Village News

Highlights of 2018

   While not everything we did at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) in 2018 went according to plan, we had numerous highlights in various areas of our work.

   As defined by its mission statement, MHV is first and foremost a museum. One of the highlights of our museum operations this past year was the creation of our current exhibit in the Gerhard Ens Gallery, The Art of Mennonite Clocks. This joint initiative between MHV and the Kroeger Clocks Heritage Foundation is an outstanding display of 33 old wall clocks, along with stories about each one. A station in the gallery invites guests to leave a note with an observation about the exhibit or a sketch of a clock. We have enjoyed unprecedented participation in this aspect of the exhibit, receiving many comments and drawings.

   A museum is also an educational institution. The education programs at MHV attracted thousands of children again this past year. Normally most of this activity takes place during May and June when school classrooms are doing field trips and in July and August when daycare centres do field trips. But in 2018, students continued visiting the museum in September, October and even November. We also worked on some experimental initiatives with administrators and teachers from the Hanover School Division. These activities are in keeping with our goal of being a museum that engages its constituency year-round, not just for five months in summer.

   Because MHV is an impressive and professionally operated museum, we are also an international tourist destination. Each year we have guests from more than 50 countries. In 2018 our visitor count as of the end of October already exceeded our number of recorded visitors for all of 2017. Each year our staff and volunteers have interesting stories to tell of encounters they have had with people from other countries.

   A new monument has become an added attraction for our tourist clientele. The Peace Project Committee donated and erected the Dirk Willems monument in November. This monument is a visual expression of the value and importance of empathy and love for all people, a teaching which has applications in our homes, in our workplaces and around the world.

   In addition to being a museum and a tourist destination, MHV is also a community meeting place, and thereby a community builder. Thousands of guests attended our festivals and other events in 2018. A number of new events were introduced during times of the year when we normally haven’t had much activity at the museum. We offered a Teen Gala for our youth, a Winter Carnival for families, and an Author Reading Event for anyone who enjoys books. A downward adjustment in our membership fees resulted in a doubling of our annual membership numbers. Many of the new members are young families who see MHV as a fun place to spend time as a family, during a festival or at any other time.

   The use of our facilities by individuals and community organizations grew substantially in 2018. Our new Summer Pavilion was in frequent use as a venue for a variety of community events such as corporate staff picnics, fundraisers, class reunions, birthday parties, and wedding receptions.

   Our Livery Barn Restaurant experienced a good increase in business this past year. This restaurant addresses all three functions of MHV as described above. It serves ethnic food to help interpret Russian Mennonite culture. It provides tourists with an “experience,” which is often referred to “experiential tourism”. And it provides a venue where community members can relax and socialize around a great meal.

   We believe that the many highlights MHV has experienced during 2018 have also helped improve the quality of life in our community. Our plan for 2019 is to improve still further on our 2018 experiences.

Calendar of Events

December 23 to January 7: Closed for Christmas and New Year’s

January 10, Auxiliary Film Night – Seed to Seed – 7:00 PM

February 7, Second annual Author Reading Event – 7:00 PM

February 15, Teen Gala – Western Night – 7:00 PM

February 16, MHV Winter Carnival – 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM

Village News

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Of Christmas Past (Part Two)

A New Generation

   Time passed by until one crisp wintery day near Christmas in 1957 young Larry Almon and his sister Rebecca Ann, living in Steinbach, took their toboggan and walked to Bush Farm where their grandparents, John C. Reimers, now lived. John C. had begun farming in 1944 on the land where Southland Church now stands. Larry and Rebecca had a saw to cut down their first Christmas tree. It was with great excitement that they pulled the pine tree home on the toboggan. Tonight they would decorate the tree and enjoy some of their mother's homemade oatmeal-date cookies. Life couldn't get a lot better!

