The “Trouble” with Wi-Fi Hotspots in National Parks

On Tuesday April 29, 2014 Parks Canada announced it will install Wi-Fi hotspots in National Parks.  The response from Canadians is divided; some welcome the ability to access the internet in remote areas, others see it as an unnecessary incursion of modernity into wilderness.   There are valid arguments and passionate pleas from the defenders of the National Parks as un-connected wilderness that generalizes and misrepresents the impact and extent these Wi-Fi Hotspots will have.  A quick read through the CBC’s “Your Community Blog” on the topic is enough to gauge the strong alarmist vein to the reaction the announcement has caused.

Nothing about the Wi-Fi in National Parks news story has surprised me because as a historian of mountain parks – and someone who grew-up on the edge of Banff National Park – I am well versed in the constant conflict between the modern amenities Parks Canada is asked to make available to visitors and the adverse reaction of wilderness purists against those services.  It was only a matter of time before Parks got enough comment cards mentioning the lack of connectivity to justify the expense of installing it in high traffic locations.  When I heard the by-line on the 6pm news I knew the immediate response would come from purists against the incursion of connectivity into the wilderness.  It is all very predictable because of the contested understanding of National Parks: are Parks spaces of untouched and preserved wilderness; or are Parks spaces of wilderness preserved and made accessible for the enjoyment and betterment of all Canadians.  The two descriptions seem the same on the surface but the implications of the two understands are very different.  The first brings about the “how dare you connect a space that is an escape from being connected.”  The second recognizes that alongside preserving wilderness for future generations is the need to give the current users certain amenities they want, like Wi-Fi.

The gut reaction against Wi-Fi in National Parks comes, in part, from optics and perception rather than reality.  Wi-Fi in wilderness threatens the idealized vision of wilderness as a place untouched by modernity, an escape for urbanites weary of constantly being connected and surrounded by man-made things.  This is the urge National Parks were established to fulfill, and the cultural importance of Parks remains shaped by the late 19th and early 20th century anti-modern movement.  The lingering connotations that wilderness means escaping from the man-made reflects the founding philosophy is much deconstructed by academics but it remains the selling feature of National Parks in North America and the illusion of leaving the man-made, modern world of 24/7 connectivity behind is what draws many to visit and explore National Parks.[i]

It is worth discussing in the aftermath of the announcement not that Wi-Fi hotspots will be in National Parks but where these hotspots will go.  Will you, for instance, be able to upload photos from the top of Mount Rundle and Mount Edith Cavell?  Or, will the hotspots be in the trail head parking lots and campgrounds?  This is a key question because the media and commentators would have us all believe this plan will turn Parks in to a giant Wi-Fi hotspot while forgetting to mention or acknowledge one very important thing – the National Parks are REALLY BIG!  Here is a little context of the area of a few national parks in relation to other places in Canada:

Elk Island National Park: 194 km²

Edmonton: 684.4 km²

Prince Edward Island: 5660 km²

Banff National Park:  6697 km²

Greater Toronto Area: 7124 km²

Jasper: 10 878 km²

It is impossible for the Parks Canada Wi-Fi Hotspot plan to turn the entire Parks System into a giant connected zone.  Remember that Arrogant Worms song about how “Canada’s Really Big”?  Well a really big country means really big protected wild spaces too.  Sure there are areas within the Parks that are currently connection-less that will suddenly be connected to the world wide web but there will still be huge swaths of wilderness that have no internet connect or cell reception, areas where you will still need to need a satellite phone to connect to civilization (and help you out of any tight spot you might get into).  The wilderness of Parks will not be obliterated by this plan just like building a highway from Calgary to Banff did not result in a completely paved park.[ii]

The location of the hotspots matters but given the areas described above I find it hard to believe that at any point on a 4 hour hike you will be able to stop, take a selfie, connect to the internet, and upload it before returning to your car.  The logistics and expense of building such an extensive network of hotspots is far beyond what cuts to Parks budget and existing staffing constraints would allow.   Taking a moment to think critically about where these Wi-Fi hotspots might go and it becomes immediately apparent that connectivity will not completely infiltrate the wilderness.  Speculating on locations for hotspots based on a lifetime spent in the Bow Valley I expect the hotspots in Banff National Park and others will be at already popular sites – trail parking lots, campgrounds, and maybe the odd remote tea house.  Thinking about the area around Lake Louise it would not surprise me if in the coming years there are Wi-Fi hotspots in the parking lots for Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, in the village centre,  the Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers tea houses, and maybe halfway up the Tramline trail.  Will there be a hotspot at the top of Mount Temple?  Probably not, the top is covered by a glacier and it is not as popular a hiking route to Lake Agnes or the Plain of Six Glaciers so it would not be worth the cost of installation and maintenance.

