Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A house divided...

Be careful, Winnipeg -- sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone

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As you read this, one of our city's most precious jewels sits quiet and dark, hidden among the highrise apartment blocks of downtown Winnipeg.

The Dalnavert Museum, closed since early September, is regarded by many to be one of the best-restored examples of Victorian life in North America. Since that closure, everyone has been prevented from experiencing and falling in love with not only the house, but also the incredible stories it tells of a fascinating era in the history of Winnipeg and Manitoba.

Completed in November 1895, the construction of Dalnavert was commissioned by reluctant parliamentarian and early Manitoba premier Hugh John Macdonald, son of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. With his daughter, Daisy, due home from school in England, his family needed a more suitable and permanent home.

As it turned out, building a home cost less than buying an existing one, so Hugh John contracted prominent architect Charles H. Wheeler to design the family's new home.

I discovered what I'd been missing when I was asked to produce an audio tour for the museum in late 2010. I had heard of Dalnavert but had never visited it. On a December day, I went to meet with Dalnavert curator Jennifer Bisch, and while she led me through the house, I wondered why I had waited so long. I immediately fell in love with the grand old place.

Bisch initially asked me to create a simple, narrated tour of the museum with appropriate sound effects. However, early in the research process, it became clear this was a unique opportunity to do something much more. We decided to recreate a day in the life of the Hugh John Macdonald family, their staff and their friends.

First, I needed to write a play set in that time. I decided to cast local actors to portray these historical figures, whom I would record playing out the scenes within the actual rooms of the house, along with music and the soundscape of a Victorian Winnipeg summer day.

With the constant support of Bisch, the help of those actors and a group of passionate volunteers, it all took a bit longer to complete than originally intended -- almost 21/2 years.

The project turned out far better than I initially expected. As you walk through the museum listening to the story unfold, it really does feel like these people are there, right in front of you, reliving Wednesday, July 22, 1896. Sadly, just as I began to finish the final edit of the Dalnavert Museum audio play, the museum closed. I am optimistic, however, that when the tour finally launches, it will be completely unlike any other tour produced in North America.

The unique experience this tour provides was only possible because I had been so inspired by Dalnavert and my new relationship with its cast of characters. Dalnavert is so much more than just a historic building, or an old house containing artifacts from a long-faded era; it is a place where you can become intimately connected to the life of a significant Manitoba family and a fascinating and colourful period that saw the early growth of our city and province. There are few places remaining that can so effectively recreate this kind of experience, which certainly cannot be had by merely looking at pictures or reading a paragraph on a web page.

From my long career working in feature films and documentaries, I have been fortunate to travel the world and have visited other "house museums." Dalnavert is very different from them. From the time you first enter it, there exists a palpable feeling of the love and attention to minute detail that went into not only the restoration of the building, but also the creation and upkeep of the myriad displays in each area of the house and the meticulously planned and maintained gardens surrounding it. Over many years, all these details have had much love lavished upon them by a fantastic group of passionate, creative and dedicated volunteers. These same volunteers also gave their own unique tours of the museum, bringing their perspective and areas of interest to make each repeat visit distinct.

Walking into Dalnavert is like putting on your favourite comfortable sweater on a lazy Sunday. It envelops you and welcomes you to someplace inexpressibly but deeply familiar. Even the smells of the museum played a huge part in bringing its history alive within me.

These days, museums like Dalnavert must evolve. They can no longer survive in ways they traditionally have. But for Dalnavert, the goal now needs to be much more than mere survival. Dalnavert is a stage, a lecture theater, an exhibit hall, a classroom, a concert venue, a photographic setting, a meeting place and a serene green haven in the midst of a sea of concrete.

With the right commitment and stewardship, Dalnavert can become a vibrant hub of not only art and culture, but historical education, extending beyond Winnipeg and Manitoba to all of Canada; a fitting role for a National Historic Site.

Candace House is an important and necessary organization and needs a permanent home. There are so many places it can be located, but there is only one Dalnavert. Attempting to repurpose the building, to hollow out and remove the soul of this wonderful experience, will completely destroy the continuity of the story that is Dalnavert. It would be rendered meaningless. Dalnavert is not merely the building shell but an integral whole that must remain intact.

There is a groundswell of interested and talented community leaders willing and able to cultivate and nurture partnerships of various forms, all with the goal of making Dalnavert a vibrant and successful enterprise.

The Manitoba Historical Society of the early 1970s had a grand vision to bring history to life. Under the visionary and tirelessly dedicated leadership of W. Steward Martin, the old rooming house at 61 Carlton Street was saved from the wrecking ball, and after years of struggle, frustration, sweat and loving labour by a small army of talented craftspeople and expert historians, the house was meticulously and faithfully restored, from the foundation up, to its 1895 state. It was once again filled with authentic 19th-century beauty to become what we now know as the Dalnavert Museum. June 19 marks the 40th anniversary of that summer day when Dalnavert's doors were finally thrown open to the public.

The present leadership of the MHS, by only looking at failures of house museums and not studying the successes, and by not undertaking any kind of creative fundraising efforts or reaching out to the wider community, has demonstrated it does not have the passion and creative vision its predecessors had. I wonder what they would think of their modern counterparts' willingness to so easily give up on what they worked so very long and hard for.

I, for one, do not intend to let the dreams, toil and vision of all those people quietly disappear.

Working together as a community, we can relaunch the Dalnavert Museum and make it more successful than ever before. We will celebrate its 119th year, and begin a new chapter in its continuing historical journey as a vital part of our city's history. All we have to do is turn the key and get to work.

And, as self-serving as this might sound, I really want you to hear the tour.

 

Brock Capell has worked as an audio specialist on local, regional and international film and documentary projects. He has now become a passionate advocate for the preservation of Dalnavert, and through his extensive research is also a bit of an amateur historian on Victorian-era Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2014 0

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