'History kiosk' project uses Ottawa traffic boxes to tell local stories

This month, more than a dozen traffic control boxes in Ottawa will be wrapped with archival photos and original art and transformed into interactive exhibits where — by scanning a QR code — people can learn some of the city's lesser-known stories.

First kiosk, on local lacrosse history, installed this week at Lansdowne Park

A new 'history box' adorns Bank Street in front of Lansdowne Park on May 18, 2017. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

They're among the more unassuming, most overlooked parts of the urban landscape.

But this month, more than one dozen traffic control boxes at intersections in Ottawa will be wrapped with archival photos and original art and transformed into interactive history exhibits where — by scanning a QR code — people can learn some of the city's lesser-known stories.

The Capital History Kiosk project is a collaborative effort between Carleton University, the Workers History Museum, and Ottawa 2017.

The first kiosk, which highlight's Ottawa's long love affair with the sport of lacrosse, was unveiled Wednesday on Bank Street at the entrance to Lansdowne Park.

"Lansdowne has been a public space for sporting activity for nearly as long as the country's been around," said Lisa Bullock, the Carleton University master's student who researched the city's lacrosse history for the project.

"Lacrosse history — which was really big at the turn of the 20th century — was completely missing from the space. There was no streetcar that came down here, quite yet, down Bank Street. But eight to twelve thousand people would come out routinely for games."

One well-known Ottawa lacrosse player, Hugh Carson, would go on to serve as the president of the Ottawa Curling Club and also run a high-quality leather goods company in the city.

Another player, Barney Quinn, returned to Ottawa after his lacrosse career and operated a Turkish bath and massage parlour for three decades. He also served as a trainer for the Ottawa Silver Sevens, the city's last Stanley Cup champions, Bullock said.

Bullock said she knew almost nothing about lacrosse going into the kiosk project, but felt the stories of the people who played the sport were important to pass on.

"If we're going to talk about 150th celebrations, then we should talk about the national sport that gets overshadowed by [its] louder sibling of hockey," she said.

Local stories can get lost

While Canada's 150th anniversary will celebrate the country's sweeping historical narratives, it's those sorts of everyday stories that can get lost along the way, said David Dean, a Carleton University history professor and the project lead on the Capital History Kiosk.

"We want to tell [those stories] in a very dynamic and compelling way," Dean told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Dean said the stories came about after he asked students in his museum studies seminar to pick a site and simply "run with it."

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson unveils the first of more than a dozen 'history kiosks' being installed at city traffic boxes this month on May 17, 2017, as Lisa Bullock, second from left, and David Dean, fifth from left, look on. (Jessa Runciman/CBC)

Forthcoming kiosks, said Dean, will include one in Vanier that tells the story of the Caisse Populaire, as well as one in Hintonburg that relates a schoolteacher strike in 1918-1919.

The next one will be installed in Centretown and will tell the story of a downtown photographer who operated at Bank and Laurier streets.

"Public historians are very engaged with making history meaningful for people in their everyday lives," said Dean.

"So you're walking by, you're waiting for the traffic lights. We want you to say, 'Wow, what's that?'"