Village News (October 5, 2017)
By Andrea Dyck
To mark Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, the theme at Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) for 2017 is “Storied Places.” Our exhibit on this theme explores the reciprocal relationship between people and their ‘place.’ We look specifically at Mennonites in Manitoba and ask: what is the meaning that people give to place, and equally, that place gives to us as people? We do this by focusing on four topics, “Space,” “Place,” “Neglect,” and “Memory,” each of which follow the progression of the relationship Mennonites developed with their place in Manitoba from 1874 to the present.
MHV’s mission is to preserve and interpret the history of Russian-descendant Mennonites in Manitoba. While we stay true to our mission by focusing on the history of this specific ethno-religious group, we are also very mindful of being relevant to our increasingly diverse constituency. Our exhibit, therefore, focuses on Mennonite history but very consciously uses it as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion in our community about what our relationship to our local place really is. This exhibit is certainly about people coming away with a better understanding of the history of Mennonites in Manitoba, but our main goal was to engage people in how they think and feel about their own lives; to invite them to reflect on the points at which this history of Mennonites in Manitoba can intersect with their own lives, whether they are Mennonite or not.
To this end, each portion of the exhibit uses a key question to engage visitors, not only to learn about Mennonite history, but also to encourage them to think afresh about their own lives. In the portion of the exhibit entitled “Space,” for example, we ask: “How do you feel the first time you visit a new place?” In “Place,” we question: “What makes you feel at home in a new place?” The topic “Neglect” invites visitors to reflect on what places used to be important to them, but aren’t anymore.
The exhibit ends with the topic “Memory,” in which we look at the ways in which the Mennonite community in Manitoba has sought to remember its past in the latter half of the twentieth century. We recognize that in studying history it is important to know some of the key dates and decisions that were made, but a larger portion of history is studying how people lived, what they thought about their lives, and how they interpreted their world. So in this portion of the exhibit, we invite our guests to share some of their own stories, asking: “What stories can you tell about your home?”
This final question is the essence of the exhibit, as we’ve sought to understand how Mennonites viewed their place (and their past) and to encourage our guests to think about these same things in their own lives. As visitors exit the Gerhard Ens Gallery, we invite them to contribute to the exhibit by helping us build a “Storied Map of Steinbach.” While our constituency branches out far wider than just the city, our focus on local place in this exhibit also highlights the fact that we are members of the specific, local community in Steinbach as well. We ask our visitors to share their stories of specific places in Steinbach that have meaning for them. Visitors fill out a postcard, place it on a ledge in the exhibit, and then I “pin” those postcards to a map of Steinbach. The result is a map of the city filled with points of meaning and the stories behind why people feel this way.
While we often ask visitors to participate in our exhibits, this year’s response has been far and above the best in recent memory. People young and old, those who are new to Steinbach or who have called it home for generations, all have stories to share. Some of my favourites include:
- “My home – I always described the street to friends as ‘the one with the churches on both ends.’”
- “Jake Epp Library – where I first made ‘friends’ in book when I moved to Steinbach.”
- “I got my ear medicine hear [sic]” (I choose to believe the pun was intended by this young visitor!)
- “Before my wife and I were married, we parked on Keating Road to admire the stars! When it was time to go, my car wouldn’t start. We had to walk all the way to Sherwood Place, where her parents lived, to pick up their car to boost mine. A long and embarrassing ‘after midnight’ walk.”
To find out more about the “storied places” of Steinbach, as told by fellow Steinbachers, you’ll have to visit the “Storied Places” yourself and fill out a postcard of your own. For those who connect with us on Facebook, you can also submit a place and story of your own on our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MHVSteinbach) as well.