A new documentary details the struggles of tiny historical sites in Manitoba.
The St. Malo Museum in rural Manitoba, 75 kilometers south of Winnipeg, looks nothing if not tranquil: a white clapboard house, scant on windows, it sits on the site of an old train station, wedged between a gravel path and a river.
But for Edmée Gosselin, the museum’s proprietor and last board member, it’s fraught with tragedy. The museum houses historical artifacts—china sets, old photographs, wooden farm tools—that tell the story of Manitoba’s earliest settlers, people who broke the land and established towns like St. Malo. As the town’s connection to its past grows dimmer, the curios remain on the museum shelves, tangible testaments to its pioneer forbears. But faced with a dwindling volunteer force and next to no funding, Gosselin is coming to terms with the fact that the museum may soon have to close.
The End of Our Memories, a new documentary released this month as part of the Manitoba Telecom Service’s series “Stories from Home,” details the struggle of the St. Malo Museum and other rural museums scattered throughout the Canadian province, all of which face uncertain futures.
“It’s a bellweather story,” says Andrew Bilcq, who along with Huw Eirung, produced The End of Our Memories. To Bilcq, the decline of these tiny sites of local history speak to larger demographic shifts across Canada: people, especially young people, are increasingly concentrating in urban centers, leaving behind an aging population in the more remote areas.
The country’s history, Bilcq says, is getting lost in the shuffle. “The children of the original pioneers are now elderly,” Bilcq says. “Our direct connection to their story is disappearing.”
It’s left to people like Gosselin to keep that history alive. In the film, Gosselin describes devoting hours to the museum’s upkeep, dusting off a collection that includes artifacts that belonged to her great-grandfather. But her dedication can’t override rodent damage, and it can’t change the culture around her, which “is not as interested in the history of communities,” Gosselin said in the film.
Gosselin’s sadness is not unique: Pat Bovey, a national expert on museum management, said in the film that when a museum closes, “we’re denying access to our past.”
In Manitoba, efforts to preserve the province’s history even in the face of closures have resulted in a system of shuffling: should the St. Malo museum close, Gosselin will reach out to other museums in the province that haven’t yet shuttered their doors, to see if they could house her displaced collection. It’s a bittersweet solution: transporting the artifacts away from the community will negate the specificity that characterizes these small museums.
While the St. Malo Museum story testifies to the broader movement away from the past, a handful of sites in Manitoba are actively working to preserve it. In 1999, a group of dedicated locals in Arborg, distressed over watching so many local historical buildings fall into disrepair, decided to uproot them and bring the structures onto a 13-acre plot at the outskirts of town.
Over the years, the Arborg and District Multicultural Historical Village has collected 14 buildings, among them a grist mill hand-built by a Ukranian immigrant in 1914, and a yellow-and-white shingled house where Icelandic farmers raised their 16 children.
Again, it comes down to compromise. “Of course, it would have been preferable for those buildings to have stayed where they were originally built,” Bilcq says. “But on the other hand, they probably wouldn’t exist now, if they weren’t shifted to the historical village. It’s better for those folks to have collected them.”
That just a handful of people in Arborg were able to save these buildings was not a surprise to Bilcq. “Making this film, we came across the same story: one or two people at the core of an organization, driving it,” he says. “They’re truly passionate about preserving the history.”
But Bilcq says that it will come down to the same people to bring that history into the future. In the process of making The End of Our Memories, Bilcq and Eirung spoke with museum experts who testified to the fact that interest in these historical sites is waning across Canada. “People expect a more interactive experience,” Bilcq says. “A static museum filled with butter churns doesn’t really fit that.”
One could argue, Bilcq says, that the small houses that form the heart of The End of Our Memories have met their natural end, and should be left to decline. “But there is a reason for them to survive,” he says. “We have this prosaic view of what pioneer life was like for our ancestors, but mostly it was hard, dirty, and dangerous.” The museums, Bilcq says, must find a way to make these stories more dynamic to engage younger Canadians and recent immigrants with these distant origin narratives.
In the film, Bilcq says that walking into these old buildings reminds visitors of a fundamental truth: “You’ve always been able to come to Canada with nothing, and with hard work and an honest heart, find a future for your family,” he said. “Truth is honored here.”