This summer Canadians flocked to the Public Archives and National Library in Ottawa to view Library and Archives Canada’s exhibit showing the 1982 Constitution. Well… people did not seem to flock so much as trickle and to be honest, the exhibition space is about twice the size of my kitchen, so I may have just missed seeing people when they went through because you could read everything in about 15 minutes.
I do not want to be too critical of my former place of employment because it truly was a great place to work and learn and because I know that the people working at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) really do care about making Canada’s documentary heritage more accessible to Canadians. In fact, the time I spent speaking with the Exhibit Manager at LAC reinforced my belief that documents can be presented to the public in an engaging fashion. On the other hand, it does not take an archivist working on the inside to see that accessibility to Canada’s documentary heritage is not a well-known fact. The exhibits at LAC may be small, but they are also well-designed and free to visitors brave enough to enter the doors at 395 Wellington St; unfortunately, little money is spent on advertising these exhibits, and so LAC maintains a low profile.
Should documents of legal, historical, or cultural significance really be shown in the exhibit rooms of LAC, considering the small population of visitors that seem to visit these exhibits? LAC should be an institution that both preserves and makes accessible archival documents. Although digitization and internet searches will increase the public’s ability to access archival documents, it is critical that individuals be aware that such documents and such a repository exist. If the institution is unable or unwilling to advance its own cause, then perhaps other institutions that use archival materials (such as museums or history departments in museums or high schools) need to take up the cause of informing the public as to what archives are all about. Of course, this situation would decrease archivists’ control of the message being sent out regarding archives, but that is the price that archival institutions pay for not putting themselves more in the public eye.
Might more people have lined up to see the 1982 Constitution if it had been exhibited at the Museum of Civilization or the Royal Ontario Museum? Archival institutions need to consider the means and venues that might best show off Canada’s documentary heritiage, and in so doing should take a look at what other institutions of public history are doing to attract the public’s attention.