Liz recently completed a sign writing contract with the Alberta Provincial Government’s Heritage division and has agreed to share some of her reflections on this incredible opportunity. Her words follow below:
The interpretive sign I worked on, which is part of a collaborative initiative between Parks and Heritage to bring historical interpretation into Alberta’s parks, will be erected at the site of the Chisholm Sawmills superintendents’ cabin at Fawcett Lake, just east of Lesser Slave Lake. It highlights history of the logging industry in the area, as well as the contribution of German POW labour to the industry during World War II.
Heritage initiatives such as these interpretive signs do important public history work. They don’t just preserve history by marking significant sites, they also interpret it – drawing out the important and interesting facets of a site’s history and communicating them to the public. It is especially important to identify histories most at risk of disappearing because they are not attached to monumental sites or traditional historical interests, such as women’s history, Aboriginal history, or histories of immigrant communities.
Sometimes a site’s historical value is not immediately visible. In the case of the Fawcett Lake logging camp, there is very little in the way of material remains. Aside from two concrete piers which anchored a floating sawmill in the forties – now seemingly unsightly and incongruous in their natural surroundings – and the remains of the superintendent’s cabin, which unfortunately burned down shortly before being designated as a heritage site, the location of the busy logging camp of the forties now appears to be relatively untouched nature. Historical interpretation connects landscapes and structures to historical narrative and meaning – revealing that the unsightly concrete piers are actually artifacts of the use of an unusual industrial technology, and that the cabin was material evidence of the activities of twenty German POWs who volunteered for the POW labour program rather than waiting out the war in the Lethbridge POW camp.
The job of historical interpretation is to identify and communicate historical meaning and interest on multiple levels. Local historical meaning must be valued and preserved, but it should also be linked to a “big picture.” Through interpretation, a local site can be connected to provincial or national history, or broader historical trends and themes. Attaching these messages and meanings to concrete places and structures brings history alive in a way that pages of history books cannot always do for everyone. Marking historical places through interpretation also contributes to sense of community and attachment to place.
The research and writing for this project was a different type of history project than my usual research – both in style and in content, as I usually work on medieval cultural and intellectual history. It was a good reminder, however, about the importance of learning Canadian history. It is not only more interesting than you may have been led to believe, it is also an important part of understanding our own society and culture!