This  review of Fort Edmonton Park is primarily based on my observations and series of impromptu interviews that I conducted with almost 20 various interpreters throughout the park during my visit. The review is divided into 2 major sections. The first section evaluates method of presentation via the interpreters and structures of the park, while also assessing the relationship and experience between the visitors and the museum. The second section will focus on evaluating the content and the historical arguments being made by the museum.

The Fort's Main Administration Building: Personal Collection

                               Fort Edmonton Park:

Presentation and Relationship:

The park showcases a re-creation of the Edmonton from different eras with the reconstruction of original or replica buildings built to scale and furnished in era theme. Each of the eras come complete with various park interpreters who act the role of various characters, which, inhabited the respective buildings, or participated in activities connected to the buildings and era pertinent local history. In this sense Fort Edmonton Park is an open-air interactive museum.

The structures in the different areas of the park are complete with descriptions of date and purpose of construction as well as the functions they served and stories of the individuals associated with them. Fort Edmonton Park’s Photo Gallery website tells us The Fort represents the Fur Trading Era from 1795 to 1870, 1885 Street represents the Settlement Era 1871 to 1891, 1905 Street represents the Municipal Era 1892 to 1914, and that 1920 Street represents the Metropolitan Era 1914 to 1929.

The method of representation is physical and interactive in that the Fort Edmonton Park is an open-air reconstruction and re-enactment museum. Representation is achieved by architecture, atmosphere and interpretation. These experiences serve to invoke a total sensory experience that affects all five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.  The buildings and structures are of the specific eras and come complete with information specific to their histories, while the interpreters throughout the park “interpret” the history of their respective characters.

The Fort with Garden: Personal Collection
The interpreters are often associated with specific buildings and or historical roles.  Each era area has it’s own set of interpreters that are well versed in the history and perspective of their character in the era for which they are portraying in Edmonton’s history. This includes the knowledge of where this character fit in the greater historical, social and sometimes political picture of the era. These characters can be modelled after specific people that are known to have existed like Mrs. Emily Secord of Secord Furs, or can be a character that represents a group of people and this group’s place in history in a specific era. For example The Fort featured fur traders, the head Hudson’s Bay Company Administrator, labourers, and Aboriginals coming to sell their goods among others. While 1905 featured new immigrants, a dentist, and bank branch managers as well as the Gentleman and Ladies of the day.  The interpreters were aware of social role, tasks, class, relation to others and how one might become that various character via lineage, personal history, education, and countless other factors. In short the interpreters are totally emerged in the character role and era and how they fit into the greater context. But one must remember the interpreters are interpreting history, which is again filtered by the visitor who is listening to and/ or observing their interpretation of history. While in recognition of contemporary values you may see female interpreters interpreting roles traditional reserved for males.
Building a York Boat: Personal Collection

The visitors are encouraged to interact with the interpreters by asking questions and by observing the interpreters carry out daily tasks, or staged events. Some of these tasks might include cooking, working on handy wears, sewing, needling, shipbuilding, or blacksmithing among others, while staged events might include RCMP arresting an offender or the sailing of a York Boat. I observed that too often the visitors seem to be more comfortable to have the interpreters just tell them about their characters, which, unfortunately does not expose the interpreters’ total depth of knowledge.

Interpreter as Chief Administrator : Personal Col.
To over come this barrier, since Fort Edmonton Park is a living history museum, the re-enactments of daily tasks by interpreters are meant provide a scene where the visitors can watch the duties and tasks of people “living” in that era and have the chance to ask questions. These daily tasks are something special in which the visitor can feel, see, smell, touch and hear the mundane tasks of how people once lived. I think this allows a latent or subconscious connection to be made between the museum and the visitor, as visitor can then relate the daily struggles or tasks and emotion of their own lives to the past. This serves to tell visitors that history is not just about big events or important figures, but is also about the small daily tasks that build people’s lives. This commemoration of everyday tasks by working people is an attempt to capture the essence of “normal” people so the visitor can reflect their experience back in time, showing more than just prominent figures or dates. This drives home the lesson of how Edmonton was built and the daily challenges Edmontonians faced, I found that this helped to solidify a link from today to the past.
Housing Shortage sees a "Tent City" for newcomers: Personal Col.

The structures in the different areas are complete with descriptions of date and purpose of construction as well as the functions they served and stories of the individuals associated with them. The structures are either saved originals, reconstructions, or structures modelled after the original buildings tailored to old photographs but also modern function. Sometimes, as with Al-Rashid Mosque (1938) on 1920 Street, the building is not actually from the era. However, I was told this was done to increase representation of various histories and narratives within the park, however this raises some questions, which will be touched upon later. The structures are fully functional and are fitted to accommodate re-enactments of the activities, which took place within them, sometimes with the original or era tools and furnishings, like as seen at the Penny Arcade on 1905 Street or at The Fort. Moreover some of the structures are “living” in as much that they accommodate live animals as seen with the horses and lamb at the Horse Stable at the Fort, or the pigs, chickens and turkeys at the Ottewell Homestead, and the horses and livestock at the MacCauley Livery Stable both on 1885 Street.

The 1 Teepee outside the Fort: Personal Col.
One single teepee near The Fort and a few other various Aboriginal or Métis characters represent aboriginal heritage and history. The Teepee is supposed to represent the more than 1000 First Nations peoples from various tribes that would have summered near Edmonton to trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most information that I was able to access about Aboriginals was what I had access to by asking questions to listening to the Aboriginal interpreters explanations. There did not seem to be any plaques indicating information about Aboriginals at the settlement, although I may have missed them. On another note due to the importance of oral/ verbal history in Aboriginal culture, representing Aboriginal history in the format given to written histories might be challenging. Contemporary issues surrounding aboriginal representation, history and culture may further complicate this situation. Regardless, the two Aboriginal interpreters who were of First Nations heritage were articulate, knowledgeable and happy to share their wisdom.

I found the presentation and relationship between the museum and the visitor is both passive and proactive. The manor of representation that the visitor will experience is mostly at their own discretion and can be seen as a function of how willing they are to interact with the interpreters or activities taking place. One can be passive by simply wandering the streets and buildings and (maybe) reading the information plaques, observing the furnishing and the interpreters doing their daily “duties” from afar. A less passive visitor might listen to the explanations and stories/ histories being explained by the interpreters. While the proactive visitor might interview and ask pointed questions about the interpreter’s characters, the era they represent and the buildings from the era they represent. 
Interpreters of 1885 Street: They're ready for questions: Personal Col.
Some of the interpreters in the interviews I conducted were apt to tell me that the line between passivity and pro-activity with respect to museum-visitor interaction was sometimes unclear. The ball is ultimately in the court of the visitor as to how interactive they wanted the experience to be. However, inevitably many visitors were not aware of the depth of knowledge the interpreters have, and thus unfortunately don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of that source of information. Others may be constrained by children, or state of mind and not have the time, chance, or idea to probe the interpreters.

Content and Historical Argument:

Fort Edmonton Park prides itself on trying to make the experience as accurate as possible. As described above both the buildings and interpreters did an accurate and honest rendition of history they were presenting. I was told historians had painstakingly sourced the written history, and that the interpreters were expected to research their characters and were under strict instructions by the “history Nazis” to perform as accurately as possible. Thus what I can assess is that what has been chosen, as the content to be presented by the park’s administration is historically accurate and honest, and attempts to explain, from that perspective, Edmonton during those eras in a very precise manor.

Thus it may be fair conclude, within reason, that the content is the argument. However, the content seems to be for the most part chosen, it is in choosing what to present that Fort Edmonton Park is making a historical argument. This in turn shapes the visitor’s vision, memory and feelings about the past.

From my interviews I deducted that there are many factors that are considered when choosing what to represent. These range from decisions about what history is accurate versus what is appropriate, what is politically correct, contemporary norms versus past norms, what is popular for visitors, what visitors would like to hear (which is not always the truth), funding, age of visitors, ethnic/ religious background of visitor’s, the park’s mandate, etc.