Parks Canada has not yet announced where the first 50 Wi-Fi hotspots will be but you can be certain that they are coming.  For the visitors to National Parks whom never leave the safety of the paved or well-maintained paths this plan gives them a little extra connection to the modern world.  It lets them post to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, FourSquare, and various other social media outlets where they are and what they are doing in real time.   For the users of the National Parks who go to escape modernity in the backcountry, this will have little impact on them.  The hotspots will not change how they use the wilderness within the Parks boundaries because they choose to use the space differently than the type of visitor the hotspots are poised to serve.

I find myself neither for nor against Wi-Fi hotspots popping up in National Parks.  The hotspots will not change how I choose to use the parks and they will not take away from my enjoyment of the mountain environment any more than weaving in and out of gawking tourists on Banff Avenue takes away from my enjoyment of finishing a good day of hiking with a delicious Eddie Burger before heading back home to Canmore.

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[i] At this point I could launch into a summation of William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” but it is a great read that should be taken whole without mediation of another’s voice, and is available for free on his website.  Also, I am tired of summarizing that article every time I write about National Parks in North America so this time I am not going to.

[ii] There are critics of the Mountain Parks in particular whom would argue these parks are too paved.  To that I say go to the hikes that are not Johnston’s Canyon, Maligne Canyon, Fenlands, Lake Louise Shoreline, etc.

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Why Museums Matter – migrating and consolidating blogs

A few months ago I attempted to start a blog just about museums and my public history experiences.  However, I am a public historian and that means I work a regular job that does not allow the same time for reflecting and writing as academia did so instead of trying to keep up with two blogs I would expand CanEnviroRock in content to include my public history life — which it sort of did already.

To kick of the migration and consolidation here is the lone post to make it on to MuseumsRock so it is not lost to the ether of the internet when I close that page in the near future.

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Why Museums Matter

A museum is a place you choose to go to because of what it says about who you are (and who you aspire to be).  Visiting a museum is a leisure choice and all leisure activities are reflections of the perceived and desired identity of the individual as well as the perceived meaning of the activity.  This places museums in an odd position; as a sector it is undergoing a huge shift in what it means to be a museum and what a museum can offer to communities by expanding exhibits, programs, and services in new directions, but communities tend to think of museums as a stagnant storehouse for artifacts, as the solemn site of reflection and study museums were at the turn of the 20th century.  The great challenge facing museums is the long-term project of changing how museums are imagined by individuals in the process making them places more people seek out in their leisure time.

John Falk asserts that the act of visiting a museum is an act of identity formation and confirmation which means the perceived image of the museum is the greatest influence on the decision to visit a museum. He further unpacks this idea in Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience by breaking museum visitors down into 5 types; Explorer, Facilitator, Experience Seeker, Professions/Hobbyist, and Recharger.  These types are fluid – you might be an explorer one day and a Recharger the next – and are useful for museum professionals seeking to categorize and better serve their audience.  The types allow for quick checks of whether or not an exhibit will facilitate and attract a diverse audience then keep them engaged for an extended visit.  However, Falk’s typing of visitors does not explore how those same identity types inform the decision to not visit a museum, to choose a different leisure activity in order to meet the same identity-needs.  This is a point Nina Simons explored after the publication of Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience on her blog Museum 2.0 and what struck me when reading Falk and Dierking’s 2013 book The Museum Experience Revisited.  Museums are great at catering to the people who already visit but how to entice new visitors is a greater challenge and one close to my heart.

