“That was the best Canadian interpretive museum experience I have ever seen,” said David Duke, of Kentville, about his recent visit to Sherbrooke Village on the Eastern Shore.
Duke, an Acadia University history professor, has visited hundreds of museums across Canada and his native Great Britain.
Sherbrooke Village, according to its website, depicts the daily life of a typical Nova Scotian village from 1860 to pre-First World War and has approximately 80 buildings, over 25 of which are open to the public, most with costumed interpreters. It is the largest Nova Scotia Museum site and hosts several programs that allow visitors to be fully immersed into the experience of 19th century life in Canada.
Ann Mason, heritage interpreter at Sherbrooke Village, says that besides exploring the museum on your own, there are two participatory programs for visitors.
“You can choose just to dress in costume and explore the village on your own, we call it our Explorer program, or you can go more in depth and do a bit of hands-on program as a discoverer in our Discoverer program, which lasts all day,” says Mason.
Dressing for the time period provides a whole new level of engagement for visitors to a heritage site, explains staff member Lynn Hayne.
As the Duke family discovered, this is something that cannot possibly be understood until tried first-hand.
Prior to arriving at Sherbrooke Village, the Dukes sent ahead their measurements, and upon arrival, the dressing rooms were each laid out with appropriately-sized clothing, fit for the age and role of townspeople in 1867.
Initial fears were immediately quelled: there would be no wool clothes in the summer, and participants in the programs would not have to role play a character; however, according to the staff member who helped dress the family, the experience is more enriching the more visitors immerse themselves into the village.
“She was right,” said Duke, who was originally hesitant about wearing a costume throughout the day. “Putting on the costume became like a second skin, and you truly felt like you were part of the village life.”
Once dressed, the Dukes were given an itinerary that immersed them in their roles – man, boy, lady of the house – as inhabitants of the village in the 19th century. They started at the ambrotype photography studio, the only studio of its kind in Canada, which uses contemporary photographic techniques to create prints on a glass slide. From there, the boys and their father spent time at both the tailor’s shop and the woodworking shop to build a model of a tern schooner boat, after which they spent time at the potter’s shed to experience the potter’s trade from the time.
Meanwhile, Laura Churchill Duke, author of this piece, apprenticed at the village’s printer, gaining a new appreciation of how newspapers and other materials were typeset and printed at the time. This was followed by an afternoon with a socialite, learning to embroider.
Together, the family attended school and had Victorian high tea at the hotel.
“It was a really amazing experience, and I really enjoyed it,” said Daniel Duke, 13, who didn’t want to get out of his costume at the end of the day.
Being a part of the village life let the Dukes get to know the heritage staff members, and interact with them throughout the day, but also see the amazing camaraderie amongst the staff, many of whom have been there for over 20 years, says Duke.
Thomas Duke, 11, enjoyed it when other visitors stopped to ask him questions, thinking he was a staff member, too.
“There was no other way we could have learned and experienced so much without this program,” says Duke. “We highly encourage everyone to participate in the Discoverer program.”
Plenty to do
There is lots for visitors to do even if not participating in an immersive program at Sherbrooke Village. Children can participate in a variety of scavenger hunts and visitors can enjoy daily re-enactments and demonstrations of village life, like helping to make and taste-test ice cream or have tea in a lady’s parlour. There is a restaurant onsite with a range of period food, including soups, sandwiches, old-fashioned desserts and period refreshments such as ginger beer or rhubarb soda.
“One of the common statements we hear,” says heritage interpreter, Joanne, “is that people don’t leave enough time for their visit.”
Many visitors say they wish they had planned to stay longer, and a full day is recommended for your visit if possible.
Another feature of Sherbrooke Village is that it is dog-friendly and dogs on leashes are allowed in the park and inside almost all of the buildings. This is a huge attraction, says Joanne, for people travelling through the area with their pets.
“Dogs are part of the family, too,” explains Joanne, noting that most buildings have water bowls set out for furry visitors.
Sherbrooke Village makes the perfect place to visit on your own, with a family, school trip, or organization like Girl Guides. Schools can participate in a two-day program, staying overnight and become immersed in village life. Next year, a group of 250 Girl Guides will be spending time at Sherbrooke Village and will have the chance to dress in period costume during their stay.
“If we don’t have a costume that size,” says heritage interpreter Phyllis, “we have a team who sews new costumes.”
With sufficient lead time they can outfit and accommodate any group.
“This museum is leading the way in terms of innovative ideas on how to engage visitors,” says Duke.
IF YOU GO:
Sherbrooke Village is part of the Nova Scotia Museum system and can be visited for free with a museum pass, or with an admission rate depending on the experience level you choose. The museum is open from June to October, and again at Christmastime for their holiday celebration. It is located in Sherbrooke on the Eastern Shore, approximately 45 minutes from Antigonish, a little over an hour from New Glasgow and two and a half hours from Halifax.
Go online: Learn more at https://sherbrookevillage.novascotia.ca