Monday, August 20, 2012

What I Learned in Newfoundland #1: Stories Matter

I spent almost two full weeks in July traveling around Newfoundland,  facilitating workshops on the ways in which heritage organizations can engage older community residents in their work.  I had a tremendous time, traveling all over the province from Cape Spear to Gros Morne;  from St. Alban's to Cape Anguille and Twillingate (check out a map--I went all over!).  I met great people everywhere, saw incredible scenery,  ate some of  Newfoundland's distinctive cuisine and most of all, learned some terrific stories.   I know stories matter and I care deeply about how we use them in museums--but these workshops reminded me again of their importance.
I was looking for a way to open up a workshop that was different from the usual introductions and came up with the idea of asking participants to bring an object or image that represented an older generation.  And in each of my five workshops,  I learned bits of Newfoundland history from those objects--my very own version of the British Museum's history of the world in 100 objects.   From a bone pair of snow glasses to a miniature wheelbarrow carved by a grandfather;  from a set of sail mending needles to a coin from the company store in Corner Brook;  from a tea cozy to a photo of Nan in the garden;  from a milk pan to a hooked rug;  each object had a story--and each object would have been far, far less meaningful without the story.
I didn't ask each person to share their own object's stories, rather I asked pairs to take a minute each and learn as much as they could about the object, not telling them about any next step.  After those brief two minutes, I asked each one to share with the full group about what they had learned about the other person's object.  It was amazing how much you can learn in a minute;  and how important good listening is.  Imagine, local history museums, if you always took just one minute to learn about the meaning of each object a donor brought in.

Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of the, to me, most memorable object and story.  In St. Alban's, the workshop was at the Canadian Legion hall,  where there was a small museum dedicated to local residents who had served in the armed forces.  One of the participants had forgotten to bring an object, and she went in the museum and came back with a framed photograph of a veteran, probably in his '80s at the time of the photo.  It was her uncle, Alistair, I think, and she remembered the day he and all the other men came back from World War II.  "Oh, I can still see them sailing up to the dock,"  she said, "what a party there was that night...I was young, but it went on all night."    In that one minute,  I gained a little  understanding of the isolation and independence of Newfoundlanders,  the importance of family and community, and the ways in which a single memory can generate many more for others.   Thanks, Newfoundlanders, for sharing your stories with me.

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