Now it is time for a confession: I work in museums and I love museums, but I do not often visit museums for leisure.  Based on the assertion that the choice to visit a museum speaks to an individual’s identity my avoidance of them in my leisure time would suggest I do not care for or value the institutions.  This could not be further from the truth – if you have met me it is obvious within minutes that museums are one of my passions – yet it takes often something completely different to get me into a museum on a Saturday afternoon.  I want to visit institutions that push the envelope of what a museum is and can do.  I want to see the space being used in non-traditional ways, exhibits about topics outside the conventional realm, collections so obscure you have to see it to believe it.  I want to see museums that breakdown the walls of preconceptions of what a museum is what it can do.  I want the weird and I want to see it done well.  This is not to say I don’t appreciate and enjoy a traditional museum, but what gets me really excited is the weird and wonderful of a museum trying something different and leaving its comfort zone.

The weird and wonderful and different is what makes me visit a museum.  Now I ask a question I put out on Twitter (@canenvirorock) a few weeks ago with an amendment; Why do you visit museums, or why don’t you visit museums?  Feel free to answer in the comments.

 

 

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Canmore, Floods, and Southern Alberta Museums

Thursday mornings I was woken by a 6:45am phone call from Canmore.  It was my mum to tell me the usually dry creek behind the house was a raging river and our neighbours with homes backing the creek had been evacuated at 1am. She described the sound of rocks tumbling down the swollen creek and the trees stripped of bark and branches from tumbling against the rocks.  By the time I arrived at work things were getting worse and my heart sunk at the sight of a Tweet naming the street I grew-up on, where my parents and brother still live, as on evacuation notice.  It was only a precautionary notice and they opted to stay at home – with the car packed just in case – and continue to keep me posted about what is happening.  I found solidarity with all the other Canmore Kids stuck in other parts of Alberta and Canada worrying over what was happening to our hometown and how our family and friends were coping with it all.

Cougar Creek June 2009, normal spring run-off

Cougar Creek June 2009, normal spring run-off

Cougar Creek June 20, 2013

Cougar Creek June 20, 2013

The flooding of Cougar Creek and the subsequent flooding throughout southern Alberta hit me on two very different levels.  The first hit came with a phone call from my mum on Thursday morning describing what Cougar Creek looked like and sending pictures and videos of the destruction.  For two days my parents and brother were on precautionary evacuation notice because the house I grew-up in on the west side of the creek.  I also worried about two museums and archives close to my heart; the Canmore Museum and GeoScience Center was the first museum job I had in the summer of 2002, and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies where I worked for three summers and where I researched my Masters thesis.

The second hit came as I was walking to work at the Alberta Museums Association and realized how many of the member museums would be affected by a flood starting in the Bow Valley.  Before I arrived at work there was a preliminary list in my head: Canmore Museum and GeoScience Centre, Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, Luxton Home, Museum of the Highwood, and Okotoks.  Over the next two days the list got longer until it stretched from Red Deer south to Lethbridge and from Banff to Medicine Hat.  This range includes nearly 25% of the museums in Alberta and for two days the staff of the Alberta Museum Association called and emailed these potentially affected museums to find out if they were okay.   The good news is most of the museums have made it out of the worse of the flooding unscathed.   However, the museums that were affected by the flooding were hit hard and will need help cleaning up.

It is easy to overlook the museums and archives when flooding takes out large swaths of a city but these collections are priceless and to properly dry out a museum or archive after a flood is very expensive.  In Alberta there are now a number of museums and archives facing the monumental task of drying out as the flood waters recede.  These include the Museum of the Highwood in High River, Fort Calgary, the City of Calgary Archives, Fort Whoop-up, Helen Schulare Nature Centre in Lethbridge, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum in Banff, and from flooding earlier in June Heritage Park in Fort McMurray.  If the flooding is extensive some of these museums will have to close for the summer season to deal with the clean-up.   Heritage Park in Fort McMurrary has already announced they will remain closed for the rest of the summer due to the size of the clean-up job.

What the museums and archives affected by flooding need are donations to help pay for the recovery of artifacts and repairs to their buildings.   They also need volunteers with museum and archive experience to help with the clean-up work.  It is important volunteers know how to properly handle artifacts to prevent further damaging them.

Things you can do to help museums after a flood or other natural disaster:

1)   Donate.

2)   If you have museum experience wait until the imminent danger has passed then offer your assistance.

My thoughts are with everyone in the areas affected by the flooding in Southern Alberta.  The good news from the region is finally starting to out weigh the bad and I look forward to the Trans-Canada opening again so I can get home to Canmore and start helping with the massive clean-up.

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Public History, Pop History, Academia, and Jobs.

On the last day of the 2013 ASEH meeting in Toronto I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with two other public historians at a graduate luncheon and answer questions from graduate students about job opportunities outside academia.  The attendees asked some very good questions that ranged from “how do I get a job in consulting?” to “what skills do I have that could be useful outside academia and how do I market them?”  As panelists, we each drew on our personal experiences and, in the case of me and the other Canadian on the panel, spoke to the value of a Masters in Public History.

There was one question that has stuck with me because there was not enough time to adequately address it in the session and it speaks to a deeper disconnect between those with established careers in academia and the world outside the ivory tower.  The question asked us to address the tensions between university experts and public historians, which is a common enough inquiry, but the example given to illustrate the root of the question came from an American History Television program.  This showed a conflation of public and pop history that unfortunately plagues academic views on public history and is what I would like to belatedly address.

Public history can be defined in two ways.

1)      Public history is the presentation of historical knowledge to the public outside the confines of the traditional university setting.

2)      Public history refers to the historians employed outside the university in a position related to the field of history.

These two definitions are obviously connected and both allude to the places where public history takes place; museums, archives, websites, government ministries, tv documentaries, radio programs, etc.  Anyone trained as a historian and working in these fields is a public historian but that does not mean that all of them are trained in public history.  In Canada there are only a handful of universities that offer graduate programs devoted to the study and practice of public history – Carleton University and the University of Western Ontario are the most prominent.  This is important because the methodology, theory, and skills taught in public history programs is not the same as that taught in a traditional history masters and this disconnect is at the root of what many see as a tension between academic and public history.

museum

The question posed during the ASEH graduate luncheon about tensions between academic and public history accused public historians of not keeping abreast of new findings in academic history and as a result creating historical knowledge for the public that fails to adequately address the current state of literature in a field.  My response was as a-political as possible, drawing on the different modes of presentation used in public history and considerations for the audience as part of why certain information is left out of exhibitions and similar presentations.  In the response I tried to convey that public historians, especially curators, do keep up with the developments in academia; professional development is part of their job, they are constantly researching to develop their collections, and they actively publish in peer-reviewed journals.  However, that depth of knowledge is not always reflected in the knowledge that is transmitted to the public for two very important reasons; audience and space constraints.

The audience for academics is other academics.  There is a level of assumed knowledge that come with writing for your peers that allows monographs and articles to delve into the minutia of a topic that is not possible in other areas.  Public history does not have the luxury of assuming a base level of knowledge at the masters’ level.  Instead, public historians have to convey the same information that would make for a great article without the use of footnotes to explain or reference back to supporting information.  The audience for public history is anyone from an elementary school student to a university professor and everyone in-between.  There is no assumed knowledge when writing for an audience this diverse so often the newest information academics would like included must be cut for the sake of contextual information that gives the public a necessary base from which to continue exploring a topic.

Space is the second constraint and it often has a greater impact on what a public historian can convey than their audience.  In a museum, for instance, each text panel is restricted to about 200 words.  The first paragraph of this post is 109 words!  Often a curator has 200 words to convey what an academic could devote an article to.  It is a challenge to any academic thinking it is easy to do public history to distill the information of an entire article into 5 panels, 200 words each, in language that is suitable for a grade 8 reading level and still maintain the crux of the article.

The emergence of professional training through graduate programs in museums studies and public history created a pool of people working in museums, archives, government ministries, etc with an understanding of what public history should be and the skill set to make what they do seem simple.   However, not everyone producing history for public consumption is trained in the field or attune to the best practices in presenting knowledge to the public.  This is where pop history and public history collide and too often those working outside public history judge it with a harshness borne of too many disappointing or frustrating interactions with pop history.

