Haunted by Sir John A. Macdonald in Sandy Hill was created by a team of Carleton University graduate student curators, working in partnership with Prime Ministers’ Row and the Ottawa Museum Network. Its aim is to critically present Sir John A. Macdonald’s history and legacy through an artifact-based exhibition, rooted in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood in Ottawa. We are grappling with the figure of Macdonald at a critical time, amid heightened standards of accountability for public figures past and present, and calls for systemic change from anti-colonial and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) movements. Many of the systems protested can be traced back to the policies and ideologies present during and created within the lifetime of Macdonald.
The goals of this exhibition were to interrogate the commemoration and memorialization of Sir John A. Macdonald, to examine the complexity of Macdonald as an individual in order to cultivate a more nuanced understanding of his legacy, and to continue a public process of reinterpreting him. We used artifacts and archival imagery as a springboard for discussion on historical events and commemorative practices. Images and text were presented in parataxis, along with quotes that complicate preconceived notions on political motivations and public reception. These sometimes conflicting elements were positioned so as to generate dialogue, encouraging the viewers to ask questions. Interactive activities such as the counter-objects activity and the explorable timeline sought to further stimulate dialogue and learning opportunities. As a whole, the exhibition endeavours to contribute to decolonization efforts, as well as building public historical consciousness, as education is a powerful tool in combating complacency and misinformation.
The virtual exhibition was developed through a rapid-prototyping process over three months. As part of a curatorial studio course, a multidisciplinary team of 6 Carleton students spent the semester researching, developing, curating, and assembling this exhibition under the guidance of instructor Trina Cooper-Bolam. The curatorial process was supported and reviewed by the partnering organizations, historians, and interpretive planners. Prime Ministers’ Row (PMR) is the sponsoring museum hosting the virtual exhibition. The Ottawa Museum Network (OMN) coordinated the collaboration between the curatorial team and its participating member museums: Bytown Museum, Goulbourn Museum, Osgoode Township Museum, Vanier Museopark, and Watson’s Mill Inc. These community museums provided access and information about their collections. Additionally, the OMN provided translation and marketing support.
The challenge of producing the exhibition virtually, both in product and in process, encouraged experimental and creative approaches. The team met virtually, and took advantage of collaborative online tools, such as Miro and Google Docs’ shared editing software, throughout the development process.
The curatorial team is composed of graduate students from a range of backgrounds and disciplines, whose diverse skills and research interests contributed to a multi-perspectival approach. The team has approached the topic from diverse backgrounds and familiarities with Canadian history and Sir John A. Macdonald. Some curators are Canadian citizens, others are temporary residents; some have grown up in Canada, being exposed to Canadian history curricula, others have come more recently. As such, the team are not experts in the topic, instead offering multiple perspectives on and receptions of Macdonald’s legacy and commemoration practices. This diversity of familiarity aided the team in their consideration of visitor experiences.
Madeleine McDougall is a second year Master’s of History and Curatorial Studies Graduate Diploma student at Carleton University. Within the project of Haunted by Sir John A. Macdonald in Sandy Hill Madeleine acted as co-curator as well as student liaison.
Haley Menard is currently pursuing a Masters in Art History, having completed a BFA, and is working as an art educator and independent artist. In addition to the shared curatorial role, Haley assisted in exhibition development as a researcher and a writer for the content and the curatorial statement.
Sophie Nakashima is a designer currently pursuing a Master of Design at Carleton University. Alongside co-curation of the exhibit, Sophie assisted with developing exhibition branding, graphic design for virtual and proposed physical exhibitions, and outdoor exhibition design.
M.P. currently works at Canadian Heritage and is pursuing the Curatorial Studies Graduate Diploma at Carleton University. M.P. was a co-curator of Haunted by Sir John A. Macdonald in Sandy Hill exhibit and responsible for the archival research and imaging sourcing.
Haruka Toyoda is a first-year Masters student in Art History at Carleton University. She completed her BA and MA in architectural design in Japan. In addition to her co-curator role, Haruka assisted with developing the proposed street exhibition and a writer for the exhibition proposal for the street exhibition.
Anna Verhoeven is a first year Masters of Design student at Carleton University. In addition to her co-curator role, Anna assisted with the development and production of the virtual exhibition, exhibition marketing, and exhibition design language.