1920 Street: "roaring 20's): Personal Collection
There is sometimes a difference in how the past was and in how we would like to think it was. I feel it is in this vein that some choices about content were made. It was common to hear from those interviewed that in reality the settlers, pioneers and citizens of early Edmonton were quiet racist and prejudiced towards groups like aboriginals, Chinese, blacks, etc. An interpreter elucidated that, “If everyone were to be staunchly in character the white Europeans would be using derogatory terms”. In reality, there were currents of extreme racism and ideas like eugenics from groups like the Famous Five, quotas of “dead Indians”, and restrictions placed on Chinese businesses. However, the Park does not showcase nor explain other than perhaps in passing that such attitudes and pejorative treatment was the norm in Edmonton. By not mentioning these issues the historical argument omits nasty bits of Edmonton and Canadian history. For those visitors who will not or do not enquire beyond their experience at the park as to the history of Canada they may have the impression that Canada was always a place of social acceptance and openness, contrary to reality.
City's Dentist: Personal Col.
On another note it was a common current from my interviews that the park over represented the white middle and upper class narrative, while under representing the lower white classes, and the narratives of the various “others”. This seen in that many buildings are those that once housed urban professionals like accountants, bank mangers, and dentists or the Masonic Hall, whereas besides the “tent city” there are not tenements of the poor, working classes, or under class.  The Penny Arcade is supposed to represent the “grunge” of society like opium and alcohol consumption, gambling and the red light district, etc. However this is not really evident. If one was just to walk in and observe the building they might think it was an arcade for children where they could play machine games, watch short reel films, see photograph shows and play board games.  There are apparently two peep shows on display, but they must be activated by the interpreters and are very discretely advertised. While I am not suggesting that these activities should be openly displayed, these issues, which are part of any society, should be acknowledged in a more complete and obvious manor. With some thought and proper precautions justice could be done to this part of Edmonton’s history.

A hint of diversity: Ukrainian Book Store: Personal Col.
Meanwhile, the representation of the “others” is lacking, or seems misguided. Outside the walls of The Fort there was one single teepee, and this was to represent what would have been over 1000 Aboriginals that would have camped near the Fort during the summer to trade. The Fort is fully functional re-created in impeccable quality yet the huge First Nation presence is addressed by 1 teepee with 2 interpreters. I was told that some years earlier there had been up to 4 teepees and more aboriginal interpreters but that recently there their numbers have dwindled. Considering Edmonton was a trading post, which survived off trading with Aboriginals, and that the original settlement and fort was either built on or near Aboriginal settlements in the river valley this is disappointing. The representation of Aboriginal history is limited to trading or the first Aboriginal RCMP. What of about residential schools, conversion drives, or death quotas sought by white settlers? The interpreters told me on countless occasions that Fort Edmonton Park attempted to address everyone’s story, but this seemed more like a platitude in the wake of actual First Nations representation. While there is a Ukrainian Bookstore, one does not see any mention or representation of the Chinese immigrants that contributed to building the west, or the presence of black people or other “others”. This is disappointing.
Al-Rashid Mosque(1939): Canada oldest
 mosque found a place on 1920 street: Personal Col.

That said the park has made an effort on 1920 street to widen its narrative with the construction of a mosque, the original Al-Rashid Mosque from 1939. However since 1920 street is supposed to represent the roaring 1920’s, I felt that the mosque from 1938 (apparently the first in Canada) was a gimmick probably constructed for more political reasons or due to philanthropy rather than in keeping with historical accuracy. In one sense it is good to see other religions and historical houses of worship represented besides the dominant one. However, must there now be a synagogue, Buddhist temple or Aboriginal burial mound even if they do not fit into the proper historical time line of the park? If that is the case is can we say Fort Edmonton Park really about representing history accurately and truthfully? While not to diminish any group’s history, culture or religion should not Aboriginal groups first be more completely represented?
Idyllic sunset on 1905 street: Personal Collection.

The historical argument made by the park, if it is to be judged by it’s content, is incomplete and somewhat misguided. What it represents it does impeccably well, however there are glaring omissions.  This may be because of practical restraints due to economic, political, limits of mandate, or other perhaps impractical restraints, that I was not able to discern.

Interpreters on 1905 Street: Bankers and Lawyers: Personal Collection.

If Fort Edmonton Park were truly
about representing the full history of Edmonton, no doubt these above issues and others would be addressed and acknowledge with due profundity. However, when considering, as I have, that the historical argument is made by decisions about content I have come to think that Fort Edmonton Park might not actually be about suitably representing history. I have come to agree with one of my interviewees who felt Fort Edmonton Park was an “attempt to create a history for the city from the scraps that were left. The park may not have been intended to be a historical place, rather a place “about the history of Edmonton” and a city facility for a fun day out. History might not be what the park is focused on or what it is good at”. Thus I have come to think of Fort Edmonton Park like a photograph taken by William Notman as described in the documentary Notman’s World. The photos were of rich customers in costume in staged posses while the settings we romanticised visions conveniently omitting undesirable realities. As Notman’s photo’s romanticised life in early Canada for personal ego and mass marketing, so does Fort Edmonton Park in the context of Edmonton.
The Train and Train Station: Travel back in time for the day: Personal Collection


  1. You seem to have critiqued the park in depth and raise quite a few provocative questions. I believe you have made a compelling case that ascribe to your view that the purpose of the park "is about representing history accurately and truthfully." If this is your view of what musuems should strive for, and that other such museums do, then I would agree with your argument fully.

