This fall, eight graduate Arts students took part in an innovative project that sent them on an exploration of a community in transition and transformed the students into museum curators.
For their Public Sector Folklore course, six MA and two PhD students spent the fall gathering personal stories, images and artifacts from residents of The Battery, and exploring questions of what is being lost and gained as this St. John’s neighbourhood changes.
Folklorist Dr. Jerry Pocius taught the course, along with Mark Ferguson, curator of history at the Provincial Museum. Dr. Pocius says The Battery was chosen for its proximity to Memorial, but also because it serves as a microcosm for what’s happening around the province. “The changes in The Battery are very similar, in my mind, to what’s happening in all of rural Newfoundland in the early 21st century.”
The experimental project was done in collaboration with The Rooms Provincial Museum, and gave students hands-on experience working in the public sector and in museums. Dr. Pocius noted the program was about working collaboratively with other institutions, but more importantly, about connecting with people and community.
“These students have skills in interviewing and field work ... but in this case they had to take those skills and tell the story of one particular place to the public,” he explained. “It’s a challenge that many of us share, the need to move out of the academic world ... and deal with issues that don’t come up in term papers.”
Student Jed Baker said the benefits of the approach were significant. “I got a solid sense of what it’s like to work in public sector folklore, in a way that I couldn’t have in a purely academic class.”
By talking with residents and exploring The Battery, the students determined that this community has moved through stages that echo the dramatic social, cultural and economic transitions that have occurred in Newfoundland and Labrador. First, it was a fishing community where residents settled to be close to the water. Then, in the 1970s and ’80s, artists, craftspeople and intellectuals moved in, drawn by The Battery’s affordable housing and inspirational setting. Today, many newcomers are affluent and come not just from St. John’s but from the U.S. and Europe; housing prices are up, and the neighbourhood’s culture is changing.
The students chose to explore different groups of residents. For example, Heather Read interviewed life-long residents of The Battery, who shared their histories and views on the changes they’ve seen. One poignant observation was that the community had seen a dramatic decrease of children in recent years.
Conversely, Hannah Mills-Woolsey talked with newcomers for whom the initial appeal of The Battery, she learned, was in the picturesque view it offers.
Some students had no prior knowledge of this place on the city’s eastern edge. “I’d never gone into The Battery before this course,” Lynda Daneliuk commented. “Now I’m intimately aware of it.”
A wealth of materials was gathered, including hours of taped interviews and a vast array of photographs, most taken by students, but some by residents who were given disposable cameras to record their own perspectives.
Gathering was only the first step, however. Charged with making their research accessible to the public, the students then had to devise a public exhibit, to be mounted at The Rooms. As well, they are developing a website that will allow the world to visit The Battery without clogging its narrow streets.
To create the exhibit, the class was guided by Marni Mahle, exhibit designer for the Provincial Museum. By talking over their themes and detailing some possible structural elements moveable walls, for example, and sound cones she helped the students envision an exhibit that works well with the disparity of The Battery’s different “waves” and the diverse visions of eight co-curators.
In addition to images and artifacts that span the decades, the exhibit will allow visitors to navigate through a virtual walking tour of The Battery, created from video footage shot by Mr. Baker.
“The focus of the exhibit is very contemporary. It’s based on what’s going on there right now,” said Mr. Ferguson. “It looks at everyday concerns and current issues that these people are facing, but it’s shot through with the personal histories of people and the material culture of their lives.”
In a final area planned for the exhibit, visitors will be asked to consider The Battery’s future, to form their own opinion about the changes there and think about what should come next and for whose benefit in this venerable St. John’s neighbourhood.
When the students delivered a preview presentation of their work in November, several Battery residents attended, expressing both interest and support for this examination of their community.
Making Waves: An Exhibition about Life in The Battery will open at The Rooms in spring 2007.