This weekend I found myself back home and in one of my favourite places in the world: Halifax, Nova Scotia. My little cousin just moved out there for his first year of engineering at Saint Mary’s University and so I paid him a visit while I was there. One thing he wanted to know is what can he and his sisters do in the city when they come out to visit next week?
My first thought was drink. But they aren’t nineteen so that option is out.
I’ve never understood the appeal of the city as a tourist destination, but I suppose if you’re into history Halifax sure does have a lot of it. From military history or indigenous history, to the sinking of the Titanic or the Halifax Explosion, there’s kind of something for everyone. This little Maritime city has been around since 1842 (*the Mi’kmaq people were in K’jipuktuk for thousands of years before this*), and has seen a lot since then.
One place I have visited often that combines my love for history with my love of drinking, is the Alexander Keith’s Brewery.
This tour does a few things really well I think. For one, it’s all ages. While it is a brewery tour, it does so much more than just talk about beer or offer samples of different brews. You start off the tour learning about Mr. Alexander Keith himself. Your first guide tells you about his family life, how he learned to brew beer, and his journey to Halifax from Scotland. You also learn a little bit about Keith’s IPA and get your first sample.
From there, you are shown a timeline of Alexander Keith. The man was many things. An amazing brewmaster, was elected as mayor of Halifax three times, served on many community boards, and managed several large companies in the city. Not only do you learn more about Keith’s life once he immigrated to Halifax along the timeline, but you get to see objects that relate to his life or the life of the brewery more generally.
My personal favourite artifact on display is the 125 year old bottle of Keith’s someone found on the bottom of the Halifax Harbour.
You then walk into a recreation of Keith’s old dinning room, complete with the family crest and the familiar Stag’s Head. Here you can get a glimpse into what he life was like in the 1800’s before being ushered into a room to learn how beer is made (with a hands on component!).
The whole tour ends in Mr. Keith’s old aging cavern where your guides show you a “Real Nova Scotian Good Time” in the best way they can: with a good old fashioned kitchen party. Here, while you’re able to get large samples of Keith’s beers, you also get a glimpse into Nova Scotian culture, music, and heritage.
Overall, the tour does a lot and engages a wide audience. I’ve gone on the tour quite a few times myself, and every time I see different people. There are the elderly tourists, families with their children, young adults, and some semi-regulars like myself. You get the history of brewing and samples for people who are only interested in beer, you get some of the history of Halifax and Mr. Keith for the history buffs, and you get to experience live music and know more about Nova Scotia. I think they do a really good job of making history fun and interactive.
Along the boardwalk there are also displays advertising for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. They aren’t explicitly asking for you to visit, or even really advertising for you. They just kind of look like a fun and cute place to take a picture while walking by the harbour. This is a very touristy spot and I see so many people stop to get their pictures within the little frames. I’m not sure this is the best way to drive traffic to the gallery, but maybe it gets people looking into Maud Lewis at least and that’s gotta count for something.
What does this have to do with our digital history course or anything public history related at all?
Well, we’ve talked about this briefly in other classes, but I think the job of the any public historian is trying to get people into our spaces. We can put as much work as we want into curating an exhibit at the art gallery, or reconstructing part of Keith’s brewery to look like it did when Mr. Keith was still around, but if no one comes what’s the point? How do we get people to interact with the history we want to show them?
I think, even if it’s in a superficial way, things like the Alexander Keith’s Brewery Tour and those photo frames advertising the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia are a good start. They get people talking and interested. Maybe they’ll do outside research or ask questions of staff. Or maybe they’ll just remember that one cool thing they did in Halifax that one time.
Either way, I think no matter how you get someone interested in history, that’s a win. In our last digital history class we discussed an article that debated the usefulness of Assassin Creed’s new guided tour mode. While students who just did the guided tour scored lower on a test than those who attended a lecture, I bet you a lot of them were more interested.
Everyone knows at least a few kids who really couldn’t care less about sitting through a history lesson. The article doesn’t say anything about this, but I bet guided tours like this do wonders for kids who find their history lessons uninteresting. They might retain the knowledge, but they aren’t interested in it. I think things like historic video games are a good gate way into other forms of historical learning, or maybe even finding that lecture on ancient Egypt less of a chore.
Overall, I’m not really sure what I’m trying to get at. Maybe I’m just reminiscing on my favourite city, or maybe I’m making a point that history doesn’t have to be dense or academic to be worthwhile. That you don’t have to score well on a test to make your knowledge valuable. Sometimes it can just be about having a good time and maybe coming out of the experience with a few funfacts to share with your friends later.
I know I probably wouldn’t voluntarily go to a lecture on ancient Egypt, or on Alexander Keith’s life, but I’m happy to go on a brewery tour or play a video.