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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

Proceedings of the Conference ~ Cape Breton in Transition: Economic Diversification and Prospects for Tourism

edited by William A. O'Shea ,
Carol Corbin and Eric Krause
(October 20-21, 1998)


Enhancing Viability Without Compromising Integrity

Michael Seaman, BES, MEDS

Open-air living history museums, often referred to as pioneer villages, are unique and diverse heritage sites with a vast potential for innovation in interpretation and revenue generation. Until recently, this potential remained largely unfulfilled. However, due to the massive retreat of government away from funding of what they consider the "non-essential" areas such as culture, administrators of open-air museums must now consider all possibilities for their sites if they are to ensure their survival into the future.

"Holo-Decks of the Twentieth Century"

Though there are some who would ridicule what they perceive as a backward looking and whitewashed view of society, the enlightened observer will appreciate the unique heritage experience that is unattainable from any other interpretive forum. These virtual "holo-decks" of the Twentieth Century are a tremendous window not only to the past, but also to future models of education, in their ability to allow the visitor to be immersed in the buildings, landscapes and atmosphere of a particular time and place.

Open-air living history museums have been in existence in a recognizable form for over 100 years. Despite this overall longevity, it was only within a 20-year period, from 1955 to 1975, that the vast majority of these cultural institutions were opened in Canada. Many of the sites were founded in the euphoric years leading up to the Centennial in 1967 and today in Canada there exists over 70 examples of this type of museum, such as Upper Canada Village in Ontario and the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park on Cape Breton Island. Despite these encouraging beginnings, by the mid-1970s, with the downturn in the Canadian economy and the resulting evaporation of government funding for culture, there began a sharp and lasting decline in the number of open-air living history museums being established and/or expanded.


As a result of their large scale and complexity, the cost to operate and maintain open-air museums tends to be high. In order to maintain appropriate standards of historical integrity and community value, it is almost invariably the case that open-air museums are operated either by a level of government or by a large heritage trust organization.

Throughout the years of the post-war boom, the investment of the public sector in Canadian open-air museums was high. In Nova Scotia alone, over $32 million was spent on the reconstruction of 18th century Louisbourg on the foundations of the original town, which had been destroyed some 200 years earlier by the British Army. One-fifth of the historic town was reconstructed with plans for additional construction in the future. It was not to be, though, as by the mid-1970s, governments were reassessing their priorities in the face of a declining economy, and as a result investment in Louisbourg and other open-air museums began to decrease. This state of affairs continued through the 1980s, and with government debts in the range of billions of dollars, the prospect of even deeper cutbacks in public funding for culture has become a harsh reality.

An example of this state of affairs is seen at Sherbrooke Village in Nova Scotia, where government funding dropped steadily from $892,700 in 1991 to $790,000 in 1994. For the following year the government contribution to the overall budget was to decrease by another 3% to $766,300. A similar situation was seen at Orwell Corner in Prince Edward Island which was adversely affected by a significant decline in Federal and Provincial grants throughout the entire Prince Edward Island Museum system. From 1993 to 1994 the provincial grant to the P.E.I. Museum dropped from $672,700 to $559,000, while the Federal grant dropped by almost 50%, from $74,951 to $38,047.00.

These cutbacks would be damaging at any time; however, the fact that they are occurring now - at a critical moment of the lifespan of Canadian open-air museums - make it particularly hard to bear. Most museums are now approaching 30 years of existence, the end of the periodic life cycle of many of their built resources. As a result, they are almost all now in need of substantial investments of maintenance and capital if they are to avoid the complete deterioration of the building stock. An example of this situation is seen at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park where several of the reconstructions were built according to techniques such as piquet (posts inserted directly in the ground) that, by their very nature, were meant to be temporary. Now, after a quarter of a century many of the buildings have lasted longer as reconstructions than they ever did in reality and serious maintenance problems are arising.

The problem of maintenance is of paramount importance, but without sufficient funds some organizations such as Doon Heritage Crossroads in Kitchener, Ontario and the Canadian Parks Service at George's Island National Historic Site in Halifax have been forced to take the drastic step of demolishing buildings rather than leaving them to rot and become a safety hazard.

Other costs are also rising at open-air museums, and further draw upon an already limited pool of resources. Higher minimum wages, Provincial and Federal Goods and Services Taxes, cost of materials, power and insurance rates, etc., all contribute to increases in expenditures.


Raising admission fees is one answer to the problem of shrinking government transfers. One cannot rely on this entirely, however, as in an increasingly competitive cultural and entertainment market the public has finite resources with which to spend on this kind of activity and, if the price is too high they will be driven away. As a result, other opportunities must be explored for either generating additional income on-site or enhancing the presentation to the extent that an increase in admission rates could be justified.

