I recently had the opportunity to attend the Gigidoowag Ziibiik (Rivers Speak) Community Play. This fantastic project was the culminating event of Thinking Rock Community Arts‘ efforts to engage community members in story telling and art making. Since 2013 Thinking Rock has involved over 1500 individuals in hands-on making and storytelling with an emphasis on reflecting on local rivers and waterways. This initiative also worked to create spaces for cross-cultural conversations and involve both Indigenous and settler communities.
The Rivers Speak play included over 30 cast members of all ages and was held on the traditional pow wow grounds of Misswezhaging (Mississaugi First Nation). This community art project was a joy to see come to fruition. The play was based on the stories, oral histories, and memories collected by Thinking Rock since 2013.
The play intertwined settler and Indigenous perspectives on water, community, and family — it followed Marie (settler) and Ira (Indigenous) community members who lived locally but passed away within recent years. The play was guided by two local elders and the narration was a mixture of English and Ojibway. It also included audience participation components – for example the audience walked through an outdoor living stage and were invited to participate in a round dance at the end of the play.
It was an extremely powerful experience to participate in as an audience member and it was beautiful to see such a nuanced story come together based on community narratives and memories. The work undertaken by Thinking Rock is a great example of community engaged history, community arts and participatory story building. I’m looking forward to seeing what projects Thinking Rock tackles in the future.
The idea of experiential learning (the process of learning through doing) is being heavily promoted in education systems right now. Hands on activities, active involvement in learning exercises, and anything other than listening to people talk are all types of experiential learning.
Living history sites are excellent examples of heritage organizations which utilize experiential learning. Visitors to living history sites are often engaged in what life was like at a certain time period. This might include learning a period dance, learning a song, baking bread the ‘old-fashioned way’, helping harvest a heritage garden, spinning wool, or numerous other activities. Living history sites are designed to immerse people in the past and often do so through experiential learning.
How can (and do) heritage organizations other than living history sites engage visitors in types of experiential learning? Art institutions often provide classes which introduce visitors to a particular art form – be it pottery, drawing, or painting. An example of this is the Whitney Museum of American Art‘s drop in drawing class, which situates participants in a gallery and provides drawing instruction.
An increasing number of museums are also offering experiential learning based educational programs. At times these programs take on a feel of a living history and allow visitors to learn a historical skill or participate in a period celebration (eg. Christmas in the 1800s). Museums also utilize educational reproductions to allow hands on experience with collection material. The Norwegian-American Museum‘s curator for a day program is an example of a museum program which fully dedicates itself to experiential learning.
Some archives have also moved to providing a more experiential based outreach programs for schools. These programs often focus on introducing students to the value of historical photographs and documents. For example, students can be sent on a source ‘scavenger hunt’ where they search through reproductions of newspaper clippings, photographs, and other material to find particular information.
Do you have memories of a particularly good (or bad) experiential learning program at a heritage site?
This morning CBC played a documentary entitled, “Small Time Stories: From the Tale of a Town – Queen Street West.” The radio documentary was based on the work done to compile the multimedia interactive play Tale of a Town that focuses on the history of the Queen Street West neighbourhood in Toronto. The radio production provided an interesting look into some of Queen Street West’s more prominent buildings and past residents.
The premise behind the production is very similar to a historical walking tour. The show takes the audience on a promenade-style tour of Queen West by a fictional condo developer, which allows theater to be intermingled with built history and local memories of the area.
The idea of incorporating theater into history isn’t anything new – reenactments and many living history sites have been doing this for years. However, Tale of a Town attempts to combine theater, oral history, built heritage, local history, and music. I’m interested to know if similar productions have been undertaken in other cities or venues.
Last week I attended the Bruce Mines “Holy Walk.” The idea behind the event is to tell a non-denominational version of the Christian Christmas story in an interactive way. Participants are taken on a walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem and experience the sights and sounds of the era during the walk.
The Holy Walk has been going on for almost 20 years and is put together by local volunteers. Over 150 volunteers take part in the three day performance of the event and work to make the Walk a unique experience. This year’s event drew over 2,000 people and raised over $10,000.
The Walk experience was like being in the middle of a living interactive history. There were live animals, character actors, and period structures. Following the Walk I began to consider the potential of using a Walk to depict other historical journeys and events. Perhaps using a Walk to explore the settlement of early pioneers, the journey of Lewis and Clark, or wartime events.
Last month I spent a day on Mackinac Island in Michigan. This excursion was filled with heritage gawking and a visits to living history sites.
Some of the trips’ highlights include:
Seeing the vibrant outreach programming at the St. Ignace Museums. Each Friday night during the summer months the St. Ignace museums put on educational programming. The evening I was there included a drum circle, and children’s music programming.
Heritage buildings on the island. There is an overwhelming number of private and public buildings on the island which could be considered heritage residences. A number of these buildings also included descriptive signage or were open to visitors.
Great natural landscape. My favourite part being the arch rock, and the great views of Lake Huron.
The Fort has great interactive programming for all ages. For example, there was an entire restored building at the fort that was geared completely to interactive displays for children. It included everything from dress up clothes, touch and feel exhibits, and a “solider instruction corner”.
There is also a considerable effort to make the Fort feel as though it is still functioning. Cannon firings, actors in historical costumes, animated displays. and changing of the guards contributed to an overall old-time feel.
It was a great trip. Though, a word to the wise: July/August is the Island’s peak tourist season, I recommend avoiding the main street of the island after about 10 am, unless you enjoy copious amounts of people and touristy shops. Despite the crowded main street the rest of the island wasn’t nearly as crowded and there are tons of walking trails that are little used.