   Steinbach's stores had changed a lot since Klass Reimer built his humble little shop which now stands on the Mennonite Heritage Village street. One very snowy evening Rebecca and her mother walked uptown to shop for Christmas gifts at the “5 cent to $” Store on Main Street. Rubber boots protected her feet from the deep snow, a little snow melting on the stockinged legs above. Her money was clutched in her blue hand-knit mitten.  Rebecca bought her younger sisters coloring books for only five cents each. She looked at the dime in her hand and saw the picture of young Queen Elizabeth and handed it to the cashier. She wondered what it would be like to be a queen. It couldn't be as much fun as shopping for Christmas! What a successful shopping trip they'd had! Their arms were full of packages on the way home. Gusts of wind blew into their rosy faces. Rebecca had a warm scarf tied around her head, and snow and frost stuck onto the mouth area. Eyelashes were icy. It was good to get home. The door squeaked with the cold and the window in the door was beautiful with Jack Frost's artwork. They pulled off boots, coats, and caps and warmed up in the heat of the coal furnace. Christmas music greeted them on the radio, and Rebecca sang along to 'Away in a Manger, no crib for a bed'. Christmas was definitely the most exciting time of year!

   Christmas programs in school and church celebrated the age-old story of Christ's birth in Bethlehem. Larry and Rebecca joined in enthusiastically in the celebrations and family gatherings.

The Winds of Time

   It was a very brittle, cold, stormy day in 1988. The John C. Reimer family gathered to celebrate Christmas. They had brought favorite foods, delicious foods, many not available in 1884. Almon's sister, Mary, had spread the traditional red tablecloth on the serving table. Later they sang the old songs, 'O Du Froehliche', 'Deinen Koenigstron', and 'O little Town of Bethlehem'. The Christmas Story was read from the Bible. Then Almon had a surprise for the great-grandchildren. He spread out on the floor a large, old horse hide named Frank and the small children sat on it – Larry's, Rebecca's and others. John C. Reimer sat near the children in a wheelchair, a colorful afghan covering his knees. He told the children a story about long, long ago. Almon played his harmonica. And the cold wind blew.

Calendar of Events

December 20, Accents Concert – 7:30 PM

December 23 to January 5: Closed for Christmas and New Year’s

January 10, Auxiliary Film Night – Seed to Seed – 7:00 PM

 

 

  

Caption for Photo:

“John C. Reimer in the wheel chair and Almon Reimer playing the harmonica at the Reimer Christmas gathering in 1988.”

Village News

Christmas stories that take us back in time have a unique appeal. Today’s column is a two-part story written by Rebecca Kornelson for The Carillon’s annual Christmas story writing contest in a previous year. It is republished here with permission from The Carillon and Rebecca Kornelson.

 

Of Christmas Past (Part One)

Steinbach's First Store

   The winter winds of 1885 blew cold over the Manitoba prairie, Klass Reimer hurried into his little store on Main Street situated just east of the present corner of Reimer and Main Streets in Steinbach. This was Steinbach's first store.

   It was a morning near Christmas and the fire in the store needed to be built up for the day. Busy housewives would be arriving to buy sugar, flour, molasses, raisins, and other essentials for Christmas baking.

   Maria looked at the fabric that had just been brought in by sleigh from Winnipeg. It would be nice to make an apron for each of the girls for Christmas. For her sons she had been busy knitting socks. Her youngest son, twelve years old, would love the pocketknife she spied in the glass case. Another two customers came in and Klass whistled for help to his wife through the message pipe that connected to their house. Greta sent a daughter to help.

   English farmer Mooney came from Clearspring area. His list had razors (for shaving), molasses, salt, nuts, and a bag of candy for the children for Christmas, and something pretty for his wife. Ah, yes, a new handkerchief would be just the thing.  Anna's mother sent her to get some Wonder Oil for Jakob's toothache and some 'burstremp' for Dad – the large size. She had coins tied into her handkerchief to pay for the goods. She unwrapped the coins and looked at them and saw the picture of Queen Victoria. Queen Victoria was the special person who had allowed the Mennonites to come and make a new life in Canada. Anna handed the money to Klass and he handed her a letter that had come in the mail. It was from some cousins in Russia, their old home.

