The past two weeks at the museum have been busy ones, and as December approaches, I expect things are going to get even busier. The biggest difference lately is that we have had a lot more special events happening. For example, this past week we had three different programs, two of which were brand new and were being tested out for the first time, plus a special event one evening.
The first of the programs that we ran this week was our newly-written-upon-request Young Alaska Highway program. For this program, we welcomed 30 homeschooled children who were about 6 or 7 years old, as well as a few of their parents, to learn about the construction of the Alaska Highway. For this program, Heather began by teaching them the ins and outs of the history, and then the kids got to make two crafts which they got to take home with them.
To prepare for the program, the week before myself and our volunteer Madison, sat in the kitchen with brown and white pipe cleaners, and a huge selection of googly eyes, and made up about 40 kits with all of the necessary materials, cut to the correct length, for the kids to make mosquitoes out of pipe cleaners. Mosquitoes played a very big (literally and figuratively to my understanding), and very obnoxious role in the construction of the Alaska Highway, tormenting the men in swarms at all hours of the day. In addition to putting together the kits, Madison and I each made one ourselves so that we knew how to put them together in order to help the kids make theirs, as well as to have some finished examples that we could show them.
Now, I consider myself to be extremely good with kids. I really love kids, and I’ve had quite a bit of experience in both my personal life and professional life working with them. I also have a special needs older brother, with whom I grew up playing a very big role in his care, so I don’t think it’s bragging too much to say that I’ve got skills. But trying to help 30 kids make crafts? Whole different ballgame, guys. At one point, one of the parents actually came up to me while I was helping one of the little girls and said, “I applaud you on your patience.” I don’t think anyone could have said anything more encouraging to me than that!
The next day we had a school group of Grade 3 students come in for our Wild Animals Program. This time, there was a presentation where they learned about the different types of animals in the region, including their Dane-zaa (the First Nations band in this region) name, as well as the scientific name, and the differences in the life cycle and development between babies and adults (aside from the fact that, as the kids repeatedly pointed out, the babies were consistently cuter).
In addition, this program involved a story, which I was given the privilege of reading to the group. It was a really nice story, with beautiful illustrations, called “Autumn Bear.” I was told by one of the little girls afterwards that she really liked my story, and she really liked my top, so that was very nice.
Then the kids had three different crafts and an activity. And this time, it was just Heather and I. Oh boy. This craft was much more difficult, because the one that I was in charge of (helping the kids make moose antler headbands) involved me, three semi-functioning staplers, and about 8 kids at a time, who all needed help to make sure that the headband got stapled together on one end, measured to fit their head, and then stapled together on the other end. With some groups, this was no problem: some had a few more parent volunteers which helped me out a lot, and the kids were finished different steps at different times, meaning that I could stagger helping each of them. Then there was the group where it was just me, and every single kid seemed to finish each step at exactly the same time, and of course, all wanted help with their headbands at, you guessed it: exactly the same time. For anyone who works with large groups of kids like this on a daily basis, I applaud you. I was exhausted.
Round three. In theory, this group should have been the easiest. It was another group of homeschoolers, but slightly older than the first, who came in to learn about the fur trade. This program was also newly-written, and involved a slightly longer presentation, and then an activity and wrap-up. Heather asked me to give about a third of the presentation, because she had of course been doing a lot of talking over the past two days, and wasn’t sure if her voice would hold out. I don’t love giving presentations or public speaking, but it’s definitely something I’m no stranger to, and I was eager to help out. All I had to do was read the information off the sheet. No problem. Until about half an hour before the kids were scheduled to show up and I suddenly found myself a bundle of nerves, anxious about the harsh judgment of children.
I did, in fact, survive, and while I’m not sure that the kids were totally interested in what I had to tell them about the fur trade, I am sure that I did a good job in telling them about it, whether or not they wanted to hear it. For the activity, the kids were divided into four different groups, two fur traders, and two First Nations, each with a stack of cards indicating the goods they had, and a list of the goods they needed to acquire to win the game. In their groups they had to barter and trade to gain these possessions. All I had to do was supervise and make sure they didn’t try to do any back-alley deals without the rest of their group members (as it turns out, this was easier said than done!)
While I had a ton of fun this week working with these different programs, and changing up my normal day to the extreme, the highlight of my week came the evening of the 25th. This was our documentary night, and event which the museum hosts about three times a year. This one was featuring a compilation of film footage taken by Rudy Schubert (the same Rudy Schubert who’s negatives I am cataloging and going to be writing an exhibit on) of Fort St John and the surrounding region at various events throughout the 50s and 60s, including rodeos, and a special visit from Princess Margaret.
I was able to watch this footage earlier in the week, as we previewed it while we set up the room for all of our different events this week. Watching it on the actual night, however, was a totally different experience than what I had been prepared for. That night, I counted 98 people in total who showed up to watch the film. Larry Evans, one of our local historians and basically the guy that everyone knows because he’s on every committee in town that exists, hosted; providing commentary and pointing out different people and points of interest, and explaining each scene as the silent footage played.
What happened during the course of this was a public historian’s dream. As people watched the film, occasionally you would hear someone shout, “Oh, that’s my mom!” or “Hey, isn’t that so-and-so’s dad?” or “Hey look! It’s George Pickle!” Larry participated in this as well, often saying, “Now, I don’t know who that person is, does anybody know?” In any other crowd, in any other place where the community was not so tightly-knit, I suspect that people would not have felt as comfortable to simply shout out something or someone that they recognized. I was having so much more fun, and enjoying the footage so much more being able to watch it with such instant audience reaction, including their taking joy and humor in some of the mishaps of the rodeos, than I did simply watching the footage on its own with my coworkers.
It occurred to me in the car ride home, however, that this was more than simply getting swept up in the group dynamics and laughing when others laughed. This was so striking to me because it was a rare instance in which, not only was the audience watching the archive while being the archive themselves, but even more rare; the document, the historian, and the audience were all speaking to each other in a mutually collaborative conversation, and not a one-sided narrative, as often occurs in historical writing and research.
A full day later, and my mind still keeps wandering back to this realization. Ever since I began to learn about what it means to be a public historian and to practice public history, I have wanted to achieve this kind of interaction in my future work. I want to do work that is accurate and historically-sound, but work that is also accessible to as many people as possible, and that people can actually engage with in a real way that is meaningful to them. Now that I have been a witness and participant in an event which achieved this very thing, I want to continue doing work that makes me feel the way I did and still do reflecting on what I saw.
The next couple of posts should be increasingly more festive, as we begin decorating the museum and setting up for our holiday events. Until then, continue to feel free to share this post, or comment and continue the conversation.