Our Stuff and Our Stories

History Town 13 (Hysterical Accuracy) by vanstralen

A few weeks ago I wrote about the ethics of museum interpretation, and it seemed to strike a chord or two.  I fielded some fascinating questions and engaged in some important conversations as a result of that topic, and I wanted to offer a follow up to expand upon my thoughts on the significance of what we say inside the walls and boundaries of museums.

I must admit to being evangelical when it comes to museum interpretation.  I believe museums are the sacred keepers of “our stuff and our stories.”  If our stuff is the body of a museum, our stories are its soul.  As a museum-based theatre artist, my medium is the interpretation of stories that morph simple objects and historical places into representations of our society.  Through my work, I have come to understand the awesome power of a good story.  I am fascinated by their evolution; how they change as our need for them alters.

Stories start and stop wars. They teach us, persuade us, entertain us, galvanize us, divide us, and explain us.  In a museum, stories define how this place and this stuff matters.  As an interpreter at Barkerville I feel a great responsibility to tell tales that infuse the site and its collections with historical significance and communal meaning.

Like many colonial-era sites around the world, Barkerville seems to have followed a pattern in its storytelling trajectory.  During its earliest days as a museum Barkerville was engaged in what I call “Chapter One” of historical interpretation.  Chapter One is my way of describing the phase wherein a place gets down to the business of establishing its role in the foundation of a community.  Colonial-era historic sites tend to begin by using storytelling as a means of conveying that a particular place is special, that it was built by heroic individuals, and that without this place, the community would not be what it has become.  Chapter One celebrates and establishes.

Barkerville eventually moved into “Chapter Two” of its interpretive narrative, wherein a site expands its scope to look beyond its celebratory founding mythology.  In Chapter Two other, often grittier, sides of the story emerge.  Over time Barkerville began to examine the endemic racism of its Chinese history, the less favourable environmental aspects of its mining industry, and to some basic human injustices that were part of everyday colonial life.  Right now in Barkerville we are still experiencing Chapter Two.  We haven’t stopped celebrating our founding history but we have strengthened it by looking at it with more critical eyes.  Chapter Two questions and reinterprets.

What does it mean to be a British Columbian right now?  We look to our past to understand our present, but in order to make the most of interpreting our story shouldn’t we be willing to constantly question, refine and redefine the very idea of ourselves?  To be able to say that we are no longer us and them, that we are now a collective we?

Since I am admittedly evangelical, I dare to suggest that someday there will be a “Chapter Three.”  I believe Chapter Three is when we will go even deeper, using museums as the catalyst for helping us grapple with questions like “who are we right now?” and “how did all of the circumstances of our past get us here?”  Chapter Three re-examines who we think we are.  In Chapter Three we will resist compartmentalizing our story into what happened to the European settlers, what happened to the Chinese immigrants, what happened to the First Nations.  Instead we will begin to say “what happened to us?”

– Danette Boucher

The above one-panel cartoon by Dirk Van Stralen, with accompanying editorial by Danette Boucher, is the thirteenth of twenty weekly entries that will be logged – and subsequently blogged – as part of a 2013 collaboration between Barkerville, British Columbia and the Prince George Citizen aimed at introducing some of the quirkier advantages to living, working, and playing in the Cariboo Goldfields. We hope you enjoy!