Pop history is analogous to pop music – it is light and easy to access and digest but without much substance.  It can also be seen as the tabloids of history in the tendency toward sensationalizing over accuracy and use of outdated or disproven information.  Most pop history is encountered in television programming – the recent series “Viking” is an excellent example – and distorts fact for entertainment value without providing the viewer with a disclaimer.  As a result when the general public watches pop history programs they leave with misconceptions of what happened and unwittingly perpetuate false information and assumptions about the past.  When academics encounter pop history the story presented is often so distorted that their frustration and anger at the public receiving false information is understandable.  Public historians have the same reaction to the programs as academics because like in academia the core mission in public history is to engage people’s interest in the past while providing the public with the most accurate and up-to-date information available.

There is a disconnection between public history and academic history but in my experience it is not coming from the public history side.  As a MA student in a public history program I worked with academics who understood what public history was, brought in practicing experts, and fostered connections between the university and public institutions to ensure the best possible history was presented to the public.  As a PhD student I sat in on graduate level course about public history that completely over looked the long standing journals and scholarship in the field, and listened too many times to academics conflate pop history with public history.  Upon leaving a doctoral program to pursue my passion for public history it became clear that the hesitancy of some public historians to work closely with academics often comes from false assumptions about what they do informed by conflations of pop and public history.  Public historians understand academia because to work in the field a minimum of a Masters degree is required, but most academics have never worked in public history and do not have the understanding of the field that can only come from hands-on experience.  It is encouraging to see academic associations beginning to embrace public history and the opportunities it presents to the graduate students they are training and gives hope that eventually the tensions and misunderstandings between academia and public history will disappear.

Assumptions about public history perpetuated within the universities do the greatest disservice to graduate students planning their entry onto the job market.  Academic positions are few and far between but too many graduate students are woefully under prepared to be competitive in the public history sector.  The increase in public history and museum studies programs means the competition for jobs outside academia is stiff and simply having a doctorate is not enough to get an interview, let alone a job.  Experience is essential, knowledge of collections management is mandatory for museums positions, and practical knowledge of how to adapt history for a public audience is important.  For graduate students trying to plan for the day they go on to the job market, degree in hand, it means tough decisions.  To get the experience needed for a non-academic job means a graduate student must give up some summer researching time to work in the field, or adding volunteering at a public history institution to an already busy academic schedule.  It also means making a difficult decision while still in the doctoral program – do you want to work in academia or do you want to work in public history?  Speaking from the other side of that decision I would encourage any graduate student to take preparing for a possible job in public history as seriously as they do the academic route.

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Good-Bye STEP

Today the Alberta Budget dropped and the news is not good for local heritage and history institutions or the students who keeps them going in the summer months.  The Student Temporary Employment Program, or STEP, was suspended.  This is not a surprise but it is disappointing and detrimental to heritage and history institutions, charities, and social service institutions as well as the post-secondary students the program ensured living wages for between academic years.

The STEP program cost $7.4 million a year and subsidized wages for students working for charities, museums, community institutions, and other groups with limited funds for full-time employees.  The program gave approximately 3000 students a year valuable work experience outside the typical serving and retail jobs available in the summer months.

STEP also helps charities and social service institutions pay students to help administer vital social programs in the summer months.  It gives students, particularly arts and social science students, a chance to put their courses to use and see what they can do with their degree before graduation.  To suspend the program does a disservice to students, making the competitive summer job market even more crowded and making it harder for students to come out of an undergrad degree with valuable work experience in their field.

The first STEP job I had was in 2002 at the NWMP Barracks Historical Site in Canmore.  This was the job that made me seriously consider a career in the field I later learned was called public history.  Since that first exposure to museums and STEP the program has helped pay part of my wage at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, the Canmore Public Library, the Three Sisters Scottish Festival Society, and the Canadian Circumpolar Institute.  Without the STEP program it is unlikely people like me would have the work experience necessary to be competitive in the field of museums and public history.

STEP gives back to communities because so many of the students it employs were in institutions that provide services and programs for their community.  For instance, at the Canmore Public Library I was one of two students who organized and ran all the summer reading programs for children aged 2-15.  Will small rural libraries have the funds to offer reading programs to children in the summer without the help of STEP?  Will museums and heritage institutions be able to develop their collections and exhibits without STEP?  Will the next generation of public historians and museums professionals be able to get the experience they need to get their foot in the door after graduation?

