Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 30, No.11

March 03, 2005


How places communicate

By Jessie Gabe

A postcard from Canada showing an image of Mickey Mouse fishing in a lake beside our picturesque Rocky Mountains could be seen as a cute souvenir — or as a reminder of how the United State of America has pillaged our primary resources. Your interpretation depends on how you decode the cultural layers of the image, according to Rhona Richman Kenneally.

The professor from the Department of Design and Computation Arts gave a lecture Feb. 4 under the title “Commun-icating Heritage” as part of The Defiant Imagination, a series of talks on the arts organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

Richman Kenneally used the heritage site of Grosse Ile, Quebec, to explain how a landscape can take on many layers of meaning.

Grosse Ile served as a quarantine station for ships crossing the Atlantic between 1832 and 1937. That period that included the Great Famine of Ireland in 1845-7, when thousands of poor immigrants perished there.

While the Irish presence dominates Grosse Ile, there are also other cultural markers, for example, from Doukhobors who left Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. The variety of historic and cultural references encountered on the island enhances the personal experience by permitting multiple interpretations.

“Visitors to Grosse Ile encounter an experience akin to watching several films at the same time,” Richman Kenneally said. “No sooner do they enter into one narrative than another vies for attention.”

At Grosse Ile, visitors are encouraged, indeed challenged, to use their own logic, experience, and imagination to tell, or retell, the island's story through its buildings, landscape and artifacts.

Looking at non-Irish readings of Grosse Ile on various websites, Richman Kenneally pointed out how cyberspace has become a tool for propagating individual interpretations of the landscape.

One francophone visitor to Grosse Ile traced his Irish loyalty back to when he was a six-year-old, playing hockey for a team arbitrarily called “Ireland.” Through somewhat oblique logic, he managed to merge his own culture of Quebec nationalism with Irish Canadian history.

By creating his own reading of the island, Richman Kenneally said, he was an example of how “landscapes and places are encoded with diverse meanings to which our own associations add other.