As the long-standing stories told about a downtown Calgary historic residence are reconsidered, a fascinating and more complicated history is emerging.
Caroline Loewen, curator at Lougheed House, says she’s started thinking about the grand sandstone mansion as having been the home of a Métis household, given that the first resident, Lady Isabella Lougheed, was Métis.
New complexities have arisen, Ms. Loewen says, considering Lady Lougheed’s husband, James Lougheed, was a Conservative senator who pursued policies discriminatory to Métis people.
Staff at the Calgary landmark are examining such tensions as part of a major multiyear project – called Lougheed House Re-Imagined – to broaden the stories the museum tells and the ways it tells them. They’re partnering with community members to share overlooked and unknown histories connected to Lougheed House – and they’re finding many.
“It’s been a hugely positive process for us so far,” says Kirstin Evenden, executive director at Lougheed House.
She says a shift is underway at historical houses across North America to consider stories beyond those of the people who built and lived in the grand houses.
“People have been beginning to kind of question those histories, and how we can expand upon them and tell histories that are not just more diverse, but more complex,” she says.
Built in 1891, Lougheed House opened as a museum in 2005. Its permanent exhibits have focused on the founding of the house, but the story of Isabella (Hardisty) Lougheed, who was Métis, hasn’t been widely shared. A recent exhibit aimed to change that.
Matthew Hiltermann, a member of Métis Nation of Alberta – Region 3 and a historical researcher, worked with Lougheed House to co-curate a temporary exhibit on Métis identity last year.
“I wanted to create a space that would educate and challenge people outside the community, but be an affirmative space for people in the community, but also not fall into some of the sort of stereotypes you see in a lot of museum representations,” he says. Those stereotypes include showing Métis people as being poor and uneducated, Mr. Hiltermann says, which makes Lady Lougheed’s story particularly fascinating.
“Here you have this Métis woman who’s well-educated and well-off, but she also has to negotiate the space of being an Indigenous woman in high society,” he says.
The temporary exhibit has led to other collaborations with the Métis Nation of Alberta, including the raising of the Métis flag in front of the house.
“We felt that was very significant,” says Lawrence Gervais, regional president for the Métis Nation of Alberta. “Moving forward, the Lougheed House and the Métis Nation will hopefully work on more exhibits, and what that will look like in the future we’re very excited about.”
The general history of the mansion, a provincial and national historic site, is well-documented. James and Isabella Lougheed were influential citizens; their home and gardens, an estate they named Beaulieu, served as a political and social hub. (Their grandson, Peter Lougheed, was premier of Alberta from 1971 to 1985.)
The site was acquired by the City of Calgary during the Great Depression, when the Lougheed family was unable to pay taxes on its many properties.
Under public ownership, Lougheed House went on to serve as a training centre, barracks for the Canadian Women’s Army Corps and a blood donor clinic. The house and grounds later deteriorated and, in the 1990s, the old estate began to be restored.
The Lougheed House Re-Imagined project started about four years ago, Ms. Loewen says, with the testing of smaller projects to bring community members into the museum to tell their stories. Community engagement followed.
“We discovered that actually what the community saw when they came to Lougheed House and how they sort of felt when they were in the space was often unwelcome,” Ms. Loewen says.
After that, staff began to work in a new way, building partnerships with community members to tell stories. A partnership with artists, for example, involved members of arts collective Big Kitty Crew and Calgary drag performers spending time in the house and exploring its history, then working with a photographer to create portraits exploring how notions of femininity have changed across time.
Museum staff have also worked with community members to curate numerous temporary exhibits, and Lougheed House is now using that collaborative model to redevelop its permanent exhibits for the first time. An online community hub has also formed, to share, discuss and collaborate with new voices.
“We have this opportunity to explore these community histories that were actually rooted in the same site as this colonial and patriarchal history. And they’re all intertwined, and I think that’s what’s really interesting,” Ms. Loewen says.
Lesser known histories also exist. One that the House hopes to share involves the Grand Theatre building, owned by Senator Lougheed. In 1914, Charles Daniels, a Black Calgarian, launched a court case against the Grand Theatre, after he was directed to sit in the separate section for Blacks instead of the seats he had purchased.
The Lougheed House also has a role in Calgary’s gay history. In the 1980s, the surrounding park was Calgary’s gay prostitution stroll. Restoring the site forced people to relocate, while also leading to the formation of the Lougheed House Conservation Society in 1995.
“We kind of have to wrestle with that. Part of the reason that we exist as a museum now is because there was this push to clean up the site,” Ms. Loewen says.
Last year, Lougheed House partnered with numerous local organizations on a temporary exhibit about gay history in Calgary. Such work will help inform the new permanent exhibits.
“My hope for this whole thing is that when visitors come to Lougheed House, they feel like it’s a place where they belong and where they can see themselves reflected in the history of the city of Calgary,” Ms. Loewen says.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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