 

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A Little Bit of Everything

The key to working in public history is to be adaptable and willing to try anything.  You will learn quickly in this field that no matter what the job description said you will be asked to do things you never imagined were in your skill set.  If this scares you, don’t become a public historian and definitely don’t work in an institution that presents history, for instance a museum.  If you like to be creative and like the challenge of coming up with new approaches and constantly learning new skills, public history is the place to be.

For seven years I’ve worked in public history and done everything from research to interpretive programming to managing an exhibit to creating databases and pretty much everything in between.  Each contract is different but the one similarity is a willingness to try new things and push new ways of conveying information to the public is essential.  In these contracts I have been a website contributor (Active History), event planner, POS expert, interviewer, designer, video editor, researcher, guide, and general assistant to whom even needs assisting.  Often I am many of these things at once.

Not convinced?  Here are the various hats I’ve worn this week:

Video Editor

App Designer

Researcher

Event Planner

Photo Shoot Assistant

Text Editor

Design Assistant

Content Assistant

Only four of these jobs fall under the umbrella of what you would learn in a history program.  The rest are skills I’ve picked up and developed over years of public history work.  I am a decent video editor because of the year I spent co-producing EHTV: Live from the Field for NiCHE.  I am an event planner because in grad school I organized far too many conferences, social events, and workshops.  My academic work in visual history allows me to assist the designers and act as a bridge between the content expert curator and the creative minds who will make an exhibit look amazing.  However, my programming expertise is limited to one class in html back in 1998 and I only got to play at app designing this week because the IT guys found a seemingly idiot proof program I could populate for them.  (Unfortunately, the program’s linear design means it is useless for what we need it to do so it is useless.)

Next week will likely be more of the same because public history is one of the most interdisciplinary fields around.  There is no hard edge to delineate what the job entails.  To convey history to the public in a meaningful way you must go beyond the written word and a token picture.  Everything must fit together to create something that conveys the richness of a topic that does not rely heavily on text in order to engage multiple learning styles and all ages and education levels.  This means incorporating new technology with the tried and tested standards of exhibiting — a text panel and archival image that functions alongside a tablet for exploring old newspaper articles or videos.  Layering how information is presented in this way allows makes an exhibit accessible and exciting.  It is this challenging process of making history resonate with the public and trying new ways of presenting it — ways that don’t even seem like learning about history — that keeps me interested and working in this field.  There is nothing more rewarding than wandering around an exhibit you’ve helped create and seeing visitors interacting with it exactly how you hoped they would.

Public history is the most creative branch of history.  Innovations in how to tell history is reflections the creativity and daring of the people working in the field.  Telling the story in a new way shows people who write off the past as a dry series of names and dates that it is exciting and interesting and fun.  It shows how pertinent something that happened a century ago is to what we do today.  If making history fun means I have to learn how set-up a basic program on an iPad then I welcome the opportunity (and will happily leave the really technical stuff to the pros).

 

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Making History Look Delicious at the Royal Alberta Museum

*This post was written for Active History.

I recently took a trip to a Calgary restaurant where the most iconic of Chinese-Canadian dishes originated.  The restaurant is on Centre Street at 27th Avenue North and you would likely miss it unless you looked for the sign reading “Silver Inn.”  Two colleagues from the Royal Alberta Museum (RAM)also  made the trip from Edmonton to Calgary to record the interviews.  When the interviewee is the owner of the first restaurant to serve “Ginger Beef,” the footage has to look better than good.  It must look delicious.

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Author interviewing the owner of the Silver Inn.

Making history look good is a big part of designing a museum exhibit.  As sites of public history, museums suffer from the stereotype of stale rooms filled with artefacts hidden behind glass and a sleepy security guard ensuring nothing happens to the precious items on display.  This idea of museums persists in spite of decades of interesting and innovative exhibits and new methods designed to engage the public with museums.  Food is still prohibited in exhibits, but high-quality video of a dish or a detailed description of its ingredients can create the same Pavlovian reaction as the smells of a busy kitchen or a table set for a feast.  With this in mind, we went to Calgary in search of footage to add this dimension to the RAM’s Chop Suey on the Prairies exhibit.

