I began writing this post after my second visit to this exhibition in October, 2014, somehow it never got finished and posted. It ends April 6, 2015 and I think I may just pay another visit.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization recently changed its name to The Canadian Museum of History. Other than the cost of all the changeover – signage et al – and the opportunity for new political appointments I’m not sure what exactly the change accomplished. The building is still the landmark structure that Douglas Cardinal created in the late 1980s – though strangely the Wikipedia entry for the museum made no mention of the First Nations architect until a week or so ago.
|The stunning sweep of the Grand Hall has been home to the largest collection of First Nations’ totem poles in the world. And it also houses a plaster cast of one of my favourite pieces: Bill Reid’s The Spirit of Haida Gwaii.|
The Grand Hall is an astonishing feat of design and houses an amazing collection of West Coast totems. At the moment Canada Hall, one of the main exhibition areas has been “closed to make way for the new Canadian History Hall, opening July 1, 2017.” God only knows what new wonders are in store but given the current government’s attitude to heritage I am afraid – very afraid. However the rest of the museum is open and they are still staging interesting exhibitions tracing our history including a fascinating exhibition on the sinking of the Empress of Ireland.
Empress of Ireland, Canada’s Titanic – Canadian Museum of History
|A left click on the catalogue cover
will take you to the exhibit website.
For some reason – that well-known Canadian passive-aggressive trait? – the curators felt that it was necessary to add the tag-line “Canada’s Titanic” to the name of the exhibit. Perhaps because it is an unknown marine disaster even to most Canadians they felt it was needed to draw in the crowds. Mind you this is not an unusual trick in the art world, I recall an exhibition in Milan that trumpeted Caravaggio where the angle was not the very posthumously trendy artist but his influence on Northern artists.
And so it was with The Empress of Ireland, Canada’s Titanic: a passing mention of the White Star liner of iceberg fame, but the focus was on the disaster in 1914 that took the lives of 1032 of the 1477 people on board in the 15 minutes that it took the Canadian Pacific steamship to sink. On May 28 the Empress left the dock at Quebec City an hour and half after it’s scheduled departure time of 1500; by 0220 on May 29, not twelve hours later, she lay at the bottom of the St Laurent. A voyage that had begun with music, laughter, no doubt some tears and high expectations ended swiftly and without warning.
The exhibition itself begins with music, laughter and dockyard sounds as you approach the space via a small gangplank. One of the most striking things about the exhibition (arranged with the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, Halifax) is the sound-scape. As you progress through the areas the sounds of shipboard life follow you. The first sound is a Salvation Army Band playing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” – particularly poignant as 150 members of that religious group lost their lives on that fateful voyage. As you leave the exhibition it is also the last sound you hear – faintly in the background after having passed a shadow outline of the ship created by the names of all those on board.
|A piano – much like the one that graced the Grand Salon of the Empress – is all set appropriate music
for the first evening out: The Empress of Ireland Waltz composed in 1906 by Myrtle Wallace.
Between there are the sounds of shipboard life – the ship’s bell ringing the hour, the genteel sounds of first class and the more earthy sounds of life in third class. The sight and sound images of the ship that tranquil late spring evening are evoked in small items such as the bugle that called first class passengers to dinner, an ingenuous fold out sink from third class, a Sally Ann sing-song in the music room, the murmur of a late night card game, the eerie sound of the engines in the fog covered night.
As the viewer moves closed to that terrible moment when the fog cleared and both the crews of the Empress and the Swedish collier Storstad became aware of what was about to happen the atmosphere becomes heavy, almost menacing – again an effective piece of design.
As the ship’s bell rings the sounds of panic draw you into the heart of the disaster: a darkened space with one of those bells dramatically spotlit at it’s centre. At first glance the surround projections of drownings and people in panic treading the icy water (the currents at Pointe-au-Père are particularly treacherous and the temperature in the river was around 6C) seemed a bit over-the-top and almost cartoonish; but when mixed with the lighting and sound-scape have an overpowering effect.
|A page from the exhibition catalogue shows the impact the disaster had on the culture of the region.|
Thought the event is at the centre of the exhibition the aftermath is well chronicled. The impact on the surrounding communities is documented with photographs of the rescue and retrieval efforts. Newspaper headlines blare the local and international magnitude of the tragedy, letters and wires – CP corporate, news service and more touchingly personal – record the desperate attempts of families to get information about passengers. And the industry built up around the tragedy – souvenirs, first-hand accounts in tabloids, broadsheets, song sheets and books – are displayed and prove that human disaster has always been big business.
|Sailors taking the coffins of children – of the 138 children on board only 5 survived
including Grace Hanagan – off the vessel Lady Gray at the pier in Quebec City.
Photograph: Library of Congress
Within days of the disaster the Government had set up a commission of inquiry – an emergency amendment to the Canada Shipping Act was rushed through Parliament to allow this unprecedented move. The work of the Commission and the subsequent court battle between CP and the Swedish ship again are documented and well-explained for what were complicated and often politically motivated proceedings. By the time it had been settled by the British Privy Council in 1919 other events had relegated the disaster into the back pages of history.
|Passengers posing for a group photo on board The Empress of Ireland as it departs.
The stories of many of them can be found on the commemoration website Empress 2014.
Throughout the exhibition we catch glimpses of passengers: some wealthy and well-known, others known only to family and friends: Sabina Barbour and her two daughters, Edward and Marian Adie, Egildo and Carolina Braga and their young son Rino and many others. The passenger list was a diverse one including actor Lawrence Irving (brother of Sir Henry Irving), his wife Mabel Hackney and members of their theatrical troupe, the Salvation Army delegation and 300 immigrant workers who had recently been laid off at the Ford Motor Plant in Detroit.
Amongst the 465 survivors was Grace Hanagan, the seven year old daughter of Salvation Army bandmaster Edward Hanagan. Both her mother and father died in the tragedy and Grace grew up with the memory of that horrible night. Towards the end of the exhibition there is a CBC video *of the annual Salvation Army memorial for the members who were lost on the Empress and Grace remembers the events of May 29, 1914. She died at the age of 87 in 1995, the last remaining survivor.
|“God Be With You Till We Meet Again” can be heard faintly in the background as visitors walk by a
silhouette of the ill-fated Empress made up of the names of her passengers and crew. A moving
commemoration of the worst marine disaster in our history
*A few of the figures given in this 1986 video differ from what is listed in the exhibit.
February 27 – 1861: Russian troops fire on a crowd in Warsaw protesting against Russian rule over Poland, killing five protesters.