Sunday, July 21, 2013

A reflection on old things

There's an old spinning wheel in the parlour

Ancient Walkman
I spent this afternoon in the Mennonite Heritage Museum, ostensibly to show visitors around, answer questions about Mennonite history here in the Saskatchewan Valley. As sometimes happens, there weren’t any visitors and I had time to ponder the purpose of museums and heritage sites, places where people can come and learn what the past was like.
               Yesterday was different. I spent time with a couple from Quebec who knew very little English. The man wanted to ask questions about Mennonites but he couldn’t say the word: “What is Memen . . . Nemmeno . . .” and I would finish his sentences, except after a few of these exchanges, I was having trouble saying the word myself! They stayed for about twenty minutes, walked through the various rooms and thanked me, tipped the museum a dollar and were gone on their way to Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg and eventually, Quebec. “We have a beautiful country,” the man said, and I agreed.
Almost a dozen people wandered in and out yesterday. A delightful young couple were overjoyed to find a picture of the girl’s  grandma in an upstairs display room. The girl drew a happy face after her signature in the guest book.
               Meanwhile, our B & B hosted Metis people attending the annual Back to Batoche event across the river. A lady from Lethbridge was attending in order to get in touch with her Metis past so she might pass that legacy on to her young adult children. She lamented that she’d neglected to do this as they were growing up and had herself lost touch. Some of you will know from the news that at this year’s event, a long-lost bell (taken from the Batoche church by the Canadian Militia after the Battle of Batoche, then stolen and finally resurfacing) was returned and celebrated by the thousands of people at the event.
               How important is a church bell—even a silver one—in the maintenance of a cultural identity? How much is David Toews’ desk an artifact that meaningfully connects Mennonites to their ethnic and spiritual heritage? Would my life be less if the world’s last cream separator were to be thrown into the sea? Why would anyone sit in a moldering museum through a Sunday afternoon with no company except the musty artifacts of an age gone by, pictures and more pictures of our ancestors long gone?
               This is the point where I should answer the questions above, but that’s not my purpose. They say we learn history so we may imitate its successes and avoid its mistakes. Are museums and heritage places helping us to benefit from history, or are they primarily places where one can be amused by the quaintness of the “olden days” for an hour or so. My observation has been that artifacts on their own are incapable of transmitting ideas. What’s your observation been?

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