Is it ethical to celebrate the colonial era?

History Town 8 (Good Night's Sleep) by vanstralen

In 2006 I began working towards a Master of Arts degree in Applied Theatre, studying historical interpretation. After nearly 20 years in the field I had grown fascinated by the inspiring and often sophisticated world of museum-based performance, and I wanted to add my voice to the growing body of research surrounding the subject. I was also motivated by some hard questions about my line of work that I suspected immersing myself in academia might help me to address.

In British Columbia we are in a very interesting place in our collective story. What is now the Province of BC was originally a land inhabited by the First Nations. Fur and gold brought newcomers here, and the settlers brought colonisation. We have moved into a post-colonial period of grappling with where and who we are now, and what has become of our land, as a result of our combined history.

One of the biggest questions I was struggling with when I began my MA was: is it ethical to celebrate the colonial period of a land, when colonisation certainly wasn’t a good thing for many of the ethnic groups involved? Is it ethical to celebrate industries like gold mining without also spending some amount of time addressing the element of damage industry of any kind brings to an environment?

Museums and heritage sites in North America have traditionally been in the business of celebrating our colonial-era creation stories. Barkerville Historic Town was founded on the story of gold, and the stories of those who were crazy, brave and adventurous enough to travel across the world to look for that precious commodity. Indeed, in Barkerville today we celebrate the stories of immigrants, settlers, and transients. We take on the roles of these characters, and we tell their stories through the medium of theatre. But is our interpretation keeping pace with our society’s current desire to honestly evaluate our own story, warts and all?

As I moved deeper into my studies I began to see a pattern emerging in the ways interpretation has evolved in heritage sites in colonised lands. A very good pattern. Many of our most renowned sites have advanced from unquestioning praise of colonial history to a place where we can try to deal with the uglier aspects of our foundation stories. It is exhilarating to see how museums across the world have started the process of telling all rather than just parts of the story.

In Barkerville, the implementation of a multi-faceted Chinese history program, which pulls no punches when it comes to discussing the obvious racism of the early gold rush, has become an integral part of our interpretive message. Our mining interpretation programs deal directly with the fact that gold seeking is both heroic and destructive. All over North America the museum business is greatly concerned with adding the aboriginal side of our stories in a manner that is respectful, honest, and collaborative with indigenous populations.

So, the good news is: these big, hard questions I had seem to have some positive answers. Yes, it is ethical to celebrate the colonial era stories because, for all their good and bad components, they are our stories. They are the stories that make up the collective “we” of BC. The deeper we look at our whole selves, the more we begin to understand who we are now. We are still far from finding the precise balance of simultaneously celebrating and critically examining our colonial eras, but we are trying.

We are really trying.

- Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the eighth of twenty weekly entries that will be logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2013 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and The Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!