EAGLES NEST/BRANTFORD – Paula Whitlow, new executive director of the Woodland Cultural Museum, may have a new title with new responsibilities, but she is certainly not a rookie.
In fact, this is more a full circle than a new appointment. She served as interim executive director from this past March until May when the job officially became hers.
“I started my museum career here at the Woodlands, and learned under some very good leadership with Tom Hill and Judy Harris, and most recently Janice Monture,” says Whitlow. “She too was from what I call the school of Tom Hill.”
As far as any changes or new programs under her watch, Whitlow says that the programs have already been set by the previous administration and it will be her job to see those plans through.
Whitlow is formerly the curator of the Chiefswood Museum, the family home of poet E. Pauline Johnson, and has extensive knowledge of the history of Six Nations. That plus already having worked at the Woodland Museum, it was a natural transition for both herself and the museum.
“What is taking place right now is just modernizing the museum with more interactive displays and fresh looks at the layout of the museum itself,” says Whitlow. “Part of all that is funding, and so sourcing out new funds will be needed to bring the museum into the 21st century.”
She is investigating new technologies to better present the story of the “Woodland Indians” which includes both Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe, as well as earlier pre-history inhabitants of this region.
“The current permanent display area was designed in the 1980s and has not changed much since,” she says.
She admits that, although she knows those displays are entirely accurate, they need to be more eye-catching, interactive and imagination grabbing — all goals on her list of to-do’s.
Whitlow is also in charge of the restorations being done at the old Mohawk Institute School to convert it into a museum dedicated to the thousands of children who once attended. Serious breaches of trust, abuses of all kinds and even preventable deaths occurred in the name of the Church and the Canadian government behind those not-so-hallowed walls.
This is one of the most exciting projects currently underway for Whitlow.
She is proud to say that those who are working on the restoration project are not simply renovators, but rather a historical restoration team, finding, cataloguing and restoring items found hidden behind the wallboards or under floorboards and staircases.
Although most of the finds have been modest, they represent just how treasured the simplest of toys, or extra clothing were to children ripped from their homes and culture.
There were some old food cans found, roughly torn open probably with a jack knife by at least one hungry student during their awful stay at what became known as the “Mush Hole.”
“I know some kids used to sneak out at night and walk over to the dump to find food,” says Whitlow. “The kids were always kept hungry there.”
One of the most interesting finds to date is a handwritten ledger that journals the day-to-day activity of the maintenance man dated, 1900. It was found when the front porch was removed.
There are Valentine’s Day cards that where so treasured by the love-starved children, they were hidden from the teachers for fear they would be taken away. The last name on the cards was Peters. It was policy to remove Indigenous children from any remembrance of their language, culture and at times, even their parents.
“I think there were two Peters brothers here at the time and they got cards from their parents and hide them like gold,” says Whitlow.
But most items found were only priceless treasures to the children who hid them over the years and generations.
The Mush Hole first opened in its original form as the “Indian Mechanics School” around 1824 and continued, through two new buildings, until 1970 when it was closed for the last time. Information gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows that the worst of times at the Mohawk Institute for the children were between the 1920s right up and including the last days of the Residential Schools policy.
Phase two is to upgrade the electrical and plumbing to accommodate the new interactive technologies as well as the many people anticipated to go through the museum once it is complete.
The artifacts have been registered with the Elected Council which controls the museum land and buildings on behalf of the people of Six Nations, and therefore, anything found inside. However, the artifacts will be under the care of WCC. A display of these items is being worked on and will likely go on show before the school building is reopened, in 2021.
Another project is to compile on video or audio the stories of as many Mush Hole Survivors as might be willing to go on record for future generations. They are gathering funding for that part of the project as well.
Interest in the hidden world of Indian Residential Schools has been strong especially among non-Natives who are only now becoming aware of this black mark on Canadian history.
“Last year, before we closed for renovations, we had 15,000 students go through the building, largely from the GTA,” Whitlow says. “There are advance bookings for tours up to 2018.”
Since the building will be unsafe until the construction is complete, a high quality video presentation about the restoration has been produced including a 53-minute virtual tour of the new Mohawk Residential School museum and how it will look when it is done.
The video is shown at the Woodland Cultural Museum Theatre on announced days, most recently shown during Six Nations Community Awareness Week.
Once this project and a separate but related project for a memorial park, which has begun on the front lawn of the old school, the old school grounds that caused so much heartache and despair for so many people, will become a popular tourism destination and point of reflection as well a peaceful, healing park for survivors.
Although the old apple trees have been removed to make way for the memorial park, the signature long tree-lined driveway of residential schools across Canada will remain to set the tone for the visitors.