Village News (January 31, 2019)
By Andrea Dyck
My Favourite Things
Think of your favourite things. Excluding people or places, like your favourite café or park, think about the objects that fill the spaces in which you live and make a list of your top ten. What things came to mind? Why did you choose them?
I did this exercise myself recently, and it pushed me to consider again the importance of materiality in our lives. The stories connected to the objects on my top ten list recall the people I love and who love me. They prompted me to think of the things I know that are true and reminded me of what I’ve learned and where I’ve come from. The value in these things is not their monetary value or even, in many cases, any inherent beauty they may have. Their value for me is in these back stories, the things that provide a tangible connection to my own history.
In my list of favourite things, for example, are my bicycles, one for summer and one for winter. They aren’t the fanciest bikes, and in fact my winter bike is old, not very attractive, and not worth much. My bikes made my list because of what they have come to represent for me. I started cycling during a season of chronic migraines and pain that, for me, has been part of dealing with post-concussion syndrome over the last number of years, and I started winter cycling in a year when this pain was at its worst. In this context, my winter bike has come to symbolize thankfulness, faith, strength, resilience, adventure, and the quieter, bass-note kind of joy that I started to learn about through a difficult circumstance. My summer bicycle, on the other hand, represents something much different and lighter: an uncontainable, childish joy from the fun of going as fast as I can and beating my time and the playfulness of getting soaked cycling through a mud puddle in spring.
This materiality of life is something we all experience to some degree in our personal lives, but when I walked into work the day after I made my list, I thought about our museum’s collection in a new way too. This, in part, is why museums do what we do! Unfortunately, some artefacts have arrived here without a clear history. For example, the velocipede on display in the main gallery is certainly unique in our collection and fascinating in what it conveys about leisure activities or transportation in the early 1900s, but we know next to nothing about its specific history.
For the most part, however, our museum’s artefact collection is comprised of objects that were treasured by the people who donated them, and by the donor’s ancestors in many cases. They are objects that carried enough inherent significance that their owners thought it worthwhile to keep them. Over time, they became heirlooms by virtue of the meaning they contained and the symbolism bestowed on them by their owners.
For example, one of the last additions to the artefact collection in 2018 was a beautiful piano constructed of burled walnut, built by Erich Brandes in Berlin (ca. 1899). This piano was purchased from the German consul in Winnipeg in the early 1930s by Henry (Heinrich) Dyck for his sister Elisabeth (Dyck) Peters, not long after their 1925 arrival in Canada.
The siblings had lived through the horrors that attended life for many Mennonites in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution, including the murder of their father. He was a schoolteacher, killed by anarchists while trying to obtain food for his family. Once in Canada, Elisabeth worked as a domestic in Winnipeg from the age of fourteen, and her brother took on a number of “blue-collar” jobs. Both eventually worked at getting an education and became teachers, ultimately university professors. The donor reported that the gift from Henry (the donor’s uncle) to Elisabeth (the donor’s mother), made so soon after their arrival in Canada, was made at an enormous sacrifice.
The physical materiality of this beautiful piano contains all of this history. And there is much more yet that we aren’t privy to, because the piano was later passed from Elisabeth to her daughter and then occupied a prized place in the donor’s home for many more years before the decision was made to donate it to Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV). When the piano arrived at our museum and was settled into its new home in our collections storage room, I snapped a photo of it and sent it to the donor. Her response to my email has stayed with me. She thanked me for sending the photo and then shared that even though she was thankful the piano had a new home, it had still been a “wrench” for her to see it go.
MHV’s collection contains over 16,000 artefacts. Consider all the stories that these objects represent and then all the histories of the people in whose lives they played a part. As a curator, I have the opportunity of handling these artefacts – from the very smallest stored in our collections storage room, to our very largest heritage buildings in the village – and hearing their stories. This is a privilege for me and something I don’t take lightly, but when I considered my favourite things and what they symbolized in my life, it struck me anew what it means when people donate their objects to MHV and entrust us with their histories, all for the good of the community.
I now offer you this challenge: Think back to that list of your favourite things and consider the secret life of the objects around you. I dare you to try doing this without smiling, as you think over the richness that these everyday things bring to our lives and how they connect us to our past. Then come visit the galleries at our museum and contemplate all the histories embedded in plain sight throughout the exhibits and what it means to belong to a community of people who are willing to share their stories with one another in this generous way.
Calendar of Events
February 3, Vespers Service – 7:00 PM
February 7, Second Annual Author Reading Event – 7:00 PM
February 15, Teen Gala – Western Night – 7:00 PM
February 16, MHV Winter Carnival – 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM