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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada



John Fortier
Park Superintendent

June 3, 1983 [Revised]


June 3, 1983 [Revised later by the author]

File 1165-1


I have just discovered that in spite of an elaborate system that was supposed to control the physical maintenance of the reconstruction, and in spite of standards that should have been sufficiently formal to prevent unauthorized departures, and in spite of general principles toward our work that supposedly govern everything we do, and in spite of a formal mechanism for review and approval of standards and principles that exists in our committee system and Period Presentation review, a major and unauthorized compromise of historical authenticity has occurred in our period environments. Another major compromise may have resulted from an unwitting extension of a procedure from a context in which it was acceptable to a context in which the little evidence we have suggests that the procedure is not authentic. It is slight consolation that both compromises have apparently evolved over time, from isolated experiments on a see-if-they-notice basis, to a major distortion of 18th century practice that spread because it wasn't caught but was cost effective.

The very meaning of authenticity is debased by this and countless similar expediencies in everyday life. According to the dictionary, '"authentic" means: 1) authoritative; 2) worthy of acceptance or belief; 3) not imaginary, false, or imitation. By such a definition, what we do with the reconstruction can't always pass the test. In fact, given the mandate for the reconstruction and the standards that have been fought for over the years, we should be aiming at an even less equivocal term: the reconstruction should be historically accurate (i.e. free from mistake or error) in line, level and fabric, without excuses. But inevitably, we find, compromises are necessary - hence a more negotiable ethic based on authenticity, which admits compromises but demands that they be worked out collectively, case by case, and clearly acknowledged as regrettable departures from what is correct.

Since its inception this park has had superintendents who personally knew, in great detail, what the reconstruction should look like and how it should be maintained and presented to the public. Over the years the superintendent has simultaneously had the roles of guardian of authenticity, client and judge and court of last appeal for the various committees and teams, and representative of the interests of the visitor. The incumbents have been willing, on behalf of quality in what we do, to make themselves unpopular by "shaking the cage," making lists, prodding people with memos, and reiterating standards that require park staff to exercise their intellect, master a vast amount of specific historical details, and modify procedures that are convenient in order to respect our historical environment and our mandate. The incumbents have also had to preside over compromises for all kinds of reasons including expense, lack of evidence, and the simple necessity to get the job done. I now wish to write into the record some of my criteria for our work.

First, the mandate for this park should be achieved in the following context:

- Presentations and activities must be correct for the history and historical themes of the park.

- Use of the environment and objects should be compatible with their conservation. In the case of a conflict, preservation should rank before consumption.

- Period programs should be subject to the same rules of validation and criticism as the work of professional historians.

- Period programs cannot present only conclusions - they must substantiate the conclusions.

- Keep everyone aware of the processes.

- Pay attention to detail.

- Respect historical objects for what they can tell us, and because they have survived the ravages of time.

- Respect the dead people whose lives we portray.

- Respect the difficulty of understanding or expressing the past.

- Programs must be evaluatable - both the evidence and their impact on the public.

Second, and perhaps equally important, are my criteria which govern the Mediation of Compromise:

- We can accept a situation less than ideal - but only as long as we define and strive for the ideal.

- Compromises are inevitable, but the nature of and reasons for the compromise must be kept before the public - not hidden or ignored. Misrepresentation is never acceptable.

- Don't compromise easily. Don't approach a problem with the attitude that willingness to compromise indicates practicality.

- Evaluation of compromises, their necessity and acceptability, should be in the context of clearly stated objectives and standards.

- Major compromises should not be a personal decision - they should be organizational. Consensus may not be possible, but full disclosure is. If that causes embarrassment you have gone too far.

Given our mandate, minimizing compromises is one of the most important concerns we can have as managers. It is fundamental to the integrity of the park.

The problem with the compromises and distortions that prompted this memo is that they were personal decisions, not organizational ones; they were not evaluated in terms of necessity, no formal record was made at the time, and they result in misrepresentation because most of us aren't even aware of them or of the corresponding need to keep them public.

I have re-assigned the chairmanship of all the park's committees to Section Heads in order to reduce confusion in roles and assignments and in order to place the ongoing management of committees immediately next to the superintendent in the park hierarchy. The permanent organization of the park provides for specialists to contribute to these committees year in and year out. I have summarized the key documents which describe this park's mandate, policies and procedures (Staff Notice 1980-35, updated in the Work Plan Summary, 1983-84). But none of these measures will mean anything in the future if the park staff do not respect the collective process we have established to apply evidence and evaluate quality. If the people who work in this park are not personally committed to quality, if they are not willing to master the evidence and the procedures that govern its application, if they are willing to settle for a "quick fix," and if they aren't willing to grapple with the extra problems that authenticity entails, no system and no amount of exhortation will sustain quality.

If there is any doubt where the ultimate responsibility lies for authenticity, it is with the overview committee we call Period Presentation. All the other committees are primarily concerned with details and their delivery. Period Presentation is the only mechanism appropriate to oversee everything we do or show in a period environment. Period Presentation has the right and the duty to assess or intervene in all period activities. It sets and revises all our standards that apply to the historic site and, if necessary arbitrates the work of all the other committees concerned with the reconstruction. It represents the park's collective conscience - subject only to the constraint that after a reasonable period of deliberation it must either present its advice or watch the world go on without it. If it does its work well, a superintendent will seldom disregard its findings, or be in a position to dispute them. I have disputed its findings, occasionally, as being contrary to the weight of evidence, but I want to emphasize that over-ruling a committee recommendation is not something to be done without strong reason - and it demands a written justification of the reasons why I have also felt this committee has lately been more passive and quiescent than is good for anyone.

Our recent lapses in authenticity now confirm my belief that the ongoing dialogue and self-evaluation concerning our methods and effectiveness has to reside ultimately with this committee. If the park is going to have any kind of guidance system beyond the dictates of a (hopefully) enlightened superintendent, the Period Presentation committee is where it must logically come from. If operational managers are going to be "kept honest," and if we are going to continue to ensure that our analysis of evidence is in a written form so that our successors can re-verify it or build on it for other uses, and if the park is to be managed with any concern for scholarship, this process has to be the very heart of our operations.

As an outgoing superintendent, I can do little more now than advise and exhort, and pass on to Period Presentation the roles which I have had to fill. Achieving authenticity obviously remains a constant, uphill struggle; a continual need to remember details, apply policies, remind old staff and orient new ones. No system can be better than the people who run it. No system will ever allow us to sit back and take authenticity for granted. Just as the mental and organizational effort required has never been popular, the bottom line may be equally disappointing:

          Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Authenticity.

                                                    John Fortier,

                                                    Park Superintendent.