   Christmas was celebrated simply. A few old songs telling Christ's birth would be sung in church. Some family would gather together if they were able and eat whatever bounty the farm would provide – perhaps only fried potatoes, fried ham, 'pluma mousse', bread and some cookies. Few gifts would be exchanged.  Klass Reimer's store made a few more items available for the people of this new community.

Joy of the Thirties

   October 30, 1931 John C. Reimer, grandson of Klass Reimer, stepped into his school classroom in Blumenort. It was a chilly autumn morning, so he had come early enough to light a fire in the stove. Today was his 37th birthday. He wondered what the day would bring.

   A teacher in charge of eight grades needed to be a bit of an acrobat. Perhaps it was time to begin practicing for the Christmas program. He would need to find a 'Wunch' for each child to recite. He checked his bookshelf for his Christmas books. He might have to write some simpler lines for the youngest pupils and some to send home for the preschoolers who were also a part of the school program each year. Son, Almon, was eight years old this year – just the age when young boys get very excited about Christmas events. It was a pleasure for John C. to have his sons Enoch, Almon, and Ruben in his classroom, but they had to toe the line like the other pupils. No favorites with John. C.! Closer to Christmas he would put all the boys to work cutting evergreen boughs and decorating the school with them. The girls would make lovely paper chains and decorations.

   The last day of school had arrived. It was with great excitement that everyone seated themselves on the benches made of planks of wood. It was an afternoon program because the families had farm chores to do in the evening. Outside it was snowing softly, giving a hushed Christmasy feeling. The songs were sung well and the poems recited – some confidently and some apprehensively.

  “Once a little baby lay,

  Cradled in the fragrant hay.

  Long ago on Christmas.

  In the manger he was found,

  And the white sheep stood around,

  Long ago on Christmas.”

Each child received a red or green cheesecloth 'tootje' full of goodies. John C.'s wife, Maria, had busily sewed these before Christmas. As John C. closed the door behind him when the program was over, he smiled. He was pleased with how the children had performed.

   Christmas Eve Almon and his brothers were eager to bring in a lot of firewood, feed the chickens, and do other chores. Then they set out plates with a name tag in it. It was difficult to fall asleep that night and they were up as early as allowed the next morning. Besides candy, peanuts and an orange they found a toy on their plate – one an airplane, one a tractor, and one a pocketknife. A teacher's wage didn't go far in those days.

   Christmas afternoon the lively horse Frank was hitched to the sleigh and off they went to visit the grandparents. They had a lovely day of feasting and visiting. After reading the Bible, singing some songs, and saying a 'wunch' the children each got a small gift. Christmas was a joyful time.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM*

December 20, Accents Concert – 7:30 PM

December 23 to January 5: Closed for Christmas and New Year’s

Village News

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Mennonite Historical Society’s 50th Annual Meeting

   The Mennonite Historical Society of Canada (MHSC) held its annual meeting on November 15, 2018, at the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg. Founded in 1968, MHSC celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, with a history conference entitled A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada since 1970, held at the University of Winnipeg November 15-17. There was strong affirmation at the annual meeting for another volume in the Mennonites in Canada series written by Frank H. Epp and Ted D. Regehr, which will focus on the diversity of Mennonites in Canada since 1970.

   Three “Awards of Excellence” were presented to persons who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of Canadian Mennonite history by way of research and/or writing. All three taught in the history departments of either Canadian Mennonite Bible College (CMBC) or Mennonite Brethren Bible College (MBBC) for several decades, leaving their imprint on numerous students and passing on the Anabaptist vision to the next generations.

   Adolf Ens began his teaching career at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in 1970. He and his wife Anna served with MCC in Indonesia and Uganda, but spent most of his teaching years in Winnipeg. He was a key player in the publication of many Mennonite history books via CMBC Publications, and is best remembered for his 2004 history of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada entitled Becoming a National Church: A History of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, and a number of volumes that focus on the local history of the Mennonite West Reserve in Manitoba.

