What stories are important to you? What histories deserve to be told? Has it ever struck you that we see so little about Ottawa’s past when we walk through our streets and yet we suspect there is so much to be discovered?

Capital History Kiosks employs a unique visible strategy to bring Ottawa’s history to life by wrapping stories around traffic control boxes. Each bi-lingual installation features a striking image and a QR code taking visitors to the newly revitalized interactive website CapitalHistory.ca to learn more, to plan routes, to map their experience, and to share their own stories. More than 35,000 people pass by the boxes each day making this one of the most dynamic ways residents and visitors learn about little known and untold histories. Our stories focus on communities, businesses, and the people who made Ottawa what it is today.

Led by History Professor David Dean, Capital History Kiosks is a project of the Carleton Centre for Public History. To date over 60 installations have appeared on the streets of Ottawa. Although most are clustered in and around the city centre, they can be found in Barrhaven to the south, Wellington Village in the west, and Vanier in the east.  Project partners have included the Workers’ History Museum,  the National Capital Commission, and many Business Improvement Associations as well as the City of Ottawa.  The kiosks are designed and installed by local firm Chapter One Studio led by André Mersereau.

Stories for Capital History Kiosks are identified, researched, and curated by Carleton University students either as part of their coursework, work study placement, or volunteer activity. An immensely successful example of Carleton’s commitment to fostering community-engaged, hands-on, experiential learning for students, this collaborative project teaches real-world skills and leads to highly visible results. As one student said, “it’s amazing to see my essay come to life on the streets of Ottawa for all to see.”

The Background

Capital History Kiosks began because we wanted to uncover and share some of Ottawa’s little known and untold local stories for our nation’s 150th celebrations and this continues to be the force that drives us. In 2017 we brought to light the struggle of women teachers for pay equity (Hintonburg), the small schoolhouse that was the heart and soul of a neighbourhood (Barrhaven), the first co-operative bank serving Ottawa’s francophone community (New Edinburgh/Vanier), a soccer team (Little Italy) and the once-dominant sport of lacrosse (Lansdowne). Then, and since, we have share stories of the 2SLGBTQ+ community, about how the diverse community in Little Italy fought to save their bath-house, and how social rights activists fought to convert the deserted Lansdowne barracks into housing for returned soldiers. Twenty kiosks installed in 2021 celebrate diversity, life, and living along the revitalized Elgin Street, telling stories that bring past and present together. Our stories are about the famous (such as Dr. Valade, the doctor who examined Louis Riel; Victoria Cross winner Filip Konowal; and Sister Elizabeth Bruyère who led the fight against influenza in the 19th century) but also those whose histories are less well known such as the Slonemsky, Petigorsky, Rivers, and Eisenberg familes who helped shape the Byward Market.

Project lead Professor Dean, his colleagues, collaborators, and students are driven by a conviction that the best histories are made by working with others. Capital History Kiosks gives students the opportunity to engage in hands-on, collaborative, real world learning experiences. Taking history out of the classroom and onto the streets, curating exciting ways to tell history through wrapping stories around traffic control boxes with the opportunity to discover so much more online, has already helped dozens of students realize that the journey is as important as the destination. Changing the world one story at a time.

The Rollout

Enhancement, Revitalization, and Renewal are the goals of our fundraising campaign.

Enhancement.  There are so many stories to tell. We want to grow, to tell new stories, to give even more students the experience of hands on learning with real, tangible, visible results. Funding will go to creating new stories and new installations building on existing partnerships and developing new ones.  Our particular focus will be to enhance the stories told on the new revamped and interactive website Capital History.ca.

Revitalization. Histories never get old and they never stay the same. Each Capital History Kiosks tells a unique, little known or untold story of Ottawa’s past. They are seen and they are heard and they bring back memories for those who see them who often contact us to share their insights, knowledge, and experiences. Sometimes we record them, sometimes we photograph the objects they share. Funding will be dedicated to revitalizing and enhancing the stories we have already told, keeping them up-to-date and fresh with new knowledge, new understandings.

Renewal. Traffic control boxes are vulnerable creatures. They wear out, they get damaged, and they become obsolete when the city of Ottawa redevelops our streets. To date eight of the installations have had to be replaced, and often this involves some redesigning because the replacement traffic control box may not be the same size and shape as the original. Some of our funds will be allocated to the cost of ensuring the stories that have been told continue to feature on our streets.

The Impact

The over 60 Capital History Kiosks in place are seen by over 35,000 residents and visitors to Ottawa each day. If only a few stop to look, and decided to explore our website, there is no doubt that the project has transformed our city’s landscape. With our new website we are able to track visitors to CapitalHistory.ca to learn what stories were of particular interest.

The students behind these installations have worked together to uncover the stories, often by going into communities and talking with residents, BiA’s, community associations, folks in retirement homes, businesses and others. They have worked with local heritage and history specialists, archivists and librarians, artists and photographers, designers, with people working for local, regional, and national heritage organizations and with city of Ottawa employees. They have learned to present their work publicly, to pitch their stories for funding, and had the joy of seeing their work appear in the most visible and accessible way possible.

For Professor Dean it has been the most rewarding teaching of his career, seeing how his students have risen to the challenge, shown their energy and creativity, their passion and their enthusiasm, revealing talents, skills, and knowledge that would remain hidden in the traditional classroom. For the community partners, it has been inspirational, and news is spreading through the heritage and history communities of Ottawa.

But don’t take his word for it.

Take a look at CBC Ottawa’s report at the opening launch in 2017

Peruse “Pop Up History” on the award winning blog Apt613.

Watch the installation process by Chapter One Studio.

Listen to the voices of students and partners engaged in the 2019 installations for the National Capital Commission

Or  listen to the recent talk given by David Dean and graduate student Danielle Mahon about the project and the new website to the Historical Society of Ottawa 

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