Examining Burlington Heights: The Public Visibility of a War of 1812 Heritage Site

The question of public access to, and visibility of heritage knowledge gained by archaeological and historical research have become very prevalent issues of examination and debate among academics and popular writers alike. From public news writers like J. Mulholland (2015) who argued that academics should avoid public engagement, to actual archaeologists like Myles Mitchell (2013) and his fellow Australian archaeologists who have gone to great lengths to try and integrate the community both in the process of managing and conserving their own archaeological heritage. In the hopes of contributing to this discussion, I intend to tackle a much more simple issue of visibility and the access related to visibility of heritage sites on a local scale. To this end, I visited the heritage site of Burlington Heights, to specifically its monuments to its role in the War of 1812 with the intent of examining various aspects of how the site, any artifacts from the site, and its history were presented to the public. Since the War of 1812 is one of the more fondly remembered military conflicts in terms of Canadian success here in Canada, I approached this topic curious to see how a site related to this conflict was preserved and displayed.

When visiting this site, I analyzed two different but connected constructs that both dealt with trying to show off Burlington Heights and its history during the war of 1812 to the public: the monuments, and the nearby Hamilton Military Museum and its exhibit on the site. The monument of Burlington Heights itself is a very basic stone tablet/marker, and was built in 1935 by the Federal Government, commemorating the active dates of the site (1813-1814) as a reserve and assembly point for troops and a depot during the War of 1812. Besides that, there are two more tablets that I found, one which was placed even earlier in 1814 where the first line of ramparts stood by the Wentworth Historical Society, and a stone tablet marking the actual ramparts of Fort Burlington Heights. The latter tablet also includes a recounting of Lieutenant Colonel Harvey’s surprise attack on June 5th, 1813, though the date when the tablet was placed was not included.

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Official Burlington Heights, War of 1812 Memorial Tablet

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Earthworks Line Marker (Several steps to the left of the official Monument)

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Ramparts Monument (has since had its lettering fixed and bushes trimmed), Hamilton Cemetery

     Meanwhile, the Hamilton Military Museum held a small but fairly extensive exhibit on Burlington Heights. The exhibit included archaeological artifacts from the various decades of occupation of the site, including during the time the British used it in the War of 1812. They also have various maps from the time period detailing the fortifications, a brochure telling the history of Burlington Heights, and several detailed placards of information on various aspects of Burlington Heights before and during the War of 1812, First Nations allies in the war, and Black Loyalist Soldiers who fought and are buried in the nearby Hamilton Cemetery.

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Burlington Heights Map, 1813. Featured in the Hamilton Military Museum

     Having spent several hours examining Burlington Heights as a War of 1812 memorial and how it has been presented to the public, I do not believe that it is a badly presented site in terms of the information it is trying to show to the public, but it is very badly presented in terms of actually advertising the site as a place for people to access and examine.

The monuments themselves are quite divided, with the official monument and earthwork marker standing right overlooking the bay several hundred yards away from the nearest parking lot, and the other tablet sitting in the middle of Hamilton Cemetery right across a busy and fast-moving street. There are no signs directing visitors to either of the actual monuments and maps were not immediately forthcoming, though they may have been provided upon buying a ticket for Dundurn Castle, which is the main attraction of the area, but I did not go through that route. Regardless, there were no publicly available maps of the area within sight despite the area having several heritage monuments and buildings.

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Dundurn Castle, the main heritage attraction and site near the Burlington Heights Monument. The Hamilton Military Museum is off to the right of this picture.

     The nearby Hamilton Military Museum, though fairly extensive in its presentation of the artifacts and history as I said, is also not very well advertised as a place to view heritage on the area, with the small building it is placed in having no actual signage or images advertising it as a museum other than one placed by the door, which when I had entered had actually fallen over due to high winds. A brief discussion with one of the employees there informed me that even though the people who buy tickets to nearby Dundurn Castle are informed about the museum, only roughly 50-60% of people who visit the castle take the time to also visit the museum.

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Road-facing Side of the Hamilton Military Museum

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Entrance to the Hamilton Military Museum, Hamilton Ontario

     This is not a problem unique to Burlington Heights, many different sites and projects in archaeology and heritage studies have grappled with the task of trying to make themselves more accessible to the public, and to engage the public in various ways with their heritage. In this case I do not believe the issue lies in the presentation of the information, so much as the ability to make people aware of the fact that the sites and these artifacts exist. That, as well as making the archaeology and history interesting or enticing enough in its presentation that people want to see it should also a major factor in making this site and its separate pieces become more active as a heritage site in Hamilton.

To find out more about Burlington Heights, and other Historical and Heritage Sites related to the War of 1812 in Hamilton, Ontario check this links:

Canada’s Historic Places: Burlington Heights

Toursim Hamilton: 1812 Sites in Hamilton

References:

Mitchell, Myles, David R. Guilfoyle, Ron Doc Reynolds, and Catherine Morgan (2013). Towards Sustainable Community Heritage Management and the Role of Archaeology: A Case Study from Western Australia. Heritage & Society 6(1): 24-45. DOI: 10.1179/2159032X13Z.0000000005

Mulholland, J. (2015). Academics: forget about public engagement, stay in your ivory towers. The Guardian: Higher Education Network. URL: http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2015/dec/10/academics-forget-about-public-engagement-stay-in-your-ivory-towers

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