to make real history that can oftentimes feel like a bit of a fantasy world that is hard to imagine ever existing in real life.
This exhibit focused in many ways on how the collection is significant for the way in which it demonstrates technological change parallel to a growing and developing New France. As the cities and towns increased in size and population, the ability to travel efficiently from place to place became a necessity for many, especially those of the upper echelon with businesses to maintain. These vehicles were a direct response to this need.
One of my favorite aspects of the exhibit, however, was not the carriages, but the display of signs along the wall behind some of the vehicles. The exhibit text pointed out that the signs were often shaped in a way that reflected the profession which they were advertising, such as a tool associated with a particular trade. Drawing attention to this allowed the exhibit to expand its focus to include tradesmen, as well as the majority of citizens at this time, the majority of whom, as the display highlights, were illiterate. I thought that this was a particularly important aspect to mention because, while brief, it is a nod to the fact that, in reality, life for the majority of people in New France was not horse races and picnics.
The last finishing touch on this exhibit, which I think was an important and great addition to the display, was a screen captioned Inspired by this Carriage, in which visitors could record their responses, reactions and thoughts to the exhibit, and scroll through the comments of previous visitors. I am a firm believer that museums can only continue to exist, find purpose, and thrive, from and through direct interaction with the public. Integrating screens such as this allows for this in a way that is effortless and comfortable for museum-goers, and encourages engagement with what they are seeing and reading.
All in all, this exhibit was enjoyable on many levels, and I would highly encourage a visit in person. This exhibit is open until April 17, 2017, so there is still plenty of time to check it out! If you have already seen it, I would love to hear your thoughts on the exhibit, so please feel free to leave a comment, or send me a message.
A special thanks to Chris for being my photographer. You can check out his really cool history blog, all about local Ottawa and its buildings, here: historynerd.ca