It must also be acknowledged that none of the members of the curatorial team identify as Indigenous. While these perspectives are inextricable and contribute exceptionally to critical discourses, it was outside the time constraints of the project to undertake ethical collaboration efforts with stakeholder communities, such as Indigenous and activist groups.
Due to the complex nature of the subject, the curators’ positionality, and the aforementioned fact that none of the curators are experts on Sir John A Macdonald’s legacy, the team determined that the goal of our approach was to provide the audience with a survey of important information about Macdonald’s life, work, and legacy so that the audience might reevaluate their preconceived notions of who he was and what he represents. As such, the exhibition reflects many of the considerations taken from Anthony Shelton’s “Critical Museology: A Manifesto” (Museum Worlds 1.1, 2013, 7-23). Shelton supports asking questions rather than pronouncing judgements, an approach we centered our exhibition around.
In designing the exhibition, the curatorial team took efforts to consider their individual implications within the structures of systemic intolerance present in Canada and inextricably tied to Sir John A Macdonald’s legacy. Drawing from The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators, written by Michael Rothberg (Stanford University Press, 2019, Introduction, 1-22), the exhibition was therefore designed to encourage the audience to consider their own individual implications in these colonial systems.
The intended audiences for Haunted by Sir John A. Macdonald in Sandy Hill are, in general, those living in Sandy Hill, as well as secondary and post-secondary students. The reading level for the exhibition content was targeted towards those in high school and above, so as to engage with the history curriculum taught at those grade levels. When researching for and writing the text for the exhibition, the team looked at Peter Seixas’ “A Model of Historical Thinking” (Educational Philosophy and Theory 49.6, 2017, 593-605). Seixas’ model encourages critical approaches to reading historical texts and promotes developing deeper understandings of the ways history is shaped. In this exhibition, we sought to challenge the typically one-sided portrayals of Macdonald and present a more complicated and nuanced understanding of the events and consequences of his life.
When it came to the selection of the exhibition content, we considered the framework laid out in Elizabeth Wood and Kiersten F. Latham’s “Object Knowledge Framework,” (The Object Knowledge Model.” The objects of experience: Transforming visitor-object encounters in museums, Left Coast Press, 2013, 40-56) which examines the relationships between museum objects and visitors. The objects selected for this exhibition connected to narratives from Macdonald’s life, as well as to the viewer. For example, the Biscuit Tin presents multiple narratives relating to the foundation of the Dominion of Canada, but also, as an object, it is something familiar, in which many visitors will find some personal connection – whether as an object that holds biscuits or that holds sewing supplies.
Visitor interactives were used to create a deeper connection to the content. Through the use of ‘counter-objects’, visitors are asked to create updated versions of Macdonald’s commemorative objects in order to allow the visitors to think through their own perspectives. This type of interaction encouraged a deeper intersection between the “lifeworld” and the “objectworld” as described by the Object Knowledge Framework.
The exhibition uses Sandy Hill sites and Macdonald’s three residences in the neighbourhood to create ‘stops’ along which content is delivered. Each of these stops focuses on a different theme, starting with St. Alban’s Church for an introduction and short biography, moving to Macdonald’s first residence for a look into his personal life, then to his second residence for a discussion of his political life, moving to his last residence in Sandy Hill to examine his legacy, before finally ending at a Sir John A. Macdonald mural to encourage the visitor to reflect on how they view Macdonald.
Our exhibition design sought to capture the mood of the exhibition. To convey a serious and contemplative tone, airy fonts were used along muted, cool-toned colors to achieve a minimalistic and clean design language. Elements of layering were used to evoke the imagery of a scrapbook, alluding to the concept of memories. Alongside this, we played with transparency and composition to connect to the multitude of perspectives one can have when looking at Macdonald.
The curatorial team’s vision for Haunted by Sir John A. Macdonald in Sandy Hill is to contribute to ongoing efforts at critically analyzing the commemoration of Canada’s first Prime Minister. In doing so, we hope to encourage visitors to examine what Macdonald stands for to them, as well as how they would like to remember him. The exhibition development process has brought the team more questions than answers. Can we judge historical figures by present standards? What makes someone worthy of public commemoration? What makes them unworthy? Sir John A. Macdonald remains a complicated and controversial figure, but we hope that this exhibition can be a space to explore and discuss the difficulties that come with remembering Macdonald.