Why Founders’ Hall Fails

I took a visit, as a paying customer, to the new Founders’ Hall today. While many others around me pre-proclaimed this new tourism development a Disney-style washout before it opened, I was willing to keep an open mind, and went in and paid my $7.50 admission ready to sit back and be wowed.

Much of the publicity surrounding Founders’ Hall this week has seen its staff and developers talking about how it is a state of the art tourism attraction; at the grand opening last night, one of the actors on stage suggested that if Province House were a bank, then Founders’ Hall is an ATM. In a television interview on ATV last night, the mission for the exhibit designers was explained as something like “go out and design an experience like no other in the world.”

In that light, I am sad to have to proclaim Founders’ Hall an abject failure in all respects. Emerging from the 45 minute walk through the “experience” I felt assaulted and over stimulated with simplistic and banal sound bite-style infotainment. Somehow, Founders’ Hall has managed to take the rich, complex, fascinating story of Canadian Confederation and turn it into what amounts to an almost content-free poorly executed rock video.

The way the experience works is this: you enter the building through the front door and go up to a cashier where you pay your admission and are given a wireless Sennheiser Stethoset receiver headset unit which you wear like headphones, but with the “loop” down under your chin.

You’re then directed to an opening area, which is made up like a faux TV set and watch a brief introduction in which you’re told, by Canadian actor Tamara Hickey, playing a newscaster, what the illusion will consist of: she will play a modern day news reporter covering the 1864 Confederation Conference and related events.

It’s at this stage that a major technical problem first becomes apparent: the headsets are necessarily of limited range, and depending on where you’re standing, you either hear the proper narration, hear the narration for another stage in the experience, or hear static. Perhaps this will be fine-tuned with time, but I found myself batting about 500 in terms of whether or not I was hearing the proper audio for where I was standing.

The other technical problem with the headset-based approach they’ve taken is that most of the time you arrive at narration spot halfway through the loop, and to get the entire story, you have to wait until it starts over again. After a while, this gets tiresome and annoying.

Continuing on past the introductory area, you pass through a rather mundane “time tunnel”, constructed of copper pipe, clocks running backwards, and a fog machine. You emerge into a series of rooms, each of which discusses, in very brief and superficial terms, one small aspect of the Confederation process.

I was shocked with how little actual content each of these scenes contains. There is a mock-up of the prow of the Queen Victoria, the ship that carried delegates into Charlottetown Harbour for the Conference. One walks into this scene, reads less than 100 words of text posted on small panels, and moves on. One wonders what the point of this expensive prop is.

And so it goes. About half of the rooms in the chain have brief TV snippets where the pretend newscaster offers some fluffy comment or another. Sometimes she’s joined by Harry Holman, who acts like a historical Don Cherry, and sometimes it’s someone else in her place. At one point Mag Ruffman acts as a olde-tyme gossip columnist, for example, offering the usual Sir John A. as drunk titterances.

We’re led through the Confederation and Quebec conferences, past Confederation itself, and then through each of the post-Confederation Provinces joining in, culminating with Nunavut in 1999. Again, there is almost no content in any of this, and the panel text is silly “did you knowisms” and cursory overviews of highlights.

Along the way there are other trivial distractions: there’s some sort of interactive computer kiosk about half way through, but I couldn’t figure out how to operate it, and so I can’t tell you what it does. There are various “open the panel to see the answer to the question” things, and you can actually read the text of some of the conference resolutions, albeit shoddily photocopied and prepared like a grade 5 history assignment.

Once through the Nunavut world, you emerge into a theatre where you can watch a video presentation that’s one half Molson Canadian commercial and one of Bobby Gimby. And then it’s on to the Canada, Eh! Store, which has an uninteresting collection of the kind of tchotchke that can be purchased around the corner at Tweel’s.

I say all this as a longtime museum goer and fan. I spent 6 months in residence at the Ontario Science Centre. I’ve been to Disney World. I’ve seen museums in Germany and the Czech Republic, in El Paso, Texas, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, and Cuba. I’ve seen everything from the latest and greatest techno-style museum to the most dated and dusty 1950s style dioramas. I can say without any hesitation that Founders’ Hall is the least effective at telling a story than any I’ve ever seen.

What we were promised was a world-class telling of the Confederation story. What we got was simply a series of sub-par television commercials interspersed over an expensively produced but otherwise useless set. If Founders’ Hall serves any useful purpose, it is to show us how lucky we are to have actual heritage sites, like Province House, Beaconsfield, Orwell Corner, Green Park, and Basin Head – sites with real Islanders telling real stories in an absolutely low-tech yet much more compelling fashion. I’m only sorry that the bucketfuls of money that went into Founders’ Hall weren’t spent buttressing these.