This piece was originally posted to THEN/HiER’s blog ‘Teaching the Past

This month Kate Zankowicz, the editor of Teaching the Past, has asked all of the blog’s regular contributors to write about learning from objects and collections.  Over the past week I debated what I could contribute to this topic. I thought about drawing attention to Ian Mosby’s wonderful piece on about reading cookbooks as life stories, where he hints at using the cookbook as both text and artifact. I then considered sharing my most memorable experience with an artifact – if that’s the proper term – when I came across the finger nails, skin and hair from Alexander Taché, the first archbishop of Manitoba, in an otherwise non-descript box of documents in a Quebec archive.  But then, as I prepared for a class this week on Aboriginal responses to the arrival of Europeans, which draws heavily on the work of archaeologists, I realized that it might be helpful to use this post as an opportunity to consolidate and share some of the resources and collections that I have found useful in teaching early-Canadian history.

Before moving on to useful digital collections, I want to first direct your attention to two helpful non-digital resources. Laurier Turgeon’s 1998 article “French Fishers, Fur Traders, and Amerindians during the Sixteenth Century: History and Archaeology” in volume 55 of the William and Mary Quarterly does an excellent job at demonstrating the benefits of bringing together documentary and archaeological sources. By integrating French notarial records with the archaeological collections related to Basque whaling and Aboriginal trade, his work reveals an understanding about the European fisheries and fur trade that has often been dismissed as irretrievable because of an absence of evidence. No one source would provide as rich a window into the past as these sources put together.

The other resource, which is well known to most archaeologists and material culture specialists working in this period, is Ivor Noel Hume’s A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America. For the most part, this book serves as an item-by-item dictionary of the objects found in the British colonies before the American Revolution. This, of course, is useful for specific research projects, but may not be as handy for the classroom. It’s the book’s introduction “Guideposts to the Past” that makes this work such a useful resource for teaching students. In clear and direct prose, Hume lays out the importance of objects and collections to understanding the past and some of the basic principles to studying material culture.

I use both works regularly when I teach the early history of northeastern North America (Atlantic Canada, Quebec and New England). Not only do these essays provide students with important elements of the course’s content (i.e. fisheries, fur trade, and connections between Europe and North America, etc…), but their frank and direct discussion of methodology and approach helps students develop an appreciation for how documents, artifacts and landscapes complement each other and together enhance our understanding of the past. Although geared towards academic audiences, there are lessons in both works for teaching Canada’s early history to any age group.

These works lay the foundation for students to work with artifacts themselves.  Often, though, it’s hard to bring actual artifacts into the classroom. There are, however, a number of useful websites that allow students to digitally engage with early-Canadian objects and collections. Below I have listed the online resources that I have found most helpful for integrating material culture into my history courses.

  • Grand Pré National Historic Site, which was just designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site this summer, has been the home to a fairly extensive field school over the past decade. Run by Dr. Jonathan Fowler at Saint Mary’s University, the dig has produced a number a very useful online resources. Perhaps the most interesting is their digital dig, which comes shovel-ready with a list of activities for the classroom.  You can also follow the last couple years of the dig on the blog Of Cemeteries and Cellars.
  • Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site also has a fairly extensive and accessible artifact collection.  Although not laid out in the same ‘dig-style’ format, their research collections are keyword searchable and some entries include images (search for toy for example).  Louisbourg also runs a public archaeology program each summer, where you can get your hands dirty on an actual archaeological dig.
  • The Canadian Museum of Civilization provides a similar searchable interface for its artifact collection. Unfortunately, access to this resource is granted only if you agree to view the site for personal and research use, which may complicate its use in the classroom (hopefully not).  Museum archaeologist Matthew Betts also runs a fantastic blogabout his research into ancient Mi’kmaw shell middens (i.e. large piles of garbage) in southwestern Nova Scotia.  You can find out more about the E’se’get Archaeology Project here.
  • The McCord Museum in Montreal probably has one of the best and most accessible online artifact collections. In addition to being able to search their collection based on period, place and object type, their website also provides dozens of thematically based online tours. The “Brief Glimpse of Mi’kmaq Life: Objects from the McCord Collection,” for example, begins with a brief introduction written by Ruth Holmes Whitehead – an authority on Mi’kmaw material culture – and is followed by 120 artifacts that are mostly from the nineteenth century. The museum’s tour “Rebellions” is comprised mainly of paintings and drawings from the Rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada as well as the Northwest Rebellion.
  • Many of the artifacts found in the above collections can also be seen by visiting Artifact Canada – Humanities Data Dictionary. The dictionary brings together artifact collections from across the country. In total the site connects to over four million artifact entries and 800,000 images. Like the McCord Museum, the website also features a collections section where students can explore the site thematically.
  • The final resource that I want to draw your attention to is the recent documentary The Curse of the Axe. This documentary profiles well-known Toronto archaeologist Ron Williamson as he and his colleagues uncover an earlysixteenth century Wendat village north of Toronto. The program, which currently seems to be available only on the History Channel’s website, does an excellent job at demonstrating extensive trade networks between Aboriginal communities, the culturally relative use of imported European objects, and the large-scale nature of some Aboriginal villages before the arrival of Europeans.

In sharing these resources with you, I would be remiss not to mention the retrenchment in the services and programs that have made many of these websites possible.  Almost all of the resources that I have shared have been created from collections held by the Government of Canada. Soon, if expected changes at Parks Canada are acted upon, the actual artifacts that you can see on some of these websites will be moved away from regional conservation and storage centres in Calgary, Winnipeg, Cornwall, Quebec and Halifax to one single location in Ottawa. To fully understand the extent of this cutback, Tim Rast has put together an extensive list of the cuts and changes to the archaeology section at Parks Canada.Jonathan Fowler, who bares considerable responsibility for the user-friendly resources available from Grand Pré, has also been very vocal about the concerns over closing the centre in Halifax. Not only will this decision prevent these collections from being directly used by local scholars, teachers and their students, but the extensive reduction in staffing will also likely minimize the chances that new digital resources will be created and existing resources maintained.

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