   Abe Dueck began teaching at Mennonite Brethren Bible College in 1971 and played an integral role throughout his career in gathering, preserving and telling the Mennonite Brethren story to both college students and the public at large. From 1991-2003 he served as the director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, during which time he wrote numerous periodical articles for the Mennonite Historian.

   John J. Friesen served as Mennonite history professor from 1970-2000 at Canadian Mennonite Bible College and Canadian Mennonite University from 2000 to 2010, the last five years part-time. His most noted monograph, Building Communities: The Changing Face of Manitoba Mennonites, was published in 2007. The full citation for these three award recipients can be read on the Society’s website (www.mhsc.ca).

   The Society endorsed the founding of a Russlaender Centenary Committee with a mandate to develop a full-fledged historical commemoration program, with events across Canada from Quebec to British Columbia, reflecting and celebrating the story of the 1923 immigration of Mennonites to Canada from the Soviet Union. A historical re-enactment of the Russlaender immigrants in 2023, with a train travelling across Canada from Montreal to Saskatoon, with stops in Kitchener and Winnipeg, is one of the proposals. The Society also established a committee to remember the 1922 migration to Mexico and Paraguay.

   Mennonite Historical Society of Canada comprises six provincial Mennonite historical societies, four Mennonite denominational bodies, the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg, the Mennonite Archives of Ontario, the Mennonite Heritage Archives, the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies, the Mennonite Heritage Village (Steinbach), the Mennonite Heritage Museum (Abbotsford), the Institute of Anabaptist and Mennonite Studies, Canadian Mennonite University, Humanitas Anabaptist-Mennonite Centre (Langley) and Mennonite Central Committee Canada (an associate member).

   The 2018 executive is Royden Loewen (Winnipeg, Manitoba), president; Richard Thiessen (Abbotsford, B.C.), vice-president; Alf Redekopp (St. Catharines, Ontario), secretary; Conrad Stoesz (Winnipeg, Manitoba), treasurer; with Barb Draper (Elmira, Ontario) as the fifth member. For 2019 the executive will be Laureen Harder-Gissing (Waterloo, Ontario), president; Conrad Stoesz, vice-president; Barb Draper, secretary; Jeremy Wiebe (Winnipeg, Manitoba), treasurer; and Royden Loewen as the fifth member.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM* 

December 9, Canzona: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – 2:00 PM

December 10, Steinbach and Area Garden Club meeting – 7:00 PM

December 23 to January 5: Closed for Christmas and New Year’s

 

  

Photo caption:

Recipients of the MHSC Award of Excellence (left to right): John J. Friesen, Abe J. Dueck and Adolf Ens, 15 November 2018 in Winnipeg

 

Photo credit: Conrad Stoesz

Village News

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 Mexico or Canada?

   Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) recently accepted a new Mennonite-made wall clock and a batch of family immigration documents into our artefact collection. According to the donor, this clock was given to Abraham and Elisabeth (Goerzen) Wiens as a wedding gift in 1913. In 1925, Abraham, Elisabeth, their children, and Elisabeth’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to escape the communist regime. They made their way to Mexico but then stayed there for only one year before migrating to Canada. This family’s immigration documents, along with their clock, help MHV tell the broader story of a small group of Mennonites who left the Soviet Union for Mexico for a short time before finding a permanent home in Canada.

   Between 1923 and 1926, approximately two hundred Mennonite families migrated from the Soviet Union to Mexico. Although Canada was the first choice of destination for many of the emigrants, Mexico had its own benefits. Climate, of course, was a factor. The Mennonites had lived in the area we know today as Ukraine, where the weather was much warmer than the cold Manitoba winters. Additionally, other Mennonite groups had established colonies in Mexico, so there was already a Mennonite presence in the country. Finally, medical examinations were not as strict in Mexico as they were for those who wanted to settle in Canada, thus making migration to Mexico easier.