    However I probably disagree with your premise that museums exist to merely represent history accurately and truthfully. As you outlined with the example of the mosque, outside forces to this premise (philantropy being a terrific case) seem to always have influence.

    Could it be that museums exist to indoctrinate visitors into believing in the narrative that they chooose to present? I think it raises a question whether any museums with large visitor numbers view their interpretations of the past as paramount to accuracy, and whether they just strive to achieve a minimum standard of accuracy, that is socially acceptable, to avoid any criticism large enough to force them to change their narrative.

    When you question the completeness of the park by not including an appropriate amount of Aborignal, Chinese, or black content, I noticed you have also admitted to to such things as economic, and other such restraints. Why is it necessary to tell these different perspectives to an increased amount? Does the larger central narrative risk at being cluttered if they chose to present so many different perspectives? I assume in the case you presented, the benefits would easily outtweigh this.

    I just get the sense that most people that are taking and teaching history classes at university seem to strive that more content as being superior. As history grows larger and larger through time, is there a case for identifying what is important, and a "less is more" approach?

    It seems I have ranted too much here, so please don't feel an obligation to respond in full. Your post was very engaging and brought up some great questions.

  2. As I believe my conclusion elucidated I feel the park does not represent the history of Edmonton wholly and fully truthfully. In my opinion, in not doing so, yet often claiming to consciously or not, and in some cases peculiarly it fails the “truth and accuracy” test. Yet I never said this is the mandate of the park or museums in general, I said “if”.

    Striving for some version of the truth is indeed what I believe museums should intend to do. Some museums achieve that more than others. While I definitely believe other museums do not even attempt to at all. We often pride ourselves on being an open democratic society with liberal values, so as they saying goes “if you can talk the talk, walk the walk”, I do not believe museums, especially those, which claim large positions in our historical consciousness, should be exempt.

    By including other narratives the “larger central narrative” does not risk being cluttered, but rather strengthened. As the current narrative leaves out the place of many people that built Edmonton and contributed to the make up of the city today. By widening, not cluttering, the narrative I feel more people, who are not 3rd or 4th generations Edmonton residents, let alone Alberta, or Canadian residents would better be able project and see the contributions of “others” in building Edmonton. This would ultimately aid in strengthening commitment and sympathy to both the history of Edmonton and Canada and thus contemporary identity.

    Less is indeed more in as much that less exclusion equals more sympathy and commitment by more people to the narrative of Edmonton.

    With respect to attracting a large audience over accuracy, I think my conclusion where I agree with the interpreter touches upon that.

  3. It's great that you took the initiative to talk to the interpreters. I think so many people feel too intimidated to do so, but that's what they're there for and I imagine they enjoy the more in-depth questions. You're right in that so much of a museum's content and structure is almost "hidden" from the visitor so as to make the visit more seamless, but that everything is arranged strategically and with a specific purpose in mind.

    I think that finding the balance, as you mention, is tough for any museum or public history institution, as all visitors come from different backgrounds and expect to gain different things from their museum experience. Even a simple display of artefacts can bring up all sorts of questions on what was chosen and why, and certainly questions arise if anything appears to have been omitted! Jason mentioned that complex decisions regarding content and structure may be made as a means of indoctrinating visitors into believing in the narrative that they choose to present. Perhaps this idea is more applicable the more private a collection becomes, but I think in the case of a public museum (like Ft Edmonton), there are far too many stakeholders from a variety of different areas, and that the boards of such organizations are arranged in such a way as to prevent biases from occurring. Let's hope, anyway!

  4. I can can see your point on how what Fort Edmonton has selected what history to show and not to show presents a slanted view and it would be nice to have a more complete view. But I'm interested to know if you think it is the responsibility of a institution like this to present a full view of history and how do you think this would change the experience you had there.