By Kara Suderman, Curatorial Assistant
Over the past few months, the curatorial department has been busy getting ready for the new temporary exhibit, “Mennonites at War”. Since starting at Mennonite Heritage Village last May, this is my first time working with an exhibit from start to finish. I got a small taste of it last spring, as we set up for “MCC 100 Years,” our 2020 exhibit commemorating the hundredth anniversary of Mennonite Central Committee. This year, I am excited to be part of the process from the beginning.
The biggest challenge for me so far has been switching my mindset from being a university student to writing for an exhibit. Writing essays in university, I slowly learned how to meet the minimum word count without using too many “filler” words. In writing text for exhibit panels, on the other hand, we need to convey the most important information in the fewest number of words possible, all the while still making it engaging for visitors. Last year at this time, I was preparing to write my longest essay to-date, which ended up being over 7,000 words. I worried I could never research and write enough to meet the requirements of that assignment. Now, I look back and think how easy it was to have all those words at my disposal, compared to the minuscule word count we need to stick to in writing for the exhibit.
Besides research, one of the biggest projects I have worked on for the exhibit has been cataloguing. I recently finished cataloguing a large donation of items that belonged to Dietrich Klassen, who served in the Canadian military in the Second World War. The items include medals, photos, a military-issued sewing kit, and a document listing all the places Dietrich was stationed during the war. Many of the items were small and when I first saw all the items laid out on the table, each one waiting to be catalogued individually, I worried it would take months to finish, especially since I have been working from home most of the time, with limited time at the museum. Like most things, however, the task was finished with a bit of perseverance.
While it can be tedious, cataloguing personal items like these are the ones I find the most fascinating because they tell a very personal story. Someone carefully threading the needle to sew a new button onto their coat, or the putting on a tiny pin that displays their regiment, are the small acts of history that are often ignored. These are the very actions that I can see and that help humanize the larger story. These kinds of artefacts give us a glimpse into someone’s everyday life, and through that, often make history more accessible to us. For me, it is the small details like these items belonging to Dietrich Klassen that make history come alive.
My favourite part in putting this exhibit together, however, is how much I have learned about Mennonites and the different ways they reacted in times of war and conflict. It has given me the opportunity to dig deeper and learn about the circumstances in which people lived that influenced the choices they made.
Each week, as we have worked on the exhibit, I have become more and more excited about it. I am looking forward to sharing our work on this exhibit with the museum’s visitors later this spring.
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Photo Caption: Dietrich Klassen received The France and Germany Star (accession no. 2020.26.13) for serving in France, Belgium, Holland, or Germany between June 6, 1944 and May 8, 1945.