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Teaching Early-Canadian History with Objects and Collections

Posted by Thomas Peace
9 September 2012 - 10:56am

This month's blog theme is about learning from objects and collections. Below are some of the resources and collections that I have found useful in teaching early-Canadian history.


Here are  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.

 Ivor Noel Hume's book  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America serves, for the most part, as an item-by-item dictionary of the objects found in the British colonies before the American Revolution.  It's the book's introduction "Guideposts to the Past" that makes it such a useful resource for teaching students.  Hume lays out the importance of objects and collections to understanding the past and some of the basic principles to studying material culture.

These works lay the foundation for students to work with artifacts themselves.  There are also 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.  Louisbourg also runs a public archaeology program each summer, where you can get your hands dirty on an actual archaeological dig.
  • 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'kmaq 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.


  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. 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.


 What are the benefits of learning history through objects?  What does the study of 'the real thing' bring to history studies ? How are e-tangibles (digital artifacts) best used in classrooms?