Examples of the type of strategies that can be considered for improving the economic prospects of open-air living museums can be both large and small in scale. The larger ventures are those such as the use of sites as movie sets or convention centres; providing accommodation, facility rentals and summer camp activities; benefit concerts; and, applying a more businesslike approach to restaurants, gift shops, and the creation of reproduction goods. More modest examples include forming partnerships with other museum sites, local business and educational institutions; the scheduling of resources to ensure their maximum effectiveness; and the streamlining of operations to reduce unnecessary costs. Whatever these interventions may be, their impact upon the heritage value of the museum should be considered of paramount importance, as any activity that would lead to the presentation of a false view of history would compromise the museum's historical integrity and leave its reason for existence questionable.


From a strict revenue generation perspective, some of the best examples of the kind of income that can be gained from providing entertainment and interpreting culture in an open-air, living setting are found at theme parks such as Disneyland, Canada's Wonderland, Six Flags, etc. Comparisons can also be drawn with theatre, festivals and sporting events, where tradition and history are major components of the experience. At first glance one might associate theme parks only with roller coasters and other fun rides; yet when you take note of such Disney attractions as "Frontier Land", a living western experience complete with river boats and steam trains and the world-famous "Main Street USA", a typical turn-of-the-century streetscape, one can view many of the same themes we associate with open-air living history museums.

Freshness in presentation, and innovation in marketing techniques, are some of the keys to success at theme parks, and many of these ideas can also be applied for improving the economic performance of open-air living history museums. Though there is much to be gained from these innovations, the capable museum administrator should thoroughly consider the full impacts before putting these strategies into action, always remain true to the purpose of the museum, and never be lured into the fantasy world of a Disneyland for the sake of revenue.

To be compared too closely with Disneyland will not put open-air living museums and other heritage sites in a favourable light. Disneyland, although highly successful in terms of attendance and income, does not base its philosophy on authenticity or on any of the other philosophical elements of international charters associated with conservation. Disneyland is a slick and successful conglomeration of theme parks. It glosses over reality in an attempt to create a fantasy land where the goals and values are for pure entertainment and revenue generation, as opposed to education. While this philosophy works for Disney, it does not work for open-air museums. The primary goal for those in charge of open-air museums should be to provide an entertaining but educational experience where the visitors may have an enjoyable time, but also go home with a sense of having experienced both tangible and intangible elements of the past. If an open-air museum is seen as a virtual Disneyland then it is clear that the museum officials have gone too far in their efforts to entertain and generate revenues, and have lost contact with their mandate as an authentic cultural institution. Without this basic element of accuracy, the primary reason for the existence for these living history villages as museums will have vanished.


As we have seen, there are certain risks to be taken in engaging in strategies for enhancing the overall viability of open-air museums. One cannot sit back and wait for the problem to take care of itself either, for in today's harsh economic climate and time of relentless government cutbacks, to do this would be equally damaging to the future of the museum.

So what can be done to enhance the overall viability of open-air museums? Before any serious work can take place in this regard there is a need for the administrators of Canada's open-air museums to look inward and determine the particular value of their cultural site: their significant features and areas essential to the accuracy of the message being presented. Primarily, they must identify those areas which should be protected from the interventions and within this format establish a clear set of guidelines on how the strategies can be most effectively implemented within the museum context.

In examining strategies for enhancing overall viability, the museum administrators must be aware of and assess the procedures that are currently being practised by open-air museums and similar institutions across Canada and around the world. Consideration should be given to determining how revenue can be increased and costs lowered through such activities as: improved overall business practices, facility rentals, sales and manufacturing, communication, co-operation, sponsorship, education and improved user-fee ratio without compromising the integrity of the institution. Of all the activities, one will invariably find that the most successful are those which require a minimum investment of time and money and can be completed through scheduling of existing resources.

Open-air museums are a significant benefit to society. It is possible to continue this benefit into the future by enhancing their overall viability while retaining historic integrity. Specifically, if consideration is given to the ICOMOS (International Commission on Monuments and Sites) charters and the original mandate of the museums in establishing guidelines for the implementation of strategies, favourable results can be achieved. When applied appropriately, a variety of strategies can be employed to improve the prospects for survival of open-air living history museums. It is unlikely that any one strategy acted upon in isolation will improve the fortunes of an open-air living history museum; a compatible combination, however, implemented according to a clearly defined plan and set of guidelines may eventually bring significant overall improvements in the viability and interpretive experience of Canada's open-air museums.

** The preceding text is an extract from The Heritage Value Consideration of Strategies for Enhancing the Overall Viability of Open-Air Museums in Canada, a Masters Thesis prepared for the Faculty of Architecture at the Technical University of Nova Scotia by Michael Seaman.

This thesis presented an in-depth look at how open-air living history museums across Canada and around the world are coping with the problem of reduced operating grants and outlines a variety of strategies which are being employed by these sites for improving chances for survival without compromising the integrity of the museum.

For further information please contact Michael Seaman at:

10 Madelaine Crescent
Brampton, Ontario. L6S 2Y9
(905) 458-7386

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Published by the Louisbourg Heritage Society
ISBN 1-896218--07-5
© Louisbourg Institute
Extracted from the Proceedings of the Cape Breton
in Transition Conference, October 20-21, 1995