Friday, November 11, 2016

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2016 Edition

from Wikipedia Commons
This Remembrance Day I'd like to talk about a classic - Lt. Col. John McCrae's poem "In Flanders Fields". And I want to talk about authenticity, depth, and understanding.

I think that over the years we have lost the power of this poem as it was written. Schoolchildren have memorized it en masse and recited it in a choir of robotic voices at assemblies; a recitation method that has become so accepted it was even used in the Heritage Minute about McCrae. If this rings a bell and your experience was anything like mine, you were told that "In Flanders Fields" was written by a Canadian military doctor who died near the end of the war, and very little else. This is of course only part of the story. It is a very basic understanding of both poetry and history.

I had a wonderful high school teacher who taught us to read the poem as it was written; to embrace the punctuation and pauses. The result was eye-opening. We all thought we knew the poem already, but it turned out we didn't. We thought it was okay to just rattle it off without taking a breath until absolutely necessary, to not think about the words we were saying or the places and circumstances they represented.

So let's add some context to this poem shall we?
This, is the unassuming bunker where McCrae worked during the Second Battle of Ypres. This, is the confined space that was filled with the smell of burned, broken flesh. This, is the cold, stark reality he faced day in and day out. Imagine the sights, the smells, and the sounds. If you take care to read the poem the way McCrae intended, they will overwhelm you as they surge from between the lines, desperate for attention.

If you visit Essex Farm and the John McCrae Memorial you are in essence visiting an outdoor museum. You can walk into the dank, dark rooms that served as surgeries, where visitors often leave Canadian flags and poppies and little wooden crosses with handwritten messages. You can walk through the farm's fields that are now a sprawling cemetery and read the names and military units. You can also see the many unnamed Soldier[s] of the Great War and the respect they have been shown by visitors.

And yet just around the corner from all this concrete and stone is a beautiful, agricultural area, cozied up to a canal - the fields that McCrae wrote about. The poppies between the rows are now carefully manicured rose bushes, and the crosses are etched onto the gravestones rather than being the marker themselves. But you can still watch and listen as birds fly overheard and flit from tree to tree. When you see this first-hand, McCrae's poem gains a new dimension.

Museums are the caretakers of our history. Our collections are filled with both tangible and intangible information, which when read properly can speak volumes. But many times the authenticity and depth of this material and intangible culture has become clouded over time; the power has been lost. Significant stories and artifacts are hiding in plain sight, on display or in storage, their full potential not being realized. It is easy for both museum workers and visitors to walk by the familiar information because 'we know it already' or 'we've heard it before'. This makes it far more difficult to take the time to pause or to look at that familiar information from a different angle.

As the caretakers of our history, it is [literally] our job to help people move from that basic understanding to a place where they can pause and breathe in the depth of information. We need to turn those empty rooms into places where homage can be paid, where grief and tribute can be expressed, and where appreciation of the sacrifices of those that came before us can be cultivated.

In a week that has highlighted the divisiveness and fear that grips our world, let's try to be more authentic in our sharing of information and promotion of understanding and depth of issues, past and present. Let's be the poetic, punctuated voice that educates and truly serves the public, encouraging people to dig deeper and challenge their understanding, rather than just sharing our history without stepping back to pause or take breaths.

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