Former curator can't find Kings Landing vision in lifeless exhibits
A former manager of historical resources at Kings Landing is voicing concerns about the replacement of re-enactments with static exhibits at the settlement near Fredericton.
Darrell Butler says he was there from the beginning, greeting guests in costume at the official opening of Kings Landing in 1974. He continued to work at the popular tourist attraction until he retired in 2015.
"When we envisioned Kings Landing, it would be literally a historical bubble, or atmosphere, in which nothing modern would be encountered as you came through the settlement," Butler said.
Spinning wool, gardening and creating apple pie in a bake kettle on a wood stove were among the activities that helped visitors immerse themselves in the period the settlement brought to life.
Using the stories of families who lived in the area, Kings Landing showed what life in rural Canada was like in the 19th century.
But as the summer tourist season approaches this year, descendants have complained about a new way of doing things at Kings Landing: their ancestors' homes have become static exhibits, without character actors.
Butler understands the families' disappointment.
History through the senses
"A restored house to a specific period of time tells a much broader story or history, and it brings it a lot more to life and it tells it in a way that's very visitor friendly," Butler said.
The visitor can learn with the senses — "smelling, tasting, hearing and talking," he said.
Butler pointed to the Joslin Farm Gallery as an example of what's at stake. The farm was an essential ingredient in the Kings Landing experience.
But what used to be a working farm is today one of the static exhibits.
Joslin Farm "showed what farming was like in 1860s," he said. "It was part of the whole history of farming in New Brunswick."
Butler said the changes seem to be an attempt to make things simpler, but they don't follow the model Kings Landing has used since 1974.
And that model made Kings Landing one of the best outdoor museums in the country, he said. Even National Geographic recognized the settlement as part of the "Canadian experience."
A bouncy pad?
Butler was involved with the restoration of homes and the development of the collection. In later years, he started seeing a completely different vision from the early days.
When he heard talk of a "bouncy pad" going next to the Hagerman House, Butler started thinking about retirement.
"I said, 'Wait a minute, that's not what we do?'" he said. "I wasn't used to that approach, and honestly it wasn't what I thought Kings Landing was about.
"It certainly wasn't what we had won the award [for] from Attractions Canada — 'the top attraction in the country' — the sawmill on a postage stamp from the postal service, and other awards Kings Landing won."
Joan Brewer, who has family ties to Jones House, called a meeting last Saturday to talk about the changes.
The changes aren't only being noticed by former workers and descendants, she said, but also by people who live in the area, she said.
Kings Landing CEO Kevin Cormier, who attended the meeting, said programming changes, including the static exhibits, reflect feedback from visitors.
He also said attendance at Kings Landing has gone up 54 per cent in the last five years.
Brewer doesn't think the static exhibits should get the credit for higher attendance.
"Attendance is affected by a number of things, the weather, the Canadian dollar, who's coming and how may free passes were given out," she said.