About the Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia

The Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America is a multimedia resource that has been online since 2008. It is a presentation of the rich and varied heritage assets of the French-speaking communities living all across the North American continent. The most prominent of these are portrayed—in all the diversity of their expression, uses and history—in articles supplemented with images and audio-visual media. In the Encyclopedia, there are also interactive WebQuests that combine texts with multimedia files. These quests, which are intended to be educative and are destined for a target audience of students from ages 14-17, enable site users to learn more about various topics by playing question-answer games. This Encyclopedia is a resource that is constantly being developed and enriched with new articles and multimedia files.

A video presentation of the project

How it all Started

 

In 2001, Marcel Masse, then president of the Commission Franco-Québécoise sur les Lieux de Mémoire Communs [Franco-Quebec Commission on Realms of Shared Memory], proposed the creation of an Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America. And so a team of university researchers, under the joint direction of Marcel Masse and Jacques Mathieu (who was at that time the dean of the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Laval University), examined the scientific relevance of the project and discussed how it should be structured. Currently the creation and development of the Encyclopedia is the responsibility of the Société Héritage de Champlain, which is presided over by Marcel Masse.

On February 10, 2005, the Société Héritage de Champlain appointed Laurier Turgeon (professor of history and ethnology at Laval University, director of the Institut du Patrimoine Culturel de l’Université Laval [Laval University’s Institut for Cultural Heritage] and director of the Canada Research Chair in Heritage as project director and Yves Bergeron (Museology and Heritage professor at l’Université du Québec à Montréal) as co-director of the encyclopedia project.

Although the project is based out of University Laval in Quebec City, it is the result of combined collaborative efforts of several partners throughout the Province of Quebec, Canada and the United States.

Creating an Encyclopedia

By Laurier Turgeon, Director

Exploring the French Cultural Heritage of North America

The Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America has a two-fold objective.  First, it is intended to be a resource for describing North American French cultural heritage, and so it has consulted some of the best specialists on the matter, in order to provide a selection of French North America’s key heritage sites and practices by drawing upon the most recent and relevant information available. In addition to offering the reader well-established, specialized knowledge on heritage, the Encyclopedia also intends to become a place where visitors can explore ideas and reflect on the ways in which heritage is created. Thus, it is the hope that this new resource will contribute new concepts and ideas to the very inner workings of heritage itself.

The project is innovative as much from the point of view of its content and as its format. Instead of insisting on the permanent character of heritage, the Encyclopedia presents it as a dynamic phenomenon that is perpetually under construction. To favour this approach, the authors turn their attention to the study of the mechanisms involved in the heritage-building process (heritagization). Much more than just a summary of the knowledge acquired of the various subjects presented, the Encyclopedia endeavours to reveal the inner workings and current social uses of heritage. It makes use of the latest medias, which have all been shown to be dynamic methods for communicating living heritage. Rather than being limited to written media, the Encyclopedia provides an account of the main elements of North American cultural heritage by the means of various kinds of written, audio and visual media available on its interactive Web site.

The Social Role of Cultural Heritage

Heritage has become a major component of contemporary social life. International organizations such as UNESCO have adopted conventions intended to better preserve and manage world heritage. Governments intervene with increasing frequency in heritage-related issues, in order to develop policies designed to protect and promote heritage.  Even the smallest of municipalities seek to develop sites or build museums to tell the story of their past, so as to foster a feeling of belonging among the community’s residents, to attract tourists, or simply to make their existence known. Heritage compels public officials who strive to multiply and diversify occasions to promote it by developing sites, restoring buildings, erecting commemorative monuments and creating museum exhibits, and, to an increasing extent, by means of inaugurating intangible expressions of cultural heritage, such as fairs and festivals. Heritage seems to be everywhere, present in everything—and it has almost become synonymous with identity.

There has been a growing interest in heritage because it responds to a social need for roots and continuity in a world increasingly characterized by the transitory, fleeting and ever-changing nature of contemporary life. Furthermore, exposure to heritage fosters feelings of authenticity and permanence in a vibrant and dynamic way.

As opposed to history, which favours written records and books, heritage is based on material objects and performances to communicate the past. Thus, heritage offers a physical expression for memory and conveys it directly to the five senses, whether sight, touch or hearing, or even sometimes the senses of smell and taste by means of the re-enactment of certain culinary practices. Often appealing to the senses and emotions more than to reason, heritage concretely re-creates the past, showcasing or exhibiting it, as well as bringing it into the present and, as a result, turning the past into something alive and of interest to the general public. As Dominique Poulot points out, “it is in this way that history seems ‘dead,’ as common sense would have it, and heritage, in contrast, comes ‘alive,’ because of the beliefs and commemorative practices that are normally associated with it.” (NOTE 1) In addition, heritage also has the ability to galvanize individuals to social action. Instead of confining social actors to read in a private place, as the book so often does, it brings them together around a performance or a place rich with significance; it awakens a desire to live together, thereby reviving the group as a whole. At the same time, as it gives life to the past, heritage provides new life to the people who experience it.

Heritagization (the Heritage Building Process)

This is why the Encyclopedia presents heritage in terms of construction, as a work in progress, built and rebuilt by social actors. The goal is to understand how a building, a place or a practice becomes heritage. This is a formidable challenge because heritage construction is a complex and ever-changing process varying both over time and in accordance with the social groups involved. A site or practice recognized in one era may lose its heritage value in another. For example, intangible heritage (rites, fairs, festivals, traditional knowledge, stories, popular arts and crafts, etc.), though hardly thought worthy of consideration a mere 20 years ago, is perceived to have ever-greater value today.  Likewise, what one group defines as heritage may not necessarily be so for another.

