COVID resilience: Experiencing Alberta’s smaller provincial historic sites in new ways

Written by: Suzanna Wagner, Program Coordinator, Victoria Settlement and Fort George & Buckingham House

What can you find at Alberta’s provincial historic sites? History, of course. But what about an unstoppable fount of creativity?

Connecting Albertans with history is what staff a provincial historic sites do, but COVID closures have placed some particularly unusual barriers in the way of achieving this mission. Since some provincially-owned and operated historic sites were unable to open for the 2020 and 2021 seasons, staff had to find creative new ways for our communities to connect with the history we steward.

Below is a whirlwind tour of a few of the innovative ways Alberta’s smaller historic sites invited guests to explore their shared heritage.

Rutherford House

Since the house was closed to visitors, Rutherford House staff (and its smallest resident, Rutherford Mouse) picked up stakes and travelled for a visit to the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village.  They spent the summer inviting other visitors at the Ukrainian Village to join in a couple of Rutherford House programs.

The first program, Rutherford Mouse Visits the Country, was a scavenger hunt for young guests. Children (and adults) were invited to explore Pylypow and Hawreliak Houses and see if they could catch Rutherford Mouse visiting with his country friends by spotting his miniature mouse furniture and belongings hiding inside the houses, on window ledges, and beside the big-people furniture and artifacts. Children excitedly shared what they had discovered. More than 200 people took on the challenge!

Our second program, Making a House a Home, was an opportunity to compare and contrast the houses and interiors of the Rutherfords’ two residences here in Edmonton, as well as Pylypow and Hawreliak houses. Who had the fanciest floors? Whose house was a pre-packaged one? Did they all have maids? Where did everyone sleep? Almost 100 people took the opportunity to explore these amazing buildings.

Historic Dunvegan

Historic Dunvegan’s annual Indigenous Storytelling Event was held recently from September 27 to October 4. The event is planned each year in conjunction with the Tsattine Resurgence Society, who arranges speakers and storytellers for the event. As Historic Dunvegan has not been open for the past two seasons, the event has been held on Dunvegan’s Facebook page with pre-recorded videos being posted.

This year’s event featured eight women storytellers who provided family and general histories of the Beaver peoples who have lived in the Peace Country for thousands of years. Some 3,400 people were reached. Videos are also posted to Dunvegan’s main Facebook page and can be accessed even after the event has concluded. It is all part of Historic Dunvegan’s commitment to provide space for Indigenous voices and histories.

Victoria Settlement

“What are you doing?”

“Can I try that?” These are questions often heard at Victoria Settlement during the summer season. Our costumed historical interpreters spend time learning and demonstrating a whole range of historical crafts. When visitors fill the Clerk’s quarters parlour, we have rag-rug making work bees, when guests lean over the admissions desk we practice our bead work together, and sometimes we share our knitting on the benches under the trees.

But with no visitors on site this year to share handicrafts with, Victoria Settlement has gone another route: a virtual craft-along on Facebook. Victoria Settlement’s curator researched an embroidered pincushion pattern from Godey Lady’s Magazine and recreated it step-by-step for our Facebook friends to make with us.

This project is special to us because it is more complicated than something we would normally be able to do on site, because the pattern comes from a famous period magazine, and because the finished product will become part of the permanent display at Victoria Settlement.

Check it out on Facebook to join in.

Fort George & Buckingham House

In a normal year, visitors to Fort George & Buckingham House have the opportunity to explore the intricacies of the 18th century fur trade through the visitor centre’s museum gallery and with a guided tour of the archaeological sites.

The historical interpreters had a secret treasure to prepare for giving these tours: tucked into a 3-ring binder was the Xeroxed manuscript of a research paper named Opponents and Neighbours: Fort George and Buckingham House and the early fur trade on the North Saskatchewan River, 1792 to 1800.

As of summer 2021, Opponents and Neighbours is now a beautifully designed and published book available for everyone, not just for the site’s seasonal staff. Early reviews are overwhelmingly enthusiastic, so get your copy from the Provincial Archives of Alberta shop for an alternative in-depth COVID-safe way to explore Fort George & Buckingham House. And while you’re at it, send a thank you to our Friends of the Forts Society who funded this monumental project! You can read all about the writing of Opponents and Neighbours here.

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