Monday, November 11, 2019

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2019 Edition

Allie & Shari.
Allie fell asleep mid-play
Last week I attended the funeral of a dear friend. When lives are cut short, especially when the person is on the younger end of the spectrum, conversations inevitably include musings on the person's hopes and dreams, what they accomplished in their short life, and how much more they could have done if they had been given the opportunity.

Tributes and reminiscences at my friend's funeral revealed common threads; a strong faith, a love of reading, a passion for music, a desire for community (especially if it involved food), an eye and voice for social justice, a knack for jokes and being silly, a talent for seeing the uniqueness in children and nurturing their individuality, and the ability to fall asleep on anyone's couch at any time.

My friend started not one, but two literacy programs, learned to play many instruments and even resorted to building her own 15th century instrument that none of us had ever heard of when she felt she needed a bigger challenge. She was energized by learning, volunteered widely, and loved to help people. She traveled and was part of musicals and festivals and lived her life unapologetically and to the fullest.

I left this funeral feeling a mixture of inspiration and regret. Listening to the tributes and accomplishments of my friend was impressive to say the least. Her legacy is far flung, it is varied, and she will be remembered and missed for a very long time. People who never met her are benefiting from what she did. I wish we had visited more often, especially after she fell ill. I wish my daughter could have had more time with our friend, as she is too young to hold on to the memories of their time together. I was really looking forward to their days of music lessons. I miss her and I miss what could have been.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium
I wish we had more time. How often do we express that sentiment? As I mused over this time of year and everything that comes with Remembrance Day, I was suddenly hit by the grand scope and scale of this loss, of times of war and conflict when funerals and memorial services and mourning were so widespread and such a common occurrence. What would a world be like where my singular grief was magnified hundreds and thousands of times. What would a world be like when so many people would be mourning for so many other people at the same time.

As I pondered all of this, the word legacy came to mind again and again. We often hear of the collective legacy of our veterans; of the rights and freedoms we are guaranteed because of their service. More and more we are hearing personal stories, as we collectively realize that time is running short for some of them to be shared in veterans' own words. As museums, if our mission is to honour and celebrate our community's past, then we must be doing this in a personal way, at the individual level. Unfortunately, even though we are engaging in oral history and other projects to capture these personal stories, they don't always get linked to databases or websites or other standard resources. They are separate, and can be lost or left behind on shelves or in files.

In an age when distractions are rampant and information is often twisted or made up, pursuing the truth and sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of human experiences is a noble task for museums. We can and should be bearing witness to personal stories and lives lived, but this information has to be integrated into our sharing tools (databases and websites) in a more permanent way for this information to be disseminated and make an impact. In contemplating Remembrance Day, we should investigate and honour the legacy of our veterans, following as many threads as we can find.

Uncle Grenville and his fiancee
If we follow these threads, the information revealed provides opportunities for celebrating the men and women who served. How did they overcome hardships and endure terrible experiences? How did they care for and protect and save their friends with whom they were serving? How did they maintain their senses of humour when there wasn't much to laugh about? For those that didn't come home, what were they studying or pursuing as careers before they were called to serve? What happened to the fiancées whose wedding plans had to be cancelled? How did people adjust to life after conflict? What kind of mental and physical and emotional scars were left from such experiences? Did they maintain war-time friendships throughout their lives, participate in reunions, write letters to each other, or did they prefer to move on from that chapter and focus on a peaceful civilian life? How did people's experiences during times of war and conflict change them? What lessons did they want to impart on the next generation? What impact did people have on their communities, what memories and marks have they left behind? Can they still be seen and felt today?
Following these threads of questions and information will enable us to weave richer collections records and demonstrate legacies in our communities; to reveal connections that aren't obvious.

The questions and stories are seemingly endless. But what better way to honour people than to document and share their far flung and varied legacies. In doing so, we will remember them for a very long time to come.

Grandpa and his buddies, Burma 1945

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