The very notion that heritage is a construct flies in the face of conventional wisdom. As a concept, heritage is founded on the idea of origins, authenticity, continuity, timelessness and even more importantly, that it is a means of transmitting and preserving these selfsame origins. Indeed, heritage practices and discourse are devised in order to create a belief in identities rooted in immutable times and places. In fact, heritage is often presented as self-determined, essential and irreversible—and it can be considered as eternal. However, the study of the various ways in which heritage is created and constructed demonstrates that it often consists of recent elements that are presented as being old, having been incorporated by the process of heritagization. Even the most time-honoured elements are integrated into the present by the very process of heritage construction, as they are reinterpreted and their significance brought in to a contemporary context. For example, simply restoring of a building or an object often transforms its appearance in accordance with the aesthetic norms of the times, thereby giving as much importance to the present as to the past. Therefore, heritage consists of a reacquisition and thus a contemporising of the past.

Although built over time, heritage is also a social construct. The Encyclopedia explores this social dynamic of heritage by focusing on how the various elements and entities of which it is composed evolve, intermingle and must be negotiated in order to find common ground. When the history of heritage sites or objects is reconstructed, it becomes clear that such cultural proprieties are transformed over the course of their extensive social existence, sometimes as a result of borrowing from other groups or cultures. The transmission of objects and practices from one generation to another by way of inheritance—or from one culture to another by way of an intercultural exchange—often gives rise to acquisitions, transfers or transformations, not only of the objects and practices, but even of the groups involved.  The objects or practices exchanged are integrated into the culture that acquires them and then they eventually become heritage through the process of “cultural re-contextualization”. That is to say that their appearance is altered, they are given new significance and purpose, and then they are assimilated into the borrower’s cultural fabric.  In the end, the re-contextualized objects or practices also transform those people who deal with them.  (NOTE 2). Far from being a pure and authentic reflection of a specific culture, these objects exchanged over time bear the marks of a number of cultures and periods, thereby forming a “hybridised heritage.” (NOTE 3). Heritage construction is also the product of “negotiation.”  Jean Davallon points out that a heritage object’s identity is constructed via not only the relationship between the object’s creator and its user, but also through the relation between the one who interprets and the one who receives the interpretation. (NOTE 4). More than a simple inert object or location, heritage items and sites express a relation-based, interactive dynamism between various individuals and groups persons who make use of them in order to forge social relationships.

The Diversity of French Cultural Heritage in North America

The cultural context of North American French-speakers is a field of research that is abundant in opportunities to study the interactive relational dynamics of heritage. This is largely due to the fact that their colonial past is varied and that they have borrowed extensively from other cultures—particularly Amerindian, French, British and American—with which they were successively in contact.

The heritage legacies of French-speaking North America are as diverse and varied as the groups that have created them. In order to fully explore this plurality, this encylopedia endeavours to take into account the regional characteristics that have contributed to the development of specific cultural features and practices.  To accomplish this, the heritage legacy of French-speaking North America is divided up into nine large geographical regions:  Quebec, Acadia, Ontario, Western Canada, New England, the American Midwest, Louisiana and Florida—and one mustn’t forget the considerable legacy that France has acquired from French-speaking North America.

Although the Encylopedia seeks to avoid compartmentalising heritage into strict categories and classes, it has however taken into consideration, the three main ways in which humans encounter heritage: natural (environmental) heritage, tangible (architectural and archaeological) heritage, and intangible (ethnological) heritage, which are the three broad heritage categories as they are defined by UNESCO.  The Encyclopedia deals with all three forms of heritage, while paying particular attention to intangible heritage that, although quite prolific, has been very little studied. This type of heritage includes the performative aspects of a given culture, such as rites, celebrations, festivals, traditional knowledge, popular arts and crafts, stories, oral traditions, songs, music and dance.

A Living Encyclopedia

As a living reflection of the phenomenon that it strives to describe, the Encyclopedia is intended to be a vitally dynamic endeavour, in that it involves participation, interaction and ongoing construction.

It involves participation to the extent that society’s perception as to the value of a heritage asset’s role or use is an essential criterion for its selection and inclusion. Rather than only keeping to the formal criteria of ancientness and authenticity, the creators of the Encyclopedia seek to select and present heritage assets that are the most cherished possession and legacy of the communities from which they originated. Another way in which the Encyclopedia comes alive is by presenting its articles online and illustrating them with a rich and varied selection of images and audio-visual media. In so doing, the reader is not only able to read about heritage, but also see and hear about it live.

It is the desire of the architects and creators of this encyclopedia that open access to the site’s articles and multimedia will facilitate the distribution of quality information on French cultural heritage in North America and encourage its re-acquisition. In this way, it is hoped that fresh knowledge will shared and enriched, all the while creating a dynamic community involved in researching, learning about and transmitting French cultural heritage in North America.

Laurier Turgeon
Director of the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America
Canada Research Chair in Heritage, Laval University, Quebec City, Canada

NOTES

1. Dominique Poulot, Une Histoire du Patrimoine en Occident , Paris: La Découverte, 2006, p. 3.
2. See Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects:  Exchange, Material Culture and Colonialism in the Pacific, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1991, p. 2-3.
3. I have developed this concept in my publication Patrimoines Métissés: Contextes Coloniaux et Postcoloniaux, Paris and Québec, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme and Presses de l’Université Laval, 2003.
4. Jean Davallon, Le Don du Patrimoine: Une Approche Communicationnelle de la Patrimonialisation, Paris: Lavoisier, 2006, p.16.

© All rights reserved, 2007
Encylcopedia of French Cultural
Heritage in North America

Government of Canada