Part two of our adventures at the Canadian Museum of History involved exploring the exhibit ‘Gold Rush! – El Dorado in British Columbia.’ Central to this exhibit was the notion that although the idea of El Dorado was a myth, it was one powerful enough to inspire thousands of people around the world to migrate in the pursuit of gold, changing the economy, relationships, cultures, and landscapes of the West dramatically and irrevocably. The exhibit asks, immediately upon entry, what happens to a world driven by myth?
One of the things that I thought was particularly notable about this exhibit is how self aware it is. It justifies its own existence and creation by explaining how the gold rush in British Columbia was distinctly different from other major gold rushes, and is explicit about how this fact makes it worthy of its own study and exhibition. For museum nerds like me, this was a really interesting inclusion, and I think one which should be applauded. The authority that museums, and particularly national museums carry, allows them to create the narratives of our past, in a way that is largely unquestioned by the visiting public. Justifying why a particular exhibit is necessary or important to study and understand helps to also demonstrate the basis upon which these decisions are made behind the scenes.
In a similar vein, this exhibit includes text panels labeled ‘Scholarly Insight.’ These panels often provided information in a relatively similar style to the other panels in the exhibit, occasionally referencing a scholar from the field on particular points. On one hand, these panels serve to add to this sense of self awareness in a way that I thought was really important. Exhibits are something created by people, and include information that is debated between different experts. It is not always definitive, and we do not necessarily know everything there is to know. On the other hand, however, the text of the panels did not challenge the viewers’ perception of the exhibit by offering information to consider that complicated the narrative of the rest of the exhibit. I would not expect an exhibit to actually be contradictory in any way, but I think it is important where possible to challenge visitors by allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the content. These panels also served to reinforce the authority of the museum by backing up the information provided with ‘scholarly insight,’ rather then empowering and inviting the viewer to consider the information for themselves.
On that note, however, the exhibit did an excellent job of painting an incredibly rich and full picture of the experience of the gold rush for everyone involved, whether they were the newly-arrived gold seekers, or Indigenous peoples who had a long standing relationship with these resources and were now establishing relationships with others interested in finding and using gold. Exploring how the rush effected the everyday lives of everyone involved, as well as changed the economy, and the physical landscape, allowed visitors to immerse themselves in that experience and imagine what it would be like to be a person living in each of the many contexts that the exhibit presented.
Inviting visitors to imagine themselves in these roles was also reflected in the way in which the exhibit text was written. The text was written in a style similar to the telling of a myth or legend. For example, one of the panels informed visitors that, “[p]art of the gold you wear today may have been stolen from a Columbian chief or an Egyptian king, or mined in Mexico’s Seirra Madre. Melted and reused again and again, gold circles the world.” Writing in this way ignites the imagination of visitors, and allows them to experience the excitement and allure that may have been felt by the gold seekers who traveled continents and lived incredibly hard lives in their pursuit of such legendary riches, as visitors themselves are drawn in by the idea that they might already possess riches from long dead kings and chiefs.
I also appreciated the attempt that the exhibit made to include women in the narrative. Explaining that European women, for the most part, did not accompany men to the New World in pursuit of gold, the exhibit mentions a few cases in which women did sneak in on the action. It also notes the roles that they adopted otherwise in the newly-forming societies that emerged in response to the gold rush. Specifically, however, I appreciated that the exhibit noted explicitly that it is difficult to find such narratives because sources telling women’s stories in this context are few and far between. The effort made to include women in the narrative was thus all the more important and significant.
Finally, I thought that this exhibit had a lot of interactivity, which is something that I am always a big fan of, and think is really important for exhibits to be modern and invite participation, which is, in my opinion, vital. The activities were designed primarily to be fun and informative, making them great for kids, but definitely still lots of fun for adults (we certainly spent some time playing with the different activities on offer!).
This exhibit has lots of information and is quite large, and I would definitely recommend checking it out if you find yourself on that side of the river. Special thanks once again to Chris for taking the beautiful photos of the exhibit. You can check out his really cool history website here: http://www.historynerd.ca/
If you want to find out more information about the exhibit, check out the Museum’s page about it here: http://www.historymuseum.ca/goldrush/
As always, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment if you have any questions, or just want to carry on the conversation! I’d love to hear what you thought about the exhibit.