Mennonite Heritage Village adapts through pandemic

June 16, 2021 | News | Volume 25 Issue 13
Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe | Manitoba Correspondent
Steinbach, Man.
Photos by Jerry Grajewski, Grajewski Fotograph, Inc. The Chortitz Housebarn is one of the Mennonite Heritage Village’s signature heritage buildings. It will undergo a major restoration this summer, for which the MHV is currently raising funds. Its goal is 50 percent of the renovation costs—just over $22,000.

Although the Mennonite Heritage Village (MVH) may look like it’s frozen in time, it has adapted impressively to the challenges of the 2020s.

The MHV is a 16-hectare, open-air museum in Steinbach, that makes a turn-of-the-last-century Russian Mennonite street village come to life. Recently, though, it’s been empty. The pandemic forced it to close for a good portion of the past year and cancel its in-person gala dinner, a major annual fundraiser. The launch of the upcoming exhibit, Mennonites at War, has been postponed numerous times.

“We miss our visitors,” says Andrea Klassen, senior curator. “The museum’s mission is to preserve and exhibit the history of Russian-descended Mennonites, and you can preserve the history but you can’t exhibit it really without visitors . . . that’s an integral part of who we are.”

Instead of being defeated by the multitude of obstacles thrown at them, the MHV staff asked, “What are some of the possibilities?” They became very busy. The museum led crafts, told stories and hosted local musicians for 10 weeks through Manitoba’s Safe at Home online programming. They gave a virtual tour for TourMagination, an Ontario travel agency organizing an online tour of Mennonite archives and museums across North America. They sent resources to school groups that would normally be visiting on field trips and hosted an online speaker series in which local historians spoke on themes of the upcoming exhibit.

“We were really happy to be able to bring a little bit of the museum into the home,” says Robert Goertzen, program manager.

These initiatives created unexpected opportunities. After the TourMagination event, Klassen received emails from people across Canada and the United States interested in the village. “You suddenly start to think of your audience in a very different way,” she says. By connecting with their audience in new ways, suddenly the MVH was reaching people who otherwise wouldn’t have visited the museum.

When the MHV was open to in-person visitors, like during their Pioneer Days last summer, its numbers had to be smaller, but the quality of engagement deepened, says Goertzen. “We heard it time and again that our interpreters and our pioneer skills demonstrators enjoyed the leisurely interactions,” he says. “I think that whole idea of slowing down our pace a little bit and rather than trying to get thousands of people through our doors, rather valuing each interaction, I think that’s something that will bring people here repeatedly.”

The village is also tackling some projects for which it may not have had time during a normal bustling season. This summer it will be restoring the Chortitz Housebarn, fixing the foundation and painting the signature building, which was one of the first brought to the museum grounds. Government grants have made this project possible and have helped the MHV post a surplus even after a year of losses.

The MHV is also finishing construction of a timber-frame pergola to accompany the Dirk Willems statue that was installed a few years ago by a community group wanting to spotlight the Anabaptist peace position. Klassen says this peace exhibit, which will also include interpretation, a garden and walking paths, will create “a peaceful, more contemplative space for people to come and think about what peace means, what the Mennonite position historically on war and violence has been.”

The new exhibit opening on July 10, Mennonites at War, will also help visitors reflect on this topic. It explores the Mennonite response to war and violence over 500 years through four main themes: martyrs, migrants, objectors and soldiers. A 360-degree virtual tour of the exhibit will become available once it opens (bit.ly/3xaPvOs). This is a new medium for the museum, which will help reach its expanded audience and show the exhibit regardless of what restrictions are enforced.

“From a curatorial point of view, I think it’s been a really steep learning curve for us,” says Klassen. “It’s not such a bad thing to be forced to consider new ways of approaching your programs and exhibits. But we would like to get back to normal as well. . . . We will be very happy to welcome people back again.”

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Manitoba? Send it to Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe at mb@canadianmennonite.org.

Photos by Jerry Grajewski, Grajewski Fotograph, Inc.
The Chortitz Housebarn is one of the Mennonite Heritage Village’s signature heritage buildings. It will undergo a major restoration this summer, for which the MHV is currently raising funds. Its goal is 50 percent of the renovation costs—just over $22,000.

Photo courtesy of Mennonite Heritage Village
This newly constructed pergola and the Dirk Willems statue will make up the new Peace Exhibit, along with the Dirk Willems Peace Gardens and pond that are being developed this summer. When it is complete, this area of the MVH grounds will feature interpretation about the Mennonite theology of peace, contemplative places for visitors to sit and rest away from the bustle of the main street in the village and more trails for walking.

The new Mennonites at War exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village is currently scheduled to open on July 10 (subject to public health restrictions in place at that time) and will run until Nov. 14. It will be available to view in-person and in a 360-degree virtual tour.

The new Mennonites at War exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village is currently scheduled to open on July 10 (subject to public health restrictions in place at that time) and will run until Nov. 14. It will be available to view in-person and in a 360-degree virtual tour.

The new Mennonites at War exhibit at the Mennonite Heritage Village is currently scheduled to open on July 10 (subject to public health restrictions in place at that time) and will run until Nov. 14. It will be available to view in-person and in a 360-degree virtual tour.

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