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Royce Pettyjohn of the S.W. Sask. Oldtimers’ Museum & Archive in Maple Creek believes that learning about history is about more than reading books or looking at objects in a display case. “Heritage doesn’t exist in a vacuum or a fixed point in the past. Heritage is who we are as individuals and as communities today,” he says. The museum partnered with local artist Geoff Phillips to bring history to life through the Living Heritage Art Workshop Series, which was funded by an Artists in Communities grant.

Aimed at students and community members, the monthly workshops focussed on heritage themes, including the Great Depression, the settlement boom and the living heritage of the Nekaneet First Nation and of the Cypress Hills Métis. Participants examined artifacts and archival material from the museum’s collection, listened to stories and shared their own stories. They then worked with artists and cultural practitioners to create art based on the theme. “The museum facilitates the stewardship of the community’s cultural heritage, but they aren’t the holders or knowledge keepers in that heritage. Elders and cultural practitioners in the community are better served as authorities when it came to exploring that aspect of the community’s cultural heritage,” says Pettyjohn.

“It was really great to work with different folks, to meet different folks through the project,” says Phillips. “I learned a lot about the history of Maple Creek – I learned things I didn’t know.”

Pettyjohn was often approached on the street by parents wanting to talk about what their children had told them about the museum and what they had learned. “It got the parents thinking and talking about living heritage and art in the home,” he says. The series received significant media attention, with the local paper dedicating at least two pages to each of the nine workshops. “We had a woman write into the newspaper about why Maple Creek is a great place to live, and she identified the Living Heritage Art Workshop Series as one of the reasons. That was quite gratifying.”

In 2019 the project was awarded the Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan Heritage Award for Community Development and was also part of the reason the National Trust for Canada awarded the Prince of Wales Prize for Municipal Heritage Leadership to the Town of Maple Creek.

The impact of the workshops continues today. “We have a better appreciation of how art can be used to engage the community and the exploration of heritage. It also has made the museum a little more accessible in the eyes of local residents; it’s something people can connect with that isn’t static or stuck in the past,” Pettyjohn says.

Phillips adds that it has strengthened the community’s relationship with the neighbouring First Nation. “When we first sat down with the Nekaneet First Nation and asked them what they wanted to focus on with Maple Creek history, they said right away that they wanted to focus on the friendship and the unique bond between the community and their reserve.” Following the workshops, the museum and Nekaneet First Nation Elders collaborated on a biannual Feeding the Spirits feast in commemoration of the original users and artisans of the Indigenous artifacts entrusted to the museum.

The museum is applying for grants to take the project a step further. “We are hoping to build on the success of this program by taking the museum outside of the four walls of the museum – to the First Nation, at the park, in places where people are. If living heritage is who we are and what we do, it makes sense for these activities to occur out in the community as well,” says Pettyjohn.

Artists in Communities is a Saskatchewan Arts Board program supported by funding from SaskCulture Inc. through the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation.

Photos: 

Top: Artist Geoff Phillips speaks to Sidney Street School students about the art associated with the printing of posters at the turn of the last century encouraging settlers to homestead in the Canadian west.

Middle: Métis volunteer Darleen Peters from the Miywasin Centre demonstrated and taught Sidney Street School students the art of finger weaving (sash making).

Bottom: Artist Geoff Phillips demonstrates "pulling a print" from a block as a hands-on illustration of the printing of posters at the turn of the last century. Geoff hand carved this print block to represent the style of settlement promotional posters that were common during the Settlement Boom era.

Photos courtesy of S.W. Sask. Oldtimers' Museum & Archive