Tuesday, September 1, 2015

What did I Find at New Founde Lande?

I'd been meaning to write a post about my experience at the New Founde Lande pageant in Trinity, Newfoundland and had been pondering how to approach.  Rebecca Harz's recent post, Should Exhibits Tell Stories? made me think more deeply about questions that continue to interest her--and me--those questions about the intersection of museums, stories, and emotions.   Can we combine them?  Should we?  Does it hurt or help critical thinking?

So, on to the pageant.  For more than two decades, the Rising Tide Theater has produced this outdoor historical pageant in the gorgeous village of Trinity on the Bonavista Peninsula.  It tells the story from the earliest settlement to the first Newfoundland election in 1832.  We bought our tickets and perched on a slope on a beautiful sunny day, with perhaps one hundred other visitors--unsure about what, exactly, would happen.

What followed was a combination walking tour, theater experience and history lesson.  A small group of actors, in story and song, shared a chronological, and deeply personal look at Trinity's history--but we didn't learn that history in a school room or a theater, but outside, walking from place to place in the village.  We stood on the shoreline and learned about salting cod and women's work; we entered the church, still in use, to commemorate the loss of fishermen, we saw those same fishermen and their families denied credit by the fish merchants.  Some of the vignettes were moving, some were funny (and some just weren't funny to me, but perhaps to others).  You did pay better attention to the loose story; and the moving from place to place meant that you never got bored, knowing that something new was coming.  And it gave a chance to see the town in a different way; to people the town with these historical characters.  There's no question there were some deeply emotional moments, in both story and song, during the performance.  I'll long remember the performance's end, as the cast (and much of the audience) sang Ode to Newfoundland together.

But what about that history?  A few days after the performance, I had dinner with Newfoundland friends who thought they had probably seen the pageant five years ago and were curious if it had changed.  I shared what I remembered, and Bill said, "you know, you actually learned alot of Newfoundland history!"  Did I learn the intricacies and complications of history?  Probably not.  Did I come away with emotions and a feeling of narrative and actions?  Yes, definitely.  Did it make me a critical thinker?  I came ready to be a critical thinker, so it did spur me to learn more.  Did it spur others to be critical thinkers?  Hard to say, which is where I circle back to Rebecca's questions --  I think it's all about our goals for any particular historical project whether it be in a museum or along the shore in Newfoundland.  Our goal might be to create a strong emotional connection or it might be to develop critical thinkers.  I think there's room (as I suspect Rebecca does) for both in our work.


Katie, Museums Askew said...

A coworker and I once used this pageant, along with a gorgeous, scrapbook-y website about a Canadian town (that I shamefully can't remember the name of now) as examples of ways to evoke emotion and encourage connection between visitors and place. What we loved about both examples was how good they were at making the people who participated feel emotional about objects and landscapes.

I suspect we were grappling with similar issues about the roles of stories and emotions, although I'm not sure we would have articulated them as such at the time. But we were definitely experimenting and seeing if and how we could engender emotion in places where you might not expect it. Specifically, could we get people to feel emotionally connected to our area's paleohistory?

I'm now with a museum that's just beginning to move away from a "just the facts" approach to interpretation and programs, and it's interesting to see my colleagues embrace or push back against different approaches to storytelling and creating emotional spaces/moments.

Linda Norris said...

Katie, how interesting you'd come across this too! Newfoundland is a place where the attachment to landscape is so strong, but what's interesting about Trinity and the pageant now is that some Newfoundlanders describe it as only for people from away--so it's sharing this emotional attachment that manifests itself differently, I think, for locals and those of us from away. But sounds like you have a great new project--very fun to think about what's next in a place that's undergoing change. Good luck!

Katie, Museums Askew said...

I think this will be a driving question for museums and the like in the future - how to you encourage emotion about local stories to non-local visitors? Even ten years ago when I was in grad school, the approach always seemed to be, "show how the local is global." And that absolutely has its place. But I feel like I'm starting to see a trend where places are choosing to tell the stories that matter the most to them, even if it's not so easy to extrapolate outwards to a larger narrative.