Presenting Canada to the Scientific Gaze: The 1884 Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Montreal and the Eccentricity of Scientific Tourism

Peter Hodgins, Assistant Professor
School of Canadian Studies
Carleton University

Founded in 1831 to challenge the dominance of the conservative and exclusionary Royal Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) had established itself by the middle of the 19th century as the most important and innovative scientific association in the world. Among its many innovations was the peripatetic character of its annual meetings—while the Royal Society met every year in London, the BAAS held them in a different British city every year as part of its more general commitment to public outreach and engagement. In 1883, it decided to hold its annual meeting for the first time ever in a city beyond the British Isles: Montreal. The nascent Canadian government jumped on this opportunity for imperial and international recognition and promised funds to help defray some of the costs of intercontinental travel, arranged for free passage for the summer on the freshly-built national railway system, provided lodging and subsidized meals for all visiting BAAS members. Because of this generosity, membership in the BAAS mushroomed as many joined simply to take advantage of cheap travel to and in Canada. However even after the Association took measures to limit those who could benefit from the offer to “legitimate” members, nearly a thousand British scientists and their families crossed the ocean in 1884 to tour Canada.

The Canadian government and local authorities also published and distributed a series of handbooks for the British scientist-tourists. These began, much like Lonely Planet guides do today, with information on Canada’s or the local history, geography, demography, culture, economy and so on and then provided them with pre-planned itineraries. These itineraries and their descriptions often followed what have emerged as the core discourses of Canadian tourist promotion—Canada’s cities, though small and still a bit rough, were portrayed as emerging cosmopolitan centres while the rural parts of Canada alternated between scenes of sublime natural beauty and performances of antimodernist exotica/imperialist nostalgia such as staged pageants of indigenous sundances or traditional Québécois fiddling. However, presumably perhaps because these tours were being organized for scientists, the handbooks also contain what seems to the casual contemporary tourist to be an excess of background statistical, natural historical and ethnological detail and puzzling itineraries that included, for example, visits to factories and strip mines. This combination of informational excess and erratic paths seems to disrupt a facile reading of this organization of Canadian space along the lines of Urry’s “tourist gaze” or the McKay/Jessup arguments about the antimodernist nature of Canadian tourist discourse.

In this paper, I want to try to sort out the excessive and erratic character of these guidebooks by closely reading (a) the extant planning documents produced by both the BAAS and the Canadian government in preparation for the meeting in Montreal; (b) the tourist handbooks produced by national and local agencies; and (c) the written accounts produced by members of BAAS about their trip to Canada. While it could well be that their puzzling character is a function of their intended audience, I suspect that it also has something to do with their generic confusion or ambiguity. In order pursue the latter possibility (and I’m not sure that I will have the time to do this between now and May), I would also like to read these handbooks in relation to, on the one hand, the generic conventions of governmental promotional and information writing of the period and, on the other hand, to the emerging commercial genre of the tourist guidebook.

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