Taking Urban Forest History to the Public

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Curating a museum exhibit is a new experience for both myself and Joanna Dean. In late January our exhibition – Six Moments in the History of an Urban Forest – will open at the Bytown Museum in Ottawa. We’re now in the final stages of writing and interpretation. In the new year we’ll be working on the actual installation.

The exhibit is based on Joanna’s current research on Ottawa’s urban forests from the 1850s until the present day. It explores the contested place of trees in Ottawa’s urban history including early street-tree planting, the 1920s campaign to “control” urban trees, and the planting of commemorative crab apple trees for Canada’s centennial in 1967. Through the exhibit we explore how urban trees have tested our repeated attempts to discipline them as we make them serve our changing ideas of the good and the beautiful.

One of the challenges has been locating artifacts through which we can tell our story. Joanna’s past work in civic tree politics, however, has provided connections and access to some interesting pieces around which we have built the exhibition.

Our showpiece is a cross-section or “cookie” of a 150-year old bur oak that was felled this past spring in Ottawa. Joanna carefully negotiated her way through the local controversy that surrounded this tree’s demise—which came down to make way for an infill housing project—and retrieved this section.

The section introduced us to the labour required to prepare material artifacts: : in this case hours of sanding and preservative application. The cookie is so large it has to be hauled around Ottawa in a trailer. The attached photo shows Joanna posing with the cookie before we rolled it into a freezer in Carleton University’s geography department. The section had to spend several days in and out of the freezer to kill potential insect infestations. It also visited a metal fabrication shop to work out mounting details.

Elizabeth Paradis, an MA student working with us, secured a set of arborist tools from a local retired aborist, Bill Gardiner. Bill has generously loaned tools from his collection, which include a long lopper, a chainsaw, and a harness.

Throughout this process we’ve had to keep in mind how and where this would all fit in the Bytown Museum. Located in a large stone building right beside the Ottawa Locks on the Rideau Canal, the Bytown Museum has permanent exhibits dedicated to the canal’s construction and the history of Ottawa.

Our exhibit will fit into two rooms that the Bytown makes available for temporay exhibits: the largest is an elegant narrow room about 40 feet in length. Attached to it is a smaller almost square room with a rugged brick floor.

After much back and forth we decided to dedicate this smaller room to perhaps the most interesting moment in the exhibit: Lover’s Walk. The walk is a now-closed forested pathway located behind Parliament Hill, which winds its way along on a slope above the Ottawa River. The walk was one of Ottawa’s leading tourism attractions in the late 19th century until it was closed sometime in the late 1930s.

The walk had physically declined during the reconstruction of Parliament Buildings after the 1916 fire and had become a “rendezvous for an unfortunate class of society.” Authorities were particularly concerned with young men loitering and “performing vulgarly” here and at the adjacent public lavatories—and attempted to police and control their behaviour.

At the same time the second growth forest on the slopes began to decline, despite reforestation efforts in the 1930s. Construction debris made the slope unstable and a series of landslides provided an excuse for shutting down the problematic promenade.

We explore this uncontrollable space—a site of eroding slopes and private pleasures—and attempts to regulate both the trees and people. The small room in which we will present this story is itself adjacent to the now decrepit walk. Contemporary debates about the reforestation of the slopes make the exhibit particularly relevant.

Museum work is exciting and challenging. It is exciting to experience how an amorphous idea for an exhibition takes material and conceptual shape. It is also challenging to working out a historical narrative that will fit a given space and will engage visitors in the fewest words possible.

The exhibit runs from January 24-May 27, 2012 and is funded by the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE), a Jack Kimmell grant from the Canadian Tree Fund, and Carleton University. A vernissage will be held at Bytown Museum on the afternoon of Sunday, January 27, 2012.

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William Knight

Curator at Canada Science and Technology Museums Corp.
William Knight is curator of agriculture, food, and fisheries at the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation in Ottawa. He wrote his dissertation on the Canadian Fisheries Museum.

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