The prominent American writer Wallace Stegner once wrote that “home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” He was someone who understood being displaced. Originally from Iowa, Stegner’s family moved to the Saskatchewan frontier in 1915. As family and environmental crises emerged, Stegner’s childhood became punctuated by relocation, denying him any opportunity to call one place home. His past and his home were never a place, but rather “what you can take away with you.”
Stegner’s engagement with the idea of home was largely a personal journey, forced upon him by familial, environmental, and historical circumstances, it was the forced reckoning of a person who “was born rolling.” His insights and connections resonate widely, though. One does not need to have been forced off the land by blowing dust to feel a sense of homelessness.
Today, the forces are different and migrations are often less dramatic, but even when they are less we are still forced to come to terms with moving from our homes and to find the connections that can turn a foreign place into something comfortable.
For me, in my many relocations I have found connection through history. When I move to a new city some of the first places I visit are museums. I tour galleries. I pick up walking tour pamphlets. I read all the plaques. I wonder about place names. Knowing these stories connects me to the world I live in, but this never replaces that home you have in your mind.
This past fall I worked with the Learning Department on a project where students from Pearson College spent a week at the museum learning about oral history. Each of the students are here from elsewhere, eight people relocated from eight countries. They worked together with each other and museum staff, as well as artists from the community, to conduct and present personal oral histories of each other. In my role as videographer, I helped to capture and edit four of the eight interviews, the other four being presented as audio recordings.
The focus of the interviews was on the idea of home. The interviewer was asked to pick a spot in the museum galleries that resonated with them and reflect on this while exploring the idea of home with their interviewee. While the students’ backgrounds were diverse and their choices of location were unique to their own experiences, there was a common thread to their answers. For them home was transitory, it was more of a feeling, a place of comfort and relationships, of shared experiences with supportive people than a physical location. But what struck me most was the way in which the museum galleries became a backdrop for such a range of perceptions of home. Each student found a reflection of their own home, no matter from how far away.
Like the students from Pearson, the West Coast is not the place I would call my home, not yet anyway. As with Wallace Stegner, my childhood was lived on the prairies. Big skies and long grass still fill my memories. The experience with this project made me question where I would choose to do an interview if it was me. My answer I think would be the seashore dioramas. In most ways the craggy Tofino coast line is as far from the prairie as you can get, but the skewing of perspective and empty horizon are comforting in their familiarity.
It is remarkable to me how many versions of home can be reflected in a museum. It is often thought that museums serve to remind us of our collective memory. They do that, they maintain and present the story of us as a group, but they also serve as a space for personal reflection.
For those whose home is reflected in the museum, it can be a place to be introduced and learn about new layers, and to be reminded of them again and again. For those whose home is elsewhere, there is still much to be found. For Stegner, home was what you could take away with you. It would be something that you carry with you wherever you go. The beauty of museums is that you can find that reflected back to you, helping you to find your own unique personal connection to a place.
Watch more videos created by the Pearson College students during their time at the Royal BC Museum here