The Silver Inn was the first restaurant in Calgary to offer Peking-style dishes.  It opened in 1975 in a small space on 4th Street Southwest.  For the first few years, the establishment served mostly the burgers, fries, soda, and milkshakes typical of Chinese-owned restaurants across the prairies.  The menu listed Peking dishes, but customers were not interested in trying them.  But after a few years, the Cheung family took the risk and dropped the western side of the menu and focused exclusively on Peking cuisine.  Calgarians were hesitant to try the dishes, but they slowly came around to these new flavours.

The dish known as ginger beef is based on a traditional Peking dish of beef cooked so that it is chewy like a jerky, deep fried, and seasoned with orange peel and chili sauce.  The chef thought the dish would go over well with Calgarians because it was similar to popular pub food.  Customers liked the flavour, but not the chewy beef so he began experimenting ways to make the beef a similar texture to French fries.  The resulting dish – deep fried shredded beef in chili sauce – became an instant hit with customers.  The perfectly crunchy exterior hid beef that was cooked but still tender.  The sauce tasted so different from standard fare that people started asking for the dish as “that ginger beef dish” – even though there was no ginger in it!

The dish nicknamed ginger beef by customers became so popular that other Chinese restaurants tried to replicate it.  The flavour combination spread across the province.  The success of the Silver Inn helped to inspire other Chinese restaurant owners to introduce more authentic Chinese dishes onto their menus.   Ginger beef is now synonymous with Chinese food in Alberta.  And since it originated in Alberta, there was no question it would be featured in an RAM exhibit about Chinese restaurants.

Yet capturing the essence of an iconic dish for a museum exhibit poses a challenge.  Museums have strict rules surrounding food and drink in exhibit space for both practical and conservation reasons.  Maintaining a fresh bowl of ginger beef within an exhibit would be a logistical nightmare, not to mention the temptation to visitors that a bowl of food would offer.  Furthermore, food is a no-go in exhibit spaces because it attracts bugs, and these critters eat the organic material that constitutes most artefacts.  Knowingly exposing material in a museum’s collection or on loan from generous donors to conditions that would lead to its disintegration is a sin in the museum and archive community.

The question is: when planning and designing an exhibit, how best to use audio and video to conveying the look, smell, and taste of food to visitors?  A museum could interview someone connected with the invention of a dish, like the RAM did with ginger beef.  A sound bite that explains how a dish came to be gives people an extra treat and something to share with others; a piece of trivia to hold onto for the future and a reference point for remembering the exhibit experience.  But information is not enough to make visitors’ mouths water.

To successfully convey the essence of food without tasting or smelling it, the visual must be hyper-realistic and the sounds must be crisp and clear.  When these elements are brought together, the visitor enters a mental place where they can almost smell what is being cooked.  This all must be done without resorting to the “money-shot” of food programs everywhere: a host eating the food, making sounds of a delighted palate, and gushing over the dish.  To do so would distract visitors from the content of an exhibit and make a spectacle of what is a supporting component of a larger narrative.   Play it too safe and visitors would remember neither the visual nor the story behind the dish.  Overdo it and the dish becomes a distraction from the rest of the content, not to mention the possibility of criticism about lewd content in a public museum. But get it just right and people leave the exhibit craving the dish.

Such considerations influenced the upcoming Royal Alberta Museum exhibit Chop Suey on the Prairies.  Conveying the essence of Chinese-Canadian food is of core importance to successfully telling the story of Chinese restaurants.  However, the food is only one piece of the Chinese experience in Canada and cannot overwhelm the rest of the story.  The food — whether ginger beef or chicken balls or chop suey — is a reflection of the unique situation of Chinese immigrants to Canada before the federal government repealed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 in 1947.  The dishes that introduced Canadians to Chinese cuisine are a mixture of Chinese cooking techniques, ingredients available in Canada, a willingness of people with non-Chinese backgrounds to try new flavours, and the emergence of a strong Chinese community in the West.  The melding of traditional Chinese flavours with a texture common to English pub food created Ginger Beef, and this is one story the RAM tells at its new exhibit.

Ready to eat the ginger beef.

Ready to eat the ginger beef.

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