Monday, November 11, 2013

Museums and Remembrance Day - 2013 Edition

Walter's Attestation
Papers from Library &
Archives Canada
Lately there's been a lot of talk about war. Not because of where Canadian soldiers are currently serving, but because of the looming centenary of the Great War - World War I. Museums are in exhibit & program planning mode, digging through collections for interesting local stories to share with the public. At least once a week I have a conversation with a museum about their work; an interesting discovery, an update on the digitization progress, or questions about funding applications for their proposed commemorative project. So as the centenary of the Great War looms closer and closer, I've been thinking a lot about how quickly it has slipped from recent memory.

When I was young, discussions about war always meant talking about grandparents - whose grandfather served where and in which branch of the services. So when Remembrance Day rolled around, it was a time to be proud of our grandfathers as they visited the school wearing their medals earned during WWII. Standing next to them gave us such pride, even though we were too young to really understand their sacrifice.

I can share many stories about my family's contribution to the war efforts of 70 years ago, but WWI is a lot more difficult. How did that information fall to the wayside? Is 100 years really so long? So difficult to recall?

I love to visit my grandmother's cousin Hilda. She's now 92 years old but her mind is still as sharp as a tack. Her father served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces during the Great War and was wounded at Vimy Ridge. He spent the rest of his life walking with the aid of two canes. I never met Walter, nor have I prodded Hilda for information that he may have shared about his war-time experiences. From what I have heard, he was a very quiet man and didn't have a lot to say on the subject. But I can't help but wonder at how his life was changed. He left rural Annapolis County a healthy young bachelor farmer, and returned home a permanently wounded man.

Listening to Hilda's stories about years gone by always involves a bit of detective work - she'll tell you a grand tale but never what year it happened, and sometimes she won't even name names. That's not a lot of information to go on. And she's 92 years old. The daughter of a WWI veteran is 92! And while I know she has some scrapbooks that surely document the Great War, the stories have not been passed down to the same extent as those of WWII. Besides, she says no one would be interested in such drivel.

The responsibility of museums to revive these lives and tales of a century ago is daunting. The realization that we've lost so much first and second-hand knowledge; terrifying. Our job is to connect people with the past - to facilitate dialogue and enable people to make meaning of objects and other material remains. Without the personal stories associated with the objects, it is far more difficult for people to connect with and appreciate this heritage. Unless we can personalize the material evidence, a division photo is just a bunch of guys in uniform, the uniforms are just some old clothes, and badges are just cloth patches. So as we continue to prepare for the upcoming centenary, I hope that we are able to uncover some of these lost lives and stories. I hope that we can prove dear Hilda wrong - that people are interested and do care about the great sacrifice paid by her father and his many compatriots.

No comments: