Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Building Community: Outport Style

I'm just wrapping up a week in Port Union, Newfoundland, beginning work on interpretive planning with them, and as always, each new client, each new place, each new set of experiences make me think about my own practice and how I can continue to shape and learn.

Port Union is known as the only union-built town in North America and was founded in 1916 by an inspirational (and somewhat controversial) leader, Sir William Coaker, as the headquarters of the Fishermen's Protective Union.  It looks different than any other Newfoundland outport, with its factory and row houses.  The Sir William Coaker Foundation, formed after the closure of the fish plant, has done amazing work in preserving buildings in the historic district,  restoring buildings to create both spaces for exhibits and interpretation and, at the same time, also addressing community needs such as affordable rental housing.  Much of Port Union's story is different than other Newfoundland outports: the Fishermen's Advocate newspaper published there, the workers' housing, Coaker's efforts to improve a whole variety of fishermen's way of making a living. The town has a unique opportunity to connect with the growing tourist audiences on the Bonavista Peninsula.

The interpretive challenges are many--but exciting.  Many Newfoundlanders have intense attachments to the places they were born. It was moving to walk the street with Harold (that's him at the head of the post, in front of the house where he was born) and Bill, as they remember the community it was; the lives of their families (below, Bill's grandfather, Fred Tulk, the captain) and the bustling community.  How do we make sure that their stories continue to live on in ways more than just a simple video or label text?  Canada has an extensive summer youth employment program that results in enthusiastic and friendly, but not well-trained, summer guides at many sites.  How can we develop ways for those stories and that knowledge be conveyed to young people so they can continue to share those stories and ideas forward?

And then there's the challenge of telling history that's still new.  In 1992,  the Canadian government announced a moratorium on cod fishing (still in place)  putting tens of thousands of Newfoundlanders out of work, taking away the kind of work that had sustained families and communities for centuries. At a community dinner, over great home-cooked food like moose meatballs and partridgeberry pie, I asked people about the moratorium.  Some thought that it was still too painful to talk about--and it was abundantly clear that everyone in the room had been affected by it. Others thought that most outsiders did not understand the moratorium at all. Perhaps within the context of the Fishermen's Union, 1992 was a part of the full story of fishermen's  lives and work that needed to be told.  How can we best do that?

We came home with our heads full of ideas, but this trip strongly reinforced that there's one skill every interpretive planner should have--that of active listening.  More and more I've come to think that my job isn't to come with the ideas of how you should do it, but to work in the way that evidently Michelangelo (without meaning that comparison directly) did--which is to find the meaning within a museum, a collection, a community, a place, and to work to pare away the extraneous, to reveal that meaning.

And, by the way, I am a huge Newfoundland booster.  It is a beautiful, varied, fascinating place with a still-distinct culture.  Plan a visit!  To whet your appetite, some photos from my travels below.


Margaret said...

What an awesome opportunity! I lived in Newfoundland for 3 years; I've never been anywhere that has quite as much pride and investment in their unique history. The entire province feels like visiting a historic site. I learned a lot about the value of the shared Newfie experience, and listening to the traditional folklores and oral histories that help preserve it. Good luck with the project!

ginnymac said...

I would like to know from Margaret how being in the province of Newfoundland felt like "visiting a historic site." That is a positive simile I'm sure, yet I would love to hear you elaborate on specifics, because there could be such a fine line here...I suppose I'm a bit of a cynic, but I have strong feelings that many historic sites are pretty dreadful in their commodification of history. And I know you mean something different than I imagine! How does the place live in today, avoid the nostalgia and playing-to-the-tourists fake-ness, yet retain a glimpse of the past? If you can make a stab at an analysis (for lack of a better word!)this, I would very much appreciate it. Thank you!

Margaret said...

Hi ginnymac!

I get where you're coming from; I've been to my fair share of kitschy 'historic' sites, too. What I meant was that the heritage of the island (which is Newfoundland -- the province is Newfoundland and Labrador, not just Newfoundland) and its people is incredibly important, and that is reflected in the preservation of traditional lifeways and in vernacular architecture. The outports (like Port Union) all look very much like they did 75 years ago, during the height of the fishing industry. Distinctly Newfoundland practices that anywhere else may have faded into the recesses of memory are still observed and passed on in an active way. Perhaps I should have not used the phrase "historic site" to describe it. It is a celebration of history and heritage, not a "look at the way we used to live! Buy some cheesecloth and a Jacob's Ladder!" There isn't room for the fake-ness because there is an authentic preservation of traditions. Hope that helps explain it better.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Thanks so much for responding Margaret. Your thoughtful answer went a way to damp down my cynicism, and I really appreciate that. I live in a well preserved little town only 60 miles north of San Francisco, and though its population isn't as traditional as Newfoundland's, its infrastructure (setting and buildings) pretty much is. So I worry about things like "heritage tourism." I suppose Newfoundland's relative isolation is a reason the culture is still so unchanged. How interesting. I think in California no one even thinks about "traditional lifeways" because our history, from the gold rush on, has been so dynamic and fast. Newfoundland sounds very special.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks both of you! Newfoundland is unique, on lots of levels, because in the very small communities, the outports, reachable only by boat, some of them, for much of the 20th century, have maintained those traditions and many Newfoundlanders very much honor them--but of course, the internet and the wider world change things, inevitably. It's not the easiest place to get to, so tourism is still developing, but the provincial government, I believe, sees tourism as the future--so then seeing how heritage tourism plays out will be interesting--I've got a couple other blog posts from this visit, and more to come with future visits--so you've both given me more to ponder!