Outside cash helps tell a very local story

Tara Bradbury
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Rooms opens new exhibits tonight

When it comes to museum exhibits, telling the history and exploring the cultures of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians isn't always easy.                                                        For one, there's just so much to tell — from the first inhabitants to Confederation to oil and gas — and much of our cultural heritage is intangible, in the form of music and stories.

As well, there's much to respect, particularly when it comes to the traditions of the province's First Nations residents.

The Rooms has spent the past three years putting together two multi-faceted and elaborate exhibitions on the history and culture of this province's people, which it will reveal this weekend in two brand-new galleries.

Funding for both galleries was provided from sources outside the province, which cut funding to The Rooms in this year's budget. Husky Energy contributed $2.5 million, Elinor Gill Ratcliffe gave $1 million, Canadian Heritage provided $500,000 through its Museums Assistance Program, and BMO Bank of Montreal contributed $250,000.

Construction work began on the galleries, which take up 7,000 square feet of exhibition space, in the fall of 2010, and Ottawa-based Origin Studios won an international call for proposals for the concept design. Local consultations took place, with The Rooms asking people what they'd like to see in the exhibits.

In the case of the exhibit, "From This Place: Our Lives on Land and Sea," which is in the Husky Energy Gallery and tells the stories of the province's early settlers, each of the local aboriginal communities — Innu, Southern Inuit, Mi'kmaq, Inuit — appointed a guest curator, with the goal of displaying the communities to share their own perspectives.

"We decided we wanted to provide a different approach. Traditionally, the aboriginal stories are told separately from the European stories," explained museum director Anne Chafe. "We felt it was really important, and we worked with them with whatever they felt comfortable with."

Instead of taking a "silo" approach and appointing a designated space for each aboriginal community, they are all woven together under a set of themes.

Mobility looks at how the different cultures moved around; production explores how they produced food; contact looks at both the good side of mutual impact — like the sharing of skills and materials with European settlers — and the negative, like the Spanish flu epidemic that hit Makkovik in 1918; identity, spiritual, and place. Similarities and differences in the cultures are revealed.

The identity section features contributions from people all over the province, who were asked to share their most prized possession. The object is displayed, along with a large black and white portrait of the person holding or wearing the object. In the case of one 12-year-old boy who comes from a resettled family, his most special possession is a cod jigger; for Michel "Giant" Andrew of Sheshatshiu, who walked from his hometown to Natuashish two years ago raising diabetes awareness, it's a walking stick. For one female African immigrant, it's a headdress.

The spiritual section was quite difficult to curate when it came to the aboriginal communities, Chafe said.

"So much is not shared, because the experience is very individual, so it's a challenge to represent that in a museum exhibit. We can talk about the shamans and animal spirits, but we were not permitted by elders in the some cases to delve into what spirituality truly meant, because it's so personal."

It was a different case for Christian religions, for instance, Chafe said, which were enthusiastic and willing to share details.

The Elinor Gill Ratcliffe Gallery, the smaller of the two new spaces, features "Here, We Made a Home," exploring the traditions and stories of Newfoundland and Labrador's livyers. The exhibit is also divided into themes: dominion, looking at the early years of government; land, hearth (featuring some of the province's intangible cultural heritage, with the use of digital hubs for listening), world, looking at the province's key role in things in major world events; town, and outport.

"We put out a call in every newspaper across the province, asking people what they'd like to see (in the exhibit)," Chafe said. "We got 1,600 ideas. We looked at all those ideas and grouped them. We really wanted community participation."

The exhibit is semi-permanent, meaning it's there to stay but will be ever-changing. For one, The Rooms hopes to expand the sections representing other cultures coming to the province — for instance, there's currently a single case featuring the Chinese community. Explanation labels in the exhibits are not paper but digital, allowing limitless information and changes, Chafe said.

She hopes the two exhibits will have an impact on both local residents and tourists alike.

"For locals, we want them to walk in and say, 'I'm so proud to be from Newfoundland and Labrador.' We're also hoping it will spark memories," she said. "We want to encourage dialogue and spark storytelling.

"For visitors (to the province), we want them to walk away saying, ‘I get it. I get why Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are so unique, and why they are so connected to the province.’"

"From This Place: Our Lives on Land and Sea" opens with a public reception at The Rooms tonight at 7:30. "Here, We Made a Home" will open with a public reception Saturday night at the same time.


Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: The Rooms, Husky Energy, First Nations Canadian Heritage BMO Bank of Montreal Origin Studios

Geographic location: Ottawa, Newfoundland and Labrador, Makkovik

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