   Our recently donated documents superbly illustrate the migration story of many of these two hundred Mennonite families. One of these documents is a certificate allowing the Wiens family to leave the USSR for Mexico. The certificate states: “This is to certify that the bearer of this Certificate Abraham Jacob Wiens… is a Mennonite, a bona-fide farmer, member of the Union of Citizens of Dutch Lineage in the Ukraine accompanied by his family consisting of: Elisabeth, Peter, Elisabeth, Maria, Abraham… is proceeding to Mexico as farmer… It is also hereby certified that neither this man nor his family will become public charges if allowed to land in Mexico by the Mexican Immigration Authorities.” The certificate is dated February 22, 1925.

   In under a year, the Wiens family had decided that Mexico would not work as their permanent home. According to our donor, the heat of the Mexican climate did not agree with Elisabeth. So the family was given permission to try their luck in Canada.

   The second letter was issued by the Canadian Department of Immigration and Colonization on October 13, 1925. The letter states that it approves the application submitted by Abraham Wiens for permission for him and his family to migrate to Canada. The Department further stated that “it will be necessary, however, that the said Abraham Jacob Wiens, his wife Elisabeth, and children… shall pass medical inspection and otherwise comply with the requirements of the Canadian Immigration Act…” The family found a farm in McAuley, Manitoba, where Abraham’s brothers had already established their own farms.

   Not all Mennonite families were so lucky. As is suggested by the sections quoted here, Mexican and Canadian governments were concerned with the capabilities and health of Mennonite families and individuals wishing to immigrate. Canada in particular used medical inspections to limit immigration, which may have been the reason that a family settled in Mexico rather than Canada. These conditions did not just apply to the Mennonites but also to many, if not all, immigrant groups in the early twentieth century. Governments did not want to be burdened with residents who would not be able to contribute to the economy or would be a medical burden on the country. Throughout other archival and historical sources, one can find examples of families who were separated for these reasons, many of which never saw their other family members again.

   The Wiens family artefacts remind us of the uncertainty many Mennonites faced during the 1920s. Families were unsure if they should leave the Soviet Union and unsure of where they would go if they were actually granted permission to immigrate. They could not know in advance what was in store for them in the new place they would call home, or what their lives would become in the following years. Documents such as these shed light on what must have been a very emotional experience for many Mennonite families. We are grateful to be part of their preservation.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM* 

December 1, Trip Raffle Draw – 12:00 PM

December 2, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

December 9, Canzona: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio – 2:00 PM

December 10, Steinbach and Area Garden Club meeting – 7:00 PM

December 23 to January 5: Closed for Christmas and New Year’s

 

 

 

 

Photo Caption:

Abraham and Elisabeth Wiens

Village News

Synergy in Partnerships

   When two individuals or organizations have a productive partnership, they likely achieve more than the sum total of their individual contributions. In other words, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Or we might say that two plus two actually equals five when a partnership has synergy.

   Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is engaged in a number of partnerships which fall into that category. One of those relationships was on display last Saturday when the newly created Dirk Willems monument was unveiled on our campus. This project was a joint venture between MHV and a local group of supporters who formed a Peace Exhibit Committee.

   This committee established itself about five years ago with the purpose of creating a monument to honor Conscientious Objectors, those people who chose to support their country in non-violent ways during times of war. As the committee’s work progressed, its vision also grew to include an additional monument that would prompt our visitors to think about resolving conflict in non-violent ways. The addition of an interpretive centre to provide space and media for teaching and reflection is a third component of their expanded vision.

   When the Peace Exhibit Committee came to MHV’s Board of Directors to present this comprehensive vision, they were invited to develop the project themselves and to plan to locate it on our campus. Our board was grateful for their willingness and ability to manage the project, because our staff already had “full plates” with all the projects already defined in their strategic plan. So this committee brought resources to our museum that were otherwise not available at that time.

