What can we learn from each other?
Curatorial lessons from other museums - Part Two
In last week’s article I began a virtual “tour” of some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as a curator through visiting other museums. That tour included stops at the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives, the Air Force Heritage Museum and Air Park, the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. (If you missed that first leg of the tour, you can find it in the Village News column published on October 25, 2018.)
This week’s tour takes place closer to home. In July I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG) to take in their summer exhibit on the Impressionists. Of course the artwork was stunning, and the exhibit was very professional and well-done. (However, I did note a few typos in the panels. My lesson from this? Typos happen to us all, big or small; we’re all human!)
But what really struck me during this visit was how the exhibit interacted with a category of visitors you might not immediately think of: kids! The exhibit had special labels just for children that asked questions they would find engaging and raised issues at a level they would be able to understand. I also overheard portions of a guided tour of school-aged children that was near me in the gallery throughout my visit. Some of the content in the exhibit included nudes, and one of the stops for this guided tour was at one of these pieces. The docent did not shy away from this potentially difficult topic. She addressed it in a way that was respectful, both to the art and to her audience, and insightful in engaging the children on their level. My lesson? You don’t need to shy away from difficult topics, even with younger audiences, but you do need to shape how you tell your story to fit their needs and level of understanding.
Riverton, Manitoba, was the final stop on my tour of lessons learned at museums. This past summer, friends and I rented a cottage near Beaver Creek Provincial Park. The nearest town was Riverton, and we spent a good portion of one day exploring the town, walking its historic trail, and reading the interpretive panels about the area’s Icelandic history. Around 1:00 p.m. we stopped in at the Riverton Transportation and Heritage Centre, housed in the town’s restored Canadian Pacific Railway station. A small crowd on the platform outside the museum was just closing down a hotdog BBQ.
After we toured the tiny museum inside the train station, my friends dispersed but I stopped to chat awhile with a volunteer who was cleaning up the BBQ supplies. I found out that the train station had been restored about twenty years ago, that the project had been initiated by volunteers and largely carried out with volunteer labour, and that they were now fundraising to add another building to the museum’s site. Riverton has a population of just over five hundred, yet in spite of its small size, it managed to save a dilapidated heritage building sitting vacant (save for the pigeons who called it home) in a farmer’s field and transform it into a very beautiful example of an early-twentieth-century rural train station. Talk about being inspired!
My virtual tour of lessons learned at other museums began at a Thanksgiving dinner a few weeks ago with a conversation I had with a fellow curator, and I’d also like to end it on a note of thanksgiving. Chatting with the volunteer in Riverton and seeing how they worked to save a single heritage building made me incredibly thankful for what we have at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). How privileged we are in Steinbach to have so many irreplaceable heritage buildings! We have thirty-seven historical exhibits in MHV’s outdoor village, sixteen of which are heritage buildings and monuments that were moved to the museum and restored to their specific time periods. They’ve become so much a part of life at the museum, and in Steinbach generally, that I think we easily run the risk of becoming inoculated to how special they are to our life and history.
My trip to Riverton taught me that our architectural history can inspire people to action. Such buildings from our past are so important to our future that, in Riverton’s case, an entire town galvanized around the restoration of a single one. It also reminded me of the responsibility and opportunity we have at MHV, and as a community, to be wise stewards of this architectural history and to not take it for granted.
This concludes my tour. The valuable insights I gained along the way were far greater than the relatively insignificant admission fees I paid. My visits to these various museums - both big and small, grand and unassuming, far away and closer to home - continue to inspire me and challenge me to think in new ways, which is what any museum, at its best, should always do for its visitors.
Calendar of Events
*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM*
November 4, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM
November 10, Christmas Market – 10:00 AM-4:00 PM
November 10, Unveiling of Peace Monument – 2:00 PM
November 12, Garden Club: Art in the Garden – 7:00 PM
November 23, The Klassens, Paraguayan harp concert with dessert and coffee - 7:00 PM
Photo credit: Visiting the Riverton Transportation and Heritage Centre in summer 2018.