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Exhibitry: Telling a landscape’s story

The visitor’s journey begins at the ‘viewing lens,’ where a two-panel informational sign provides context.

Investing in infrastructure
Shortly before the completion in 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), Parks Canada undertook an interpretive design process for the national historic site, to help support the Métis’ sense of pride by honouring the pre- and post-battle story of their time in Batoche, in the interest of improving cultural relations. As the federal government agency suggested in its management plan, the site conveys a strong sense of place and importance to both the past and the present, but while it is rich in history and ecology, it has become grossly underused. Given the agency’s mandate to increase visits and revenue for national parks and historic sites across the country by 2017’s Canada 150 celebrations, there was a desire to establish Batoche as a must-see destination for both locals and tourists in central Saskatchewan, with the understanding doing so would require a substantial investment in infrastructure.

Over the years, the agency had increasingly found common ground with Aboriginal peoples regarding the establishment and management of areas of natural and cultural significance through constitutionally protected land claim and cost-sharing agreements. In the case of Batoche, the settlement area was designated a national historic site in 1923. Today, it is Crown land managed by Parks Canada in conjunction with the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan, with a shared management board serving as an advisory council.

The 955-ha (2,360-acre) landscape of aspen forest and remnant fescue prairie has revealed pre-contact Aboriginal cultural resources dating back more than 6,000 years, though it remained best-known for its evidence of Métis history and the village of Batoche. Several buildings were restored, helping to depict where the village’s inhabitants lived, travelled and fought, but while both Parks Canada and the Métis Nation of Saskatchewan agreed the site conveyed the battle story quite well, they also agreed on the need for a more comprehensive account of Batoche’s culture. So, they commissioned a large-scale outdoor interpretive exhibit.

Following symposia and community discussions, a program called ‘Story on the Landscape’ was developed, encompassing a number of related projects, including the acquisition of a shuttle bus, a series of interpretive rest stops, a viewing platform and an interpretive play area. A collection  of documents for these projects formed the foundation for a request for proposals (RFP), issued in January 2015.

On a raised platform, interpretive panels describe early life in Batoche and illustrate how its river lots were used.

A unique design approach
The historic land dispute served as the primary source of inspiration for Form:Media’s concept for the EGD project, with the goal of guiding visitors to a better understanding of a wider cultural story, of which the 1885 battle was just one component.

The design firm, which is based in Dartmouth, N.S., and specializes in signage, exhibits and other systems for museums and interpretive centres, set out to unite Lot 47’s landscape through the architectural integration of a small number of conspicuous exhibitry placements, rather than imposing a larger number of insertions of smaller signs and graphics throughout the 1,650-m2 (17,760-sf) project area. The surviving relics of the past, including building foundations and cellars, would still do most of the storytelling; it was simply a matter of curating the visitor experience with interpretive touches to explain the story further.

The client, Parks Canada, required the project to be unique, architecturally interesting and interactive, incorporating historic themes and activities of Batoche in ways that would engage adults, children, families and caregivers. Instead of treating the land as inanimate and placing EGD elements at points along a route, Form:Media worked with the client to showcase the landscape—including the river, the land and the sky—as the central character in the story, reflecting the sacred relationship between Indigenous cultures and nature.

Parks Canada’s design brief also emphasized construction using environmentally friendly processes and materials as appropriate. There were also early discussions of making the exhibit ‘period appropriate,’ but as the project progressed, Form:Media chose instead to contrast the site with a contemporary palette. Durable materials, including weathering and galvanized steel, cedar and stone, were chosen to evoke themes of permanence and help minimize the need for future maintenance.

“We didn’t look at it as just a signage project, a landscape project or an architecture project,” explains Chris Crawford, lead architect. “As a team, we used each of those disciplines to work together.”

A simple mowed/burned strip motif was chosen to reinforce the linearity and direction of the seigneurial river lots. An innovative cedar batten joinery was developed to significantly reduce the size and quantity
of fasteners.

“Like a woven textile, the inset battens act as structural support, minimizing our need to rely on fasteners,” says Crawford.

A wooden panel system was chosen to finish the interiors of the structures, providing an armature for the mounting of the interpretive panels. Visually, it also serves as a reference to the red and white weave of the ceinture fléchée (arrowed sash) of Métis culture.

Skyline Atlantic Canada fabricated the interpretive panels and wooden liners, Elance handled steel fabrication and Mennie Design & Build installed all of the components. The structures themselves were raised up on piles, to reduce direct impact on the historic site.

“There was good planning on the part of the client,” says Crawford. “They had done extensive research beforehand and knew precisely where to place the structures.”

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