   This past Saturday, approximately 100 guests joined the Peace Exhibit Committee and the MHV Board on our grounds for the unveiling of the second monument in this project-- a statue of Dirk Willems rescuing his jailor, who had fallen through the ice on the frozen river as he pursued Willems in his quest for freedom. With this action, Willems clearly expressed his respect for all people; nonetheless he was recaptured and executed. We are grateful to now have this monument, with the profound teaching of its story, on our grounds for our museum visitors to contemplate.

   The Steinbach and Area Garden Club is another partner with whom MHV has created a wonderful synergy. It’s very simple. We provide the club with a meeting room twice a month, and they create and tend the vegetable and flower gardens at MHV. Many club members volunteer to water, weed, plant, and watch for pests. This year the club members volunteered over 1,000 hours in our gardens. And that time spent really makes a visible difference to the atmosphere in our Village.

   The MHV Auxiliary’s partnership with MHV is also one that generates considerable synergy. Members of this group faithfully make quilts, both to provide a demonstration for our guests and to sell in our gift shop. They also cater meals, sell waffles and vanilla sauce on festival days, and stage various museum fundraising events that are also teaching and social events.

   Additional MHV partnerships include Steam Club ’71, which owns and operates a steamer that provides various demonstrations on our festival days. We ourselves would not have the capacity to own and operate such a machine. As well, the Southeast Implement Collectors provide the community with a vintage tractor show each summer and also populates our tractor exhibit with many beautifully restored machines. The Southeast Manitoba Draft Horse Association faithfully brings teams of horses, along with wagons, to provide rides and agricultural demonstrations for MHV guests on festival days.

   These are just some examples of the numerous partnerships we enjoy with local organizations. MHV’s service to the community is noticeably enhanced through these relationships as synergy is demonstrated.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM* 

November 23, The Klassens, Paraguayan harp concert with dessert and coffee - 7:00 PM

November 26, The Russian Mennonite Story Book Launch – 7:00 PM

December 2, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

Village News

The Bottom Line

   This is the time of year when charities examine the trajectory of their bottom line and begin reminding supporters that the end of the calendar year is approaching. And so it is at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). This column will attempt to inform the reader of specific financial opportunities at our museum.

   Our “operating fund,” which does not include capital projects, is the most important area for consideration. If our income doesn’t cover our expenses, we acquire debt. This fund includes things like utilities, building maintenance and repairs, office supplies, salaries, and other day-to-day expenses. (The kind of expenses that can’t be avoided but are not very appealing to donors.) We try to anticipate and budget for these kinds of expenses, but on occasion unanticipated issues will surprise us. In some cases they can be postponed, but in others they need to be looked after immediately.

   For example, this summer our air conditioner in the Livery Barn Restaurant (LBR) broke down. Because it was a hot summer, we had no choice but to replace it as quickly as possible. When a summer storm damaged the fantail on our windmill, the repair again had to happen immediately because people travel from far away especially to see our windmill, and our LBR needs the flour it produces. Both of these were very expensive repairs.

   This year we need to cover about 30% of our operating expenses through sponsorships, fundraising activities and donations. That amounts to well over $300,000. The rest is funded by our operating income (from our restaurant, gift shop, facility rentals and admission) and by government grants. At this time of year, our facility rentals are still generating some income through workshops, meetings and Christmas parties. But our restaurant is closed, admission revenues are lower than in summer, and our gift shop is doing less business than in summer. So we are looking to our supporters for generous donations toward our operating fund at this time.

   In addition to general museum operations, we have various specific projects needing attention. Most of these are of a capital nature, such as replacing aged and leaking roofs, rebuilding our sawmill, replacing broken highway billboards, replacing 28-year old water heaters in the Village Centre, and repairing and repainting heritage buildings. For various reasons, all of these are important projects. Although we do apply for various grants toward these projects, we also need to encourage our donors to consider an extra donation to any one of these projects, over and above their regular donation to our operating fund.

