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Rural museums keep history alive

It’s not only the collections they hold but the stories they tell that are preserved

Almost every town has one — sometimes standing alone on the Prairies. In train stations without tracks and fading catalogue homes the treasures lie, but it isn’t just the museums themselves, it’s the tales of another time in that specific place.

“Objects are seldom important in and of themselves. Rather, they are like props in a play in that they are used to tell a story which is what the audience relates to and looks for,” said Wendy Fitch, executive director, Museums Association of Saskatchewan.

There are objects that are seen over and over again in rural museums and items unique to a region. Family heirlooms are displayed beside tools and there are often items that are hard to identify, probably invented to fill a specific need, built by a creative community member.

Karen Grenier is the manager of the Hudson Bay Museum. She advocates for the value of museums. “I believe there are three really important things we offer our community. First is keeping our stories alive. We need to tell them often and well. Second we need to interact with our community and allow people to participate in activities from the past. And finally we need to provide a place for dialogue. This may be between different generations, cultures, or just between individuals with different thoughts. In these ways we keep our communities rooted and allow them to learn from the past,” she said.

Grenier said the challenge is to reinvent themselves in order to thrive. “The younger generation must become invested. Programming must be developed to engage the tough-sell audience of 15 to 25. We are using social media, looking at programs that tie into school outcomes for older grades, hosting things like old-time ice-cream-making activities, and considering theme nights like ‘Escape the Museum,’ or, ‘a haunted house,’” she said.

The Hudson Bay Museum pays tribute to the agricultural history of the region with small hand tools, livestock supplies, as well as photographs and paintings. “In my tours I speak about the old household chores, medical inventions, beauty aids, and school days. I try to view the tours as story starters and once the visitors are engaged, the stories just spill out. It can be memories of a grandparent heating water, a disastrous trip to a barber, or an early-morning call to a switchboard about a murder. Sometimes I feel like the most privileged person on the planet to just listen as they share,” said Grenier.

“We have a 1912 X-ray machine. I absolutely love talking about those weird and wacky days of early medicine. The guests are visibly horrified by the idea of using an X-ray machine as a depilatory for hair removal. Shocking right?” she said.

A tour of the museum on the edge of Spiritwood this summer displayed a large collection of various items from the past, and the student who led the tour was excited to share their stories.

So don’t just drive by these historical stops at the side of the road — you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the treasures they hold.

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