Over the past few weeks I’ve been travelling around parts of eastern Canada for research relating to my PhD. At the same time, I’ve been trying to visit as many local heritage sites as I can, ranging from the fantastic Louisbourg to the equally well interpreted Dundurn Castle.
What has quickly become apparent, however, is that there is a significant collection of historic house museums or heritage sites in this part of Canada dedicated to scientists, inventors and ‘Great Men’ of history. I managed to see a few of these, including Melville House (Bell Homestead), the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site and Museum, and the Marconi Museum.
The quality of these sites varied quite dramatically. The Alexander Graham Bell site was well maintained, perhaps even over-staffed, and though suffering from the wear and tear of any museum several decades old, its sheer number of artefacts and pacing of the themed areas made it thoroughly interesting to visit. The architecture of the site greatly enhanced the overall feeling of place, both within and without. The triangular design Bell used in many of his air and watercraft designs punctuate the fabric of the building, from banks of cheese-wedge windows to sweeping triangular gables at the entrance. Though not without faults, this is a site which uses its artefacts, its architectural features and the life of the man at it’s centre to great effect.
Melville House, known variously as the Bell Homestead in reference to its most famous occupant, tells a more confused story. Limited to two buildings, the original house and a relocated telegraph exchange, the site suffers from various maladies. Occupied for a few years by Alexander Graham Bell as a young man, the site tries to balance the comparatively small storyline of Bell’s time there with the much more significant lifetime of his father and extended family. Torn, it would seem, between needing to encourage visitors to make the trip and wanting to pay tribute to the work of the rest of the Melville/Bell family, the site is a hodge-podge of half-finished narratives and confusing artefact displays.
To begin with, visitors are asked to self-guide themselves through the telegraph exchange building, which is aching for more thoughtful curation, more artefacts, and better information for visitors. The fact that it was relocated next to the Melville House, seemingly because of the link between the telegraph and Melville’s famous inhabitant (Bell), is understandable if not disappointing.
Once through the telegraph exchange building, a guide waits to take visitors through Melville House, which exists in a roped-off, frozen-in-time state of overstuffed despair. Each room appears agonisingly pieced together, and upon further inspection it happens that much of the decor and artefacts were not owned by the Melville/Bell family. While the guides are quick to point out that the house has been furnished with a combination of original and purchased “of the period” pieces, it is concerning that some of the most questionable artefacts have been brought in and placed at the behest of a curator, rather than belonging to the original occupants. By way of example, many of the Scottish-themed paintings and drawings scattered around the house are not genuine Melville/Bell artefacts, and seem to have been placed there to play up the family’s Scottish ancestry.
While well cared for, and certainly led by informative guides, Melville House seems destined to remain caught between the genuine history of the site and the superimposed narratives of the telegraph technology, the work of Alexander Graham Bell, and even that of the well-trod Scottish emigrant story.
And finally, to end with the most concerning and confusing of all, the Marconi National Historic Site. Located in a remote part of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the Marconi Site is intended to commemorate the work of Guglielmo Marconi, who built transmission towers on the site at Cape Breton to send messages over the Atlantic to England. The site appears run down, sparsely informed with few artefacts, and deathly quiet. Outside the building are the remains of some of the transmission towers – or at least, there might be; the signs point visitors in a specific direction but the site is overgrown and any remaining industrial archaeology is now hidden.
It is possible that the Marconi site lacks the emotional connection to the surrounding area that the two Bell-related sites have in abundance. Marconi was Italian born and died in Rome; Bell, though Scottish in origin, spent a great many years in Canada and lived out his retirement in Nova Scotia. But what I feel is more concerning is that these three sites are all nationally recognised heritage locations; the Alexander Graham Bell Museum and the Marconi Museum both part of the Parks Canada portfolio. To see such a variance in interpretation, curatorial policies and site-use suggests a confusion at the core; made all the more concerning by recent talk of budget cuts within the heritage sector in Canada.
Finally, in observing just three ‘Great Men’ sites, it is possible to make the comment that without a strong central narrative and a substantial bank of personal artefacts, these types of museums/sites will struggle long term – regardless of the importance of the achievement they’re commemorating.