   Last but certainly not least, we have not fully met the $3,000,000 target for our Foundations for a Strong Future campaign. The campaign has gone well, as many people and organizations have been generous. To this point, $2,266,000 has been donated and pledged to this campaign, so there is still room to get involved in this initiative. Again, we encourage donations to this campaign after one’s usual donation has been made to our operating fund.

   December is traditionally a good month for donation income. We look forward to the blessings that the generosity of our constituency will bring us as we wrap up 2018.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 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

November 26, The Russian Mennonite Story book launch – 7:00 PM

December 2, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

Village News

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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.

Village News

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What can we learn from each other? Curatorial Lessons from other Museums - Part I

   Earlier this month I was invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of good friends of mine. At the dinner was a fellow curator, in charge of the Fort Garry Horse Museum and Archives in the Minto Armoury and the Air Force Heritage Museum and Air Park, both in Winnipeg. Inevitably, he and I got to talking about museums. As everyone else migrated from the table to the couches in the living room after dinner, we remained at the table, deep in conversation, bowed over his phone looking at photos of the new interpretive panels at the Fort Garry Horse Museum and the air craft exhibited on pedestals at the Air Force Air Park.

   As he flipped through the photos on his phone, one stopped me in my tracks. The photo was a display case of military items loaned from the Fort Garry Horse Museum in an exhibit at the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame. What drew my attention was not a particular artefact, interesting though they all were, but the mount the artefacts were exhibited on. The very slick-looking mounts, as I found out from my friend, were simply black boxes constructed out of a very simple and uninteresting product: black foam core (a stiff, board-like material that we typically use to make our labels). I learned this simple lesson from my Thanksgiving conversation: Exhibit solutions can be simple and cost-effective while still being creative and looking professional.

   I love museums, and I did before I ever considered the possibility of working at one. Of course, now that I do work in the museum field, I look at things in exhibits from a very different perspective. Museums tell stories about who we are as people and point us to times, places, people, and objects in our shared past that have shaped us and our society. When I tour a museum, I always learn something new about how an exhibit is created, shapes a story, and shares it with visitors in a way that resonates.

   I started my museum life as the Curator of Contemporary Cultures and Immigration at The Manitoba Museum. In that role, I had the opportunity to travel to New York City and tour immigration museums. Two stops on my trip were the Ellis Island Immigration Museum (https://libertyellisfoundation.org) and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (https://www.tenement.org). The museum on Ellis Island is housed in the French Renaissance Revival-style main building of the former immigration station complex. The building functioned as the first stop for immigrants arriving in the United States between 1892 and 1954. No doubt the impressive architecture of this heritage building, now restored to its 1918 to 1924 appearance, was meant to instill awe and trepidation into the newly arrived immigrants who waited to be processed before continuing their journeys into the United States.

   The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, on the other hand, is located in a vastly less awe-inspiring setting: two buildings that served as tenement apartments and housed over 15,000 working class immigrants from over 20 different countries between 1863 and 2011. The museum interprets the history of immigration to the United States through the apartments it has restored and through the stories of the individual families who actually lived in them.

   When I visited the Tenement Museum in 2012, I took the “Sweatshop Workers” tour through two apartments belonging to two specific families: the Levine family’s garment workshop, housed in the cramped quarters of the three-room apartment in which they also lived; and the Rogarshevskys, whose apartment was restored to what it would have looked like on the evening of a Sabbath celebration at the turn of the twentieth century. The tour guide showed us census records and photos of the families, and used their stories and the surroundings in the restored apartments to teach us about big ideas like religion and ethnicity, the building codes that governed tenements throughout the century, and the working lives of immigrants trying to make ends meet in New York City’s Lower East Side.

   The stories and lessons I learned from this very specific telling of the much broader sweep of immigration history have stayed with me much longer and made a much deeper impact than the grandness and generalities of immigration history that I took in at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. I learned so many things about how a museum does its job well from my visit to the Tenement Museum, and now six years later that visit continues to challenge and inspire me. Two of the main lessons I learned? First, we learn better when big ideas are shared through the lens of story. And second, when you tell a story, be specific. The histories of real people - their lives, the world they lived in, and the choices they made – have the ability to resonate with museum visitors in profound ways.

