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.