Playing the Indian Card

Monday, October 16, 2017

Le Musée de Cire Historique Canadien

When I was a kid in Montreal, the city featured a great private history museum, “Le Musée de Cire Historique Canadien.” “The Wax Museum of Canadian History.”

It was a great idea for teaching history, and I feel it is a pity that it is gone. The problem with museums often is that it is just not that interesting to look at some artifact in a glass case. And it does not tell you much of anything. This was probably a less expensive way to go—the museum was run as a profitable private enterprise—and was more useful.

This museum, instead, was well designed to be memorable. No doubt this was done primarily to pull in paying customers, not to be pedagogical about things—but as it turns out, the customer is usually right. The wax figures brought history to life, left you with a vivid image in the mind’s eye of some event. This could then became a hook on which to hang your otherwise perhaps dry historical facts.

Most wax museums are mostly portraits in wax of famous people. This, to me, makes them boring and useless. If they are currently famous, you already have a good image in your mind of what these people look like. So you are learning nothing, seeing nothing new, by seeing their portrait in wax. All you get is a sense of how close the resemblance is. Big deal. A test of skill, I suppose. And usually the resemblance falls well short of being convincing, leaving only a sense of disappointment. An “uncanny valley” effect leaves many figures looking ghoulish, zombie-like. You feel as though you are looking at someone’s cadaver.

I went to the wax museum in Dublin a few years ago. Mostly wax figures of famous writers and politicians, sitting around in chairs, which is about all a famous writer or politician ever does, moderately well done. Nothing visually interesting there. There was no chance to suspend disbelief: what is the thrill in seeing James Joyce done as a wax dummy? And certainly the wax dummy left no clearer image in your mind than the photos in the history books or on the dustcovers. With one exception: an image of Grace O’Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate, standing and pointing a finger at the horizon, really looked shockingly alive, and has burned itself into my memory.

Statue of Grace O'Malley, Mayo, Ireland.

Here, the trick was in the choice of subject. The artist was not constrained to compete with the camera. Neither I nor the sculptor had any idea what the breathing Grace O’Malley looked like. So he was free to create something really lifelike and striking.

This was the approach taken throughout the Musée de Cire Historique. No attempts to reproduce famous people whose features were already familiar to anyone, except perhaps Saint Andre Bessette. Creating something far more interesting, compelling, and worthwhile.

The other thing the Musée de Cire Historique did right was to put in lots of blood and gore; lots of drama. Most scenes implied action. This is just the sort of thing that gets carefully cut out of our schoolbooks and our stories for children, ensuring that they are boring and the kids will remember nothing. Instead, we throw all the blood and gore into things we present to parents, who at least ought to have grown out of such stuff.

Here is a sample of some of the dioramas that fixed themselves in my memory. I recently found them shown on a web site ( These are the ones I instantly recalled. I was probably not older than 12 or 13 the last time I saw them.

A rather interesting experiment, then, in what is mnemonically, meaning educationally, sound:

The funeral of a dead child in the early Christian community. This is obviously going to be gripping to a child—seeing a child about their own age dead. The palm implies martyrdom: a story is evoked.

Christians waiting to be fed to the lions. Note the children included.

Roman gladiators. For what it is worth, this, with the previous diorama, are the two I seem to best recall.

Cartier lands at Gaspe: the discovery of Canada.

Note that the event is shown from the Indian perspective. This informs us, I think, of an important truth. Contrary to what you often hear, Canadians have never considered Indians some despised foreign “other.” In our hearts, we have always thought of ourselves as the Indians.

Americans are the same.

Saint Marguerite d’Youville conceals an English officer and misdirects an Indian warrior looking for him.

You might see this as a negative portrayal of Indians. The Indian certainly looks scary and threatening. But that is historically accurate. The whole point of Indian war paint was to look scary and threatening. And the women are plainly not afraid. There is no visible concern here that the Indian might massacre unarmed women. Rather bad form, if he is indeed a bloodthirsty savage.

The women are showing mercy by protecting their sworn enemy, the Englishman, against their ally, the Indian.

Ever wax museum I have been to ever since has been, by comparison, a disappointment.

These pictures are taken from and I hope count as fair dealing for review purposes. Please do go to the link to see more. The original page is in French, but remember, if your French is rusty or nonexistent, there is always Google translate.

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