   Next week, I’ll bring my tour of curatorial lessons I’ve learned from other museums closer to home, with stops in Winnipeg and Riverton, Manitoba.

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 23, The Klassens, Paraguayan harp concert and coffee - 7:00 PM

 

  

Photo caption: Visiting New York City’s Lower East Side Tenement Museum in 2012.  The building in the middle is 97 Orchard Street, one of the two former tenements in which the museum is housed.

Village News

Steinbach Then and Now

   If you are not planning to hear the singing pirates at the SRSS this Saturday night, Oct 20, please come over to Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) at 7:00 PM for an evening of lectures and an old-fashioned slide show! There's nothing like history lectures, eh?

   This will actually be the third such evening jointly sponsored by the local history committee and MHV. The year before last it was all about indigenous people, Métis, and the Mennonites. Last year it was about families and gardens and orphans. This year it will be about Steinbach. It is brought to you free by the late Delbert Plett, who left a little nest egg with the history committee.

   The first lecture on Saturday night will be presented by ex-Steinbacher Ralph Friesen, who is coming back from BC to tell us about a very significant era in Steinbach's history. As Ralph and I were growing up in Steinbach, ”revival meetings” were common annual events. Many kids and adults had their lives drastically changed for the better in one desperate evening of decision. Others bore the scars for decades.

   Ralph's father Peter, the mild-mannered pastor of the big EMC Church, was one of the men who introduced Steinbach to the evangelists. So Ralph was on the front lines. Hopefully he will tell us about this experience from a distance of about 60 years. Ralph went on to be a family counselor (like his dad) and he was also on the D.F. Plett Historical Research Foundation board for many years.

   What was the effect of all those revivals on Steinbach? Did they lead to the "Bible Belt" stereotype that we have had to live with all these years? Did they make us better people? Did they not? These are the questions I plan to ask after Ralph’s talk.

   The half-time show will be a slide presentation of about 100 photographs taken by Jacob or Walt Barkman, father and son. Many of them have not been previously published, and they reveal a Steinbach that will seem very strange to the young and very nostalgic to oldies like me. Priceless pictures from the 1920s and 1930s by Jacob (who somehow produced unusually high-quality photos for that era), will contrast with more recent ones from the 1950s and 1960s taken by Walt. Walt's Studio became the destination of almost every young couple who tied the knot in Steinbach. Early on, he also took many pictures of the open coffin at funerals, which was the custom at the time.

   After this interlude, if you're still with us, you’ll have to listen to yours truly talk about Steinbach's not-for-profit enterprises as they operated in 2016. What is their role in the well-being of Steinbachers? How significant are they economically? How does this compare with other communities? (We don't want to be triumphalistic.) What are their main aspirations? What is the impact of volunteerism on our community? What is the future of nonprofits? I might be able to answer one or two of these questions.

   My wife & I have tickets for the Sunday performance of The Pirates of Penzance, brought to you by one of the most creative nonprofits in our city, the Steinbach Arts Council. There will be no life-changing decisions to be made there--just pure fun. I won't even think about their struggles with money and volunteers. I'll just enjoy the result.

Calendar of Events

*MHV Off-Season Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9:00 AM-5:00 PM* 

October 20, Third Annual Local History Lectures – 7:00 PM

November 4, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM

November 10, Christmas Market

 

About the Author

Gary is responsible for the overall management of MHV. Guiding the staff, informing the board, and networking with officials, volunteers, corporate sponsors, individual donors and other guests. He has a business diploma and a MA in Global Studies from Providence Theological Seminary. With his family he did humanitarian work for 18 years in Asia, including being a CEO of a Compost Enterprise in China. He loves to discuss the Mennonite story and how it is relevant in our world. Learn more about the MHV.

Steinbachonline.com is Steinbach's only source for community news